Digitization departments within university library systems must make difficult decisions about which collections to prioritize for online access, a choice complicated by the fact that such digitization programs must support research in areas as diverse as engineering, comparative literature, and political science. The competition for limited financial resources and staff time means that it can be rare for a single discipline or collection to see its materials digitized consistently over the long term. This outcome makes sense when viewing the goals of an academic library from afar—to preserve and disseminate knowledge of all kinds. But it can remain challenging for subject librarians who represent smaller programs to effectively advocate for robust digitization of their archival materials. This challenge is even more important to address when the materials in question originate from voices historically underrepresented in the archives, such as Southeast Asian communities. When selecting materials for digitization, how can a single institution ensure equity among subject areas while still serving a patron base as wide-ranging as that of an academic library? The Southeast Asia Digital Library (SEADL) offers a unique approach to answering this question.
By adopting a cooperative model of digital library management, SEADL has created an environment in which materials from Southeast Asia are always first in line for digitization. SEADL is an OA repository hosted online by Northern Illinois University, but it is contributed to and overseen by the Committee on Research Materials on Southeast Asia (CORMOSEA), a consortium of 15 additional institutions, including the University of California–Berkeley, Yale and Cornell universities, and the Library of Congress. CORMOSEA has been addressing issues in Southeast Asia librarianship since 1969.
Member institutions pool together financial resources, archival materials, subject and language knowledge, and professional network connections to support a digital library beyond what any of their programs could build on their own. The nearly 10,000 items in SEADL’s repository comprise palm-leaf manuscripts, early printed monographs, oral histories, television shows, historical photographs, political posters, and more. Materials originate from 11 countries in Southeast Asia: Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The benefits of SEADL’s unique model of cooperative management reach beyond those afforded to its member institutions. The field of Southeast Asia Studies may be relatively small when compared to other academic disciplines, but there are innumerable different archives, libraries, and museums where primary source materials relevant to this area are held. While researchers are often familiar with the holdings of their own institution, it can be more difficult for those unfamiliar with the lay of the library land to break down the silos that keep physically disparate archival collections disconnected from each other. SEADL proposes a solution to this problem by aggregating items from these collections in a single virtual space. Without aggregation, researchers must begin their search process by first locating multiple institutions with potentially useful holdings. They must then navigate through these various digital portals, each with its own organizational scheme and description conventions. SEADL spares users several steps of that process, instead allowing them to enter search terms in a single platform to find the resources they need.
Of the 26 distinct digitization projects that SEADL currently hosts, one of its most consistently popular collections is The Diaries and Travel Writings of King Chulalongkorn of Siam. Digitized and contributed by Ohio University Libraries, the 24 volumes in this collection document King Chulalongkorn’s travels across Southeast Asia and Western Europe from 1876 to 1887. King Chulalongkorn is a vital player in Thailand’s history, as he oversaw the kingdom’s shift into a modern nation state. These writings are credited by Jeffrey Shane, the collection’s curator at Ohio University, as “one of the single-most important collections of primary sources on the period.”
Beyond hosting surrogates of digitized and born-digital archival materials, SEADL also exists as a clearinghouse for secondary sources on Southeast Asia. For each country in the region, the SEADL site holds dozens of links to useful websites such as those for governmental departments, local newspapers, regional academic journals, and even travel guides. Compiling and organizing these sources has been a labor of over a decade, and these resource lists are consistently the most visited pages on SEADL.
With recent support from the Henry Luce Foundation in the form of a $1.2 million grant, SEADL has been able to grow and evolve in the past few years. Hiring two full-time staff members, digitizing five new collections, and redesigning the public-facing website with a scheduled release of fall 2022 has infused the project with new life. And the SEADL team is already planning for a more sustainable future once that generous grant funding is inevitably spent. New project bylaws and a proposed cooperative funding model have set the stage for SEADL to continue its work untethered from the precarity that comes from relying on grant funding for growth.
An image from one of King Chulalongkorn’s diaries: The pictured men are identified by the handwritten caption as Wisutsuriasak (left), guardian to the royal students, and his half-brother Jongwa (right), the chancellor of the Palace Ministry.
Interested in joining CORMOSEA? Have a physical collection that you think would be perfect for SEADL? Want to schedule a workshop about digital Southeast Asia materials for your patrons? Please reach out to our team by contacting SEADL project manager Emily Zinger at email@example.com.