Malay manuscripts show the right way to digitize culture


First digitize, then TELL everybody.

Malay manuscripts show the right way to digitize culture /img/malay-manuscripts.jpg

The British Library just published a short report of who reads digitised Malay manuscripts. I mention it here because it is a good example of how to make the most of digitization of cultural artifacts, in the public, really public good.

The British Library holds a collection of about 120 manuscripts written in the Malay language and the Jawi (Arabic) script, originating from all over maritime Southeast Asia. Like any other object in any public museum worldwide, those manuscripts have always been accessible to every human being. As long as, of course, that human being lived in London, or could afford traveling there.

Digitization of the manuscripts, that finished in 2015, was a huge step forward towards making them universally accessible. Where, again, “universally” only means “people with an adequate internet connection” and knowledge that those manuscripts are online.

If you build it, they will come? Not really

Placing something on the Web is no guarantee that anybody will actually notice it.

To make the manuscripts really accessible to everybody, starting from those who may be more interested in them, the Library started promoting them online. The campaing started by “each Malay manuscript was given its Warholian ‘15 minutes of fame’ through posts on the British Library‚Äôs Asian and African blog”, and was aimed primarily to the Malay world of Southeast Asia.

The results show that that targeted writing paid off, leading to, among other things:

  • several scholarly editions of Malay texts
  • regular use for teaching and research worldwide
  • first publication of some of the manuscripts as printed works, to “bring alive these centuries-old tales for a modern audience”
  • use of some decorative patterns in the digitized manuscript to “celebrate a marriage at the very centre of the historic Malay kingdom in which these art forms would have evolved”

For a full outline of the creative reuses of the digitized manuscripts, and hints on how to repeat the same trick in any museum, read the full original post.

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