In the past decade, libraries have seen a shift towards a digital world. The imaging of manuscript and archive collections has changed from a highly specialized activity to one available to every academic researcher with a camera phone in their pocket. This presents research libraries with challenges both in terms of the collections that they curate and in terms of the material that their users create during the course of their research. For libraries with Asian collections, the books and manuscripts on their shelves represent the literary and cultural heritage of some of the most politically fragile and geographically remote areas of the world. Print culture came late to many of these areas and the production of manuscripts persisted well into the nineteenth century. The combination of these factors results in a research landscape in which endangered archives are the norm and records of their contents, or even their existence, are sparse or inextant.

Many of the Asian manuscript collections in the Bodleian reached the library as the result of scholars buying manuscripts in the field in support of their research, sometimes using University grants with which to make the purchases. The Max Müller Memorial Collection is one such purchase. In the preface to the collection’s catalogue, Arthur Anthony Macdonell describes how he set out for India in 1907 with a grant of £100, “having drawn up a list of works of which I wanted old and good MSS.”[1]

Sometimes the research materials are handwritten copies commissioned or collected by scholars. A set of facsimiles of palm-leaf fragments of Buddhist texts, given to the Bodleian in 1881 by Friedrich Max Müller, are of this nature. These manuscript copies were collected as part of his research into the survival of early Sanskrit texts held in Japanese monasteries.[2] Although they are nineteenth-century copies, they are treated in exactly the same way as the other Sanskrit manuscripts and are described in the second volume of the Bodleian’s catalogue of Sanskrit manuscripts.

Some facsimiles in the collection have become the only record of lost originals. One of the collections of some scholarly significance in the Sanskrit manuscript section is a twentieth-century set of rotographs of rare texts that belong to the Durbar Library of Nepal. They were sent to the Bodleian for photography in the 1920s before being returned to Nepal. The deterioration of the manuscripts over time and the effects of a devastating earthquake that hit the library in 2015 mean that the Bodleian photographs are now the only record of crucial lost material.

Environmental conditions in much of South and South East Asia are hostile to the materials on which manuscripts are written. Heat, humidity, rodents, insects, mould and the inherent fragility of materials such as palm leaf and birch bark, which flake and split with repeated handling, all take their toll.

Dominic Wujastyk has presented a sobering estimate of the rate at which manuscripts are being lost in India.

A back-of-an envelope calculation based on estimated figures and attrition rates suggest that several hundred Sanskrit manuscripts are being destroyed or becoming illegible every week. It is inevitable that some of the losses will include unique, unknown or otherwise important works.[4]

There are excellent programmes that seek to record and preserve fragile manuscript cultures before they disappear, such as the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project and India’s National Mission for Manuscripts.[5] Even assuming the political stability and necessary funding for mass conservation and digitization programmes, however, there is no hope of covering the vast hinterland of public and private collections in time to stem the losses. As a result, the scholar-photographer has a potentially vital contribution to make. Researchers are already returning from study trips with images of texts that may no longer exist in a decade’s time. One such example is a recent project funded by Oxford University’s Fell Fund, which allowed Robert Mayer and Ulrike Roessler to photograph Tibetan texts held in a private library in India. The manuscripts are riddled with worms but for religious reasons the owner of the library will not kill or harm these pests in any way. He believes the worms arose spontaneously without cause and are in some sense a divine sign, so the original manuscripts are well on their way to oblivion.

Funding agencies are increasingly concerned that researchers deposit digital assets created during research trips with their institution and not just hoard them on their personal computers. Researchers are therefore being encouraged to seek long-term homes for their digital photographs of manuscripts. A potential model for long-term preservation of such digital assets can be found in the Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library.[6] Projects under this umbrella, however, are conceived of as digital programmes from the outset. Their primary focus is on capacity building in the institution that holds the endangered archive and the digitization of manuscripts in formats that reflect best practice for archival preservation. This model does not provide a solution for manuscript pictures that are the by-products of research questions and the result of personal contacts made in the field. Scholars do not necessarily set out to record archival collections. They do not know what they will discover during their research trips; when rare and endangered texts unexpectedly come to light they make do with whatever photographic equipment comes to hand. The ease with which photographs can be taken and the volume of photographs that can be stored on digital memory offers the potential for single researchers to take images of whole libraries in relatively short periods of time. The question of what to do with them afterwards is more problematic.

