SAALG 91st Conference

SAALG 91st Conference

South Asia Archive and Library Group, 91st Conference: South Asia – Collaborations and Collections

On Monday 21st July, SAALG met at the Royal Asiatic Society for the 91st conference; South Asian Collaborations and Collections. After a welcome to the theme and the organisation by Helen Porter (SAALG chair, SOAS), Ed Weech the newly appointed librarian at RAS was introduced. Participants included a range of Asian scholars and archivists including Rosie Llewellyn Jones, Clare Sorensen and Rosemary Seton. 

Dr Natasha Pairaudeau (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Cambridge) opened the morning speaking on, ‘Histories of mobility in the urban landscape: from cemeteries to street stalls in Pondicherry and Saigon’. As part of the Sites of Asian Interaction Project at the Centre for History and Economics her work on transnational domestic and family life in French Indochina and British Burma was detailed in relation to the project website, Archive of Mobility. The site draws attention to the value of little-known, underused or endangered archives to connect transnational histories across Asia.

 UppalamCemeteryPondicherry, 2004, NPairaudeau

Pairaudeau spoke of her own experiences using architectural heritage in Vietnam and Pondicherry as sources for her research. Her PhD methodology utilised cemeteries and monuments in interaction with traditional archival sources to investigate social mobility. The graveyard as a research tool was said to yield research material omitted from official archives. Her work in Catholic cemeteries in Pondicherry’s main town and villages provided a catalogue of Indochinese servicemen, such as ‘Robatche Clive’, an adopted name. Inscriptions on monuments were similarly used to reveal political loyalties. Pairaudeau concluded speaking about the persistence (in Pondicherry) and revival (in Saigon) of forms of intangible heritage such as cuisine which are the legacy of previous connections.

Cleo Roberts (UKIERI PhD researcher) introduced the Envisioning the Indian City project and her archival work in her paper, ‘Reading beyond the Bookworms: Conducting PhD research in Calcutta’. The nature of the collaborative project between the University of Liverpool and Jadavpur University was explained from its inception through its proposal stage and continued development. Roberts provided details of the UK-India Education and Research Initiative, a partnership programme between the UK and Indian Government conceived to enhance educational links and engagement between the two countries. Awarded funding by this organisation in 2013, Roberts introduced the work of the international research team and the work being done across the project’s focal cities; Goa, Kolkata, Pondicherry and Chandigarh.

The paper set out the methodologies used to sustain the intellectual exchange between the institutions including the shared website, reading group seminars and symposia. These components brought together a broad range of academics from a variety of institutions interested in the Indian city as a site for cross-cultural exchange. The links built between the institutions were discussed in terms of facilitating a recent research trip to Calcutta. The process of accessing collections held at The National Library and The Asiatic Society were described and illustrated through Roberts’ photographic fieldwork. The issue of archival preservation was mentioned and attention drawn to the digitalisation projects currently being undertaken at Jadavpur. The paper concluded with details of Roberts’ future INTACH project and the archival sources she will be consulting. The morning session ended with news from institutions including the opening of the Weston Library at Oxford University in September and the cataloguing of India Office Medical Archives at the British Library.

National Library, 2014, Cleo Roberts File Room, 2012, Dayanita Singh,

The afternoon started with Cathy Collins (Endangered Archives Programme, British Library) presenting, ’10 years of Endangered Archives in South Asia: from sound recordings to temple art’. Sponsored by Arcadia and established 10 years ago, the programme contributes to the preservation of archival material worldwide that is in danger of destruction, neglect or personal deterioration. Achieved through the awarding of grants, the programme has supported 234 projects in 78 countries, 54 in South Asia. Each project has created digital surrogates and where possible original material has been transferred to suitable local archival homes. Collins drew attention to work done on rock inscriptions in Libya and projects in Bhutan involving the digitalisation of Tibetan manuscripts resulting in a catalogue of over 7000 images. 

Edward Proctor (Librarian for South and Southeast Asia, Duke University and University of North Carolina) closed the conference speaking on ‘Seeking and Implementing an Endangered Archives Programme Grant: Challenge and Response’. Having received two grants from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, Proctor spoke of his experiences supervising the digitalisation of priceless manuscripts and xylographs of the indigenous Tibetan pre-Buddhist Bön religion. Held by the Menri monastery near Solan in the foothills of the Himalayas, Proctor detailed the running of the project and the challenges faced in implementing the grant. These included technological, cultural and climatic practicalities such as the poisonous inks used by former scribes in order to circumvent insect damage. 

Menri Monastery

Proctor showed images of his time spent at the monastery including the work station set up with the monks and items from the ongoing cataloguing of the collection. The digitalisation of the manuscripts, including musical scores from the 18th century and prayer cards, will create a valuable resource for scholars interested in the derivation of this Tibetan religious tradition. Proctor finished speaking about plans for the completion of the project in light of the recently introduced special permit requirements by the Indian Government. A series of alternative strategies were being put in place to ensure a full archive. The day concluded with Helen Porter thanking all speakers and attendees. For further information and updates visit the SAALG website.


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