Digitizing ancient documents for future preservation

I’ve previously mentioned the plight of the ancient manuscripts kept at the Radya Pustaka Museum in Solo and how they have been literally rotting away in cupboards here. It seems that a workshop has been conducted recently to teach museum and heritage professionals how to prepare and scan/photograph these manuscripts into a digital format as a means of preservation. The work sounds pretty similar to what I’m doing with documenting rock art. Digitising data has the potential to be stored indefinitely, but maintaining digitising collections is a constant process and requires a long-term outlook to keep up with the level of technological change. I’m personally keeping four backups of my data on recordable discs and portable hard drives – but these things only have a shelf life of 5 years, by which time I will probably need to change the recording media (think about how you’ve had to evolve from CD-R to DVD-R to flash drives and portable hard drives in the last five years). Just over a decade ago there was a European effort to maintain a database of rock art that was being stored in a now-defunct Kodak photo cd digital format – I’m not sure if the effort still exists, or if the data can still be drawn from the obsolete proprietary system. In contrast, these ancient manuscripts and rock art have survived relatively well for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The moral of the story: digital collections might be a great way for facilitating mass dissemination and saving space, but we haven’t actually seen any long term solutions for storage of digital collections. The only safe recourse currently for archiving digital information is to make multiple backups and to do so in regular intervals that keeps up with the pace of technology – and I suspect that the cost will eventually outstrip the benefit in the future.

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photo credit: pcardoso

Digital Age Provides Hope For Ancient Manuscripts
Jakarta Globe, 26 June 2009

Solo. The case of ancient manuscripts being found missing or damaged at the Radyapustaka Museum in Solo, Central Java, has drawn world attention and prompted efforts to digitize the collection to help preserve it.

Together with the British Library, Manusa, a nongovernmental organization working to preserve the ancient manuscripts, held a four-day workshop on document digitalization aimed at developing ways to save thousands of works that have been sitting in museums, libraries and private collections here and abroad gathering dust.

The workshop will end today.

Manusa chairman Oman Fathurrahman said that the surviving manuscripts were written in various languages and scripts, including Arabic, Malay, Javanese, Sundanese, Sasak, Balinese and the Wolio language of Buton Island.

“Since the paper is hundreds of years old and very fragile, its physical condition is very poor,” Oman said. “They will be destroyed if we don’t preserve them.”


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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

One thought on “Digitizing ancient documents for future preservation”

  1. We hv a similar project underway for the past 9 yrs where we have been digitizing approx 700-800 yrs old ancient manuscripts in sanskrit/prakrut language. We used/developed suitable fonts/software and hv done so far about 12000 A4 size pages. Constant upgradation of hardware/media (CD/flashdrives etc)has put tremendous pressure upon us as over a period of 10-20-30 yrs none perhaps will be able to retrieve information from computers or CDs, etc. We are therefore now printing 1000 copies each and will send all these printed manuscripts to various libraries for preservation.
    Incidentally these are religious manuscripts hence we will not put on internet because of sacredness.

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