Scholars focus on obtaining permission to use manuscript photographs for their research and those permissions are commonly verbal agreements alone. Pictures that are taken for research purposes are rarely accompanied by any documentary evidence of what permissions, if any, have been obtained for use of the photographs. When photography takes place as part of a scholarly research trip, both manuscript owner and photographer are likely to be equally unfamiliar with the world of digital permissions. As yet there is no Creative Commons licence for suitable for use by researchers photographing manuscripts in the field. In the Endangered Archives programme, the value of manuscript photographs as cultural assets in their own right is recognized and the archival master copy is normally deposited in an archival institution in the country of origin.[7] The scholar-photographer, however, is unlikely to have the time, contacts or interest in arranging for master copies of pictures to be deposited with regional or national archives in the country of origin. The manuscript owner and scholar-photographer may also be unfamiliar with potential risks. Making manuscript images freely accessible on websites might be a great contribution to scholarly discourse but such public visibility can also increase the risk of theft of the manuscripts themselves from small and isolated archives.

Image quality is also an issue. Equipment continues to improve and even modest mobile phones can produce perfectly readable images of manuscripts. Pictures taken by the scholar-photographer, however, will rarely match the quality of images taken in library studios with camera equipment that costs upwards of £45,000. If a manuscript is no longer extant, a slightly skewed, out of focus picture in which the text can still be read is better than no picture at all. Important as such pictures may be, however, they are not comfortable companions for the high-quality images of a research library’s own manuscripts that appear on sites such as Digital.Bodleian.[8] User expectations of such sites are high and there is a debate to be had about whether “field” photographs would be better served by separate user interfaces despite the resource and cross-searching challenges that this would bring.

As research by-products, manuscript pictures are not necessarily catalogued in a way that would make them meaningful to anyone other than the researcher who took the pictures. Scholar photographers typically do not use image management systems. Instead, they manage their pictures by means of named folders and use filenames from the sequential order in which images are taken in order to navigate through whole manuscripts. Such sequences may include duplicate images or pictures of folios that are not in their linear manuscript order.

Bibliographic metadata can also present challenges. While the availability of Unicode fonts in the past decade has transformed the landscape for all who work with non-Roman scripts, scholars often work with very different transliteration systems when recording Romanized data. Research libraries in the United Kingdom have largely settled on the Library of Congress transliteration standards for manuscript description.[9] This choice is driven by the fact that this is the long-established standard for printed book description in online catalogues and so assures interoperability between book and manuscript catalogues. One of the most influential scholarly journals for Armenian studies, however, uses the Hübschmann-Meillet transliteration system rather than Library of Congress.[10] In Sanskrit transliteration the Library of Congress uses an under-circle for vocalic r while Sanskrit scholars generally use an underdot. Equally, the preferred forms of names and titles used by scholars might not correspond with the manuscript name authority standards commonly in use by libraries, such as the International Authority File (VIAF).[11] Small differences between mixed transliteration systems and variant names affect the sorting of indexed fields, which in large databases can have a detrimental effect on navigation of the contents.

The traditional Special Collections model conceives of curation as the care of physical manuscripts and rare books that belong to the institution. Policy debates and decisions focus on digital surrogates of the library’s own manuscripts and pictures of manuscripts. Scholars working with Asian manuscripts have concerns that libraries lack the institutional will and resources to take on long term preservation and storage of manuscript photographs because of the challenges associated with pictures taken in the field. It is all too easy for institutions to assume that, because digital photographs are easily duplicated, someone else will always preserve copies. The reality is that these photographs are often as vulnerable as the disappearing manuscript culture that they record.

Librarians with responsibility for Asian collections are beginning to ask themselves whether they should take responsibility for curation of photographs that are of manuscripts that will never leave their country of origin. If so, then who pays for that curation?  At one end of the spectrum, manuscript images taken in the field could be archived along with other forms of research data, with no attempt to make them easily discoverable or publicly accessible. With so many unique and endangered manuscripts at stake, however, something more is needed.

An example of vulnerable photographs of a vulnerable text can be found in the images of a manuscript edition of the rNying ma’i rgyud bum (NGB) from Sangs rgyas gling dgon pa, Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, India. Ngawang Tsepag, of the Shantarakshita Library, Central University of Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, India contacted Robert Mayer and Cathy Cantwell of Oxford University about this text, which at the time was in danger of disintegration through years of neglect. As a keen amateur photographer, he wanted to create a digital record of the fragile endangered text. Mayer and Cantwell procured funding for the project from the Oxford University John Fell Fund, and the photography was completed at Sangs rgyas gling in the spring and summer of 2013. The photographs were given to the Tibetan Resource Centre for dissemination.[12] The Tibetan Resource Centre is supported entirely by donations and its long term future relies on the success of ambitious fundraising plans that may not be realized.[13] Mayer and Cantwell felt it was important that copies of the RAW photographs should also be held at a library for long term preservation. A hard drive was deposited in the Bodleian Libraries’ Indian Institute collection but as yet there is no strategic plan at the library for conservation and preservation of such digital assets.[14]

An alternative approach to developing bespoke library databases for the storage and delivery of scholar-photographers’ manuscript images might be to encourage users in the formation of shared albums on popular photo-sharing sites such as Flickr. In 2015, staff from the Bodleian’s Digital Library Services received funding to look at the research impact of users’ own photography of Special Collections. As part of this project, the Bodleian set up an experimental Flickr site to which users can upload their personal images of Bodleian manuscripts and make them public.[15] It has, so far, not been taken up by researchers who work with Asian manuscripts. Flickr accounts for scholarly use are not yet common. Typically, digital scholarly intercourse consists of a mixed culture of text and image file exchange; general file sharing tools, such as Dropbox, are the preferred method of interchange. During preparation of the Bodleian Libraries’ recent Armenian exhibition, the scholar-curators relied on Dropbox for exchange of manuscript images and information.[16] Their assumption was that everyone has a Dropbox account and they had to be explicitly reminded to make their invitations to view material accessible to library collaborators without Dropbox accounts. There are other reasons why Flickr has not found favour with the Asian manuscript research community, such as lack of privacy, as provision of a mobile number is a compulsory part of registration. Photographic contributors can only be contacted by other Flickr members, which is seen as a barrier to obtaining permissions for publication. Shared Photostreams, in which no one individual is in charge of curating the content, creates difficulty in navigation. Photograph sequences of whole manuscripts, which may consist of several hundred images, require significant time to upload and download. Although Dropbox upload and download times are no faster than those of sites like Flickr, these are the research tools which scholars use in day-to-day work and so the effort has become an invisible part of the workflow.

When manuscript photographs are the by-products of research, scholars are understandably not willing to invest a great deal of extra time to engage with unfamiliar digital tools. A researcher recently photographed two important books in the Bodleian’s Armenian collection with the intention of sharing them with a scholar in Armenia. Although encouraged to think of using the Bodleian Flickr site to share these images, the researcher opted to use the bespoke Faculty-based image management system, with which she was already familiar, rather than embark on Flickr registration. As a gesture of goodwill she gave the library a set of DVDs but felt this was as much as she could do towards getting the pictures more publicly available.

Libraries, archives and scholars are therefore at the beginning of a journey which, at the moment, has many unanswered questions and many issues to resolve. Possibly the first step is a systematic survey of the aspirations and current practices of both scholar-photographers and research libraries for acquisition, presentation and long-term preservation of Asian manuscripts photographed in the field. There are many challenges, ranging from permissions to metadata. In a research landscape with so many unique and undiscovered manuscripts, the virtual manuscript collector is nevertheless someone to be celebrated and supported by their institutional research library.



[1] T. R. Gambier-Parry, A catalogue of the Sanskrit Manuscripts purchased for the Administrators of the Max Müller Memorial Fund (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922), p. iii.

[2] Buddhist Texts from Japan, ed. F. Max Müller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881).

[3] A photographic print made directly on bromide paper by the use of a reversing prism without a negative.

[4] Dominic Wujastyk, ‘Indian Manuscripts’, Manuscript cultures: mapping the field, eds. Jörg B. Quenzer, Dmitry Bondarev and Jan-Ulrich Sobisch (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), pp. 159–82 (p. 170).

[5] Available at [last accessed 8/6/2016]; [last accessed 7/6/2016].

[6] Available at [last accessed 9/6/2016].

[7] Available at [last accessed 16/6/16].

[8] Available at [last accessed 16/6/16].

[9] Available at [last accessed 17/6/16].

[10] Revue des études arméniennes.

[11] Available at [last accessed 25/7/16].

[12] Available at!rid=W1KG16449 [last accessed 28/6/16].

[13] Available at [last accessed 28/6/16].

[14] Available at [last accessed 28/6/16].

[15] Available at [last accessed 4/7/16].

[16] Available at [last accessed 4/7/16].