Royal Asiatic Society


Edward Weech - Librarian

Formed in 1823, the Royal Asiatic Society concerns itself with furthering the understanding of cultures from across Asia, from the Former Ottoman Empire and the Caucases to India, Persia, Japan, China and those parts of Africa most affected by Asian culture.

Edward Weech, Librarian with the Royal Asiatic Society, shines a bright light on the particular considerations for managing a linguistically diverse, multi-format archive and how the Royal Asiatic Society is rising to meet these needs. He shares fascinating insights into not only the history of the Society but also European attitudes in the 18th and 19th century towards Asian culture.


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Hello and welcome to the Max Communications 2020 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is Faith Williams and I'm joined today by Edward Weech librarian for the Royal Asiatic Society would you like to introduce yourself and talk about how you came to be in your position Thank You faith yes so I have been librarian at the Royal Asiatic Society since March 2014 so just over six years and my background is in history and librarian library studies so my first screen was in Asian Studies so that that's how I have developed my own interest in in Asian history so working with the collection to the Royal Asiatic Society is a is a perfect fit for my personal and professional interests because we have collections that run the gamut of history and culture from cultures right across right across the continent major so not to sound like pointing out the obvious it was a very big continent so you would cover what sort of Turkey to China do you have Russia in there as well so the when the society was founded its defined its area of interest is really being from what was then the Ottoman empires that would be modern Turkey right through to Japan and also taking into account the the parts of Africa that had been most influenced by Asian cultures Russia has never been a central part of the societies interest but over the years society has developed interests in cultures of the Caucasus which have been a very important point of exchange between the cultures of Europe and Asia so the Caucasus is part of the Society's area of interest otherwise it's really everything from Turkey to to Japan is a huge remit water do you have any collection in terms of physical format and and what it covers continent lines so the the physical formats in the collection cover books manuscripts artworks archives maps and photographs and some objects as well so it's an extremely broad range of materials that reflects the origins of the society it was founded in 1823 and the the collection was really instituted at the beginning by don't people by members donating their private collections to the society so that other people could benefit from them they wanted more people in in Britain to be able to access books manuscripts and artworks that documented Asian cultures so the knowledge that British people had about Asia could could it could improve but the collecting policy at that time was was very broad so they were keen to take in books manuscripts paintings and a very often quite eccentric range of of objects as well and over the years that has that original collecting policy it has largely continued but it's been supplemented by more modern formats as those have come into existence so the society has now has thousands of photographs the earliest coming right at the from the earliest days of photography in the 1860s and coming right up until up until the present day so the physical formats are very very diverse and as you can imagine that leads to such challenges with with storage and documentation one of the strategic decisions of the society made in the 19th century was to de-emphasize its object collections simply because the amount of space that's required to store and display objects is so fast so in the 19th century in society tended to low in its object collections to other institutions mainly the British Museum and what was there in the Indian Museum which later became integrated into the Victoria and Albert Museum so the Society's object collections can now be found in those institutions where they've been since really since the 19th century but what we have now we still have tens of thousands of books about 2,000 manuscripts over a thousand artworks and by which I mean paintings and drawings we have a map collection we have dozens of collector tons of personal papers of European oriental scholars so academics who've been interested in studying one or more aspects of Asian history and culture and dozens of collections of photographs some of which contain hundreds of photographs particularly from India Southeast Asia and China and Hong Kong that's really interesting that so early on they were thinking about about managing the collection about how they were going to fit it all in and conserve it and grow it and things like that that's really early yes well they had the society had somewhat of a peripatetic existence in the 19th century by which I mean they had to move premises a number of times and every time you you move premises you're faced with the the question of what do you do with what you have and particularly for moving from a larger into a smaller premises so salute so they were faced with some very practical questions quite quite frequently so how do you spend an average day well everyone knows no one day is quite like the next buddy but the the kinds of activities that I I'm involved in from day to day a lot of my time is taken up is devoted to answering inquiries and helping members of the society and members of the public affair research and often focusing on collections that are owned by the society but sometimes retaining food to talk to wider subjects so so research contouring queries is one of my new responsibilities we also have run a reading room service so that is how people are able to come and look at the things that we have and the our reading room service is normally open two-and-a-half days a week because all of our collections are what we would call special collections meaning that most of them are historic materials which are irreplaceable they have to be looked at under supervision so it's an individual 18 reading room service open two-and-a-half days a week and because there's only two people it's a society myself and our archivist who work with the collections that necessarily takes up a great deal of our time as well but it is one of the most important things that the society does so we've extremely happy to do it otherwise I normally have one or more research projects on the go focusing on some parts of the collection or talks to prepare to promote and explain interpret the collections two to two different groups so that's something which I'm often engaged in and then the the activity which most librarians are concerned with but which often is is the last thing which you have time for is cataloguing so we have very large and diverse collections and we often don't have we still have a lot of material which is not well catalogued so when I can find the time I try to catalog more of our books pamphlets manuscripts and other collections so between those those four things that tends to take up most of my time yes although we've made we've made a cygnus abstention in rodents widow in over the years even when I took over at the society in 2014 they'd already been an enormous work done by my predecessor catalysing bat to tackle that clogs of cataloguing at and also to add to make existing catalogs available online so the people concern that should the holdings of the society over the internet rather than having to come to society to to search printed finding aids manually but there's always that there's always a lot more to be done when you when you have a collection which has been growing for almost 200 years in an extraordinary number of languages and a diverse array of formats there's always things that still needs to be either have to have their metadata improved or to have it created from scratch and we have a lot of what would now be considered grey literature pamphlets off prints and things of that nature produced during the 19th century which are often very rare and of great interest to to scholars working today but which which aren't well cast low that's one of the things that are one of the projects I'm currently involved in so that would be and things that were designed as what throw away things rather than published books is that right well it's more in the nature of research papers or contributions to exchange to exchanges so the kinds of the kinds of things which would correspond to journal articles today increased research reports and this sort of thing which which were published but would often be published in I possibly for private circulation only or in very small print runs and because they wouldn't be bound or all this sort of thing that they wouldn't necessarily survive that well and and there and there they would always the last thing to be catalogued so you get a lot of inquiries who'd you get them from who accesses your collection and what do they what are they concerned with finding out so our collection is because it it's quite specialist for that for the most part so most of our readers most of the people here you use the collection tend to be from an academic or scholarly background because in order to understand or engage with collections it tends to require a certain a certain level of the high level of existing knowledge we have scholars from not just from across the UK but from around the world he wants you to to see and know about our collection so we get inquiries from people from across Asia and the United States across Europe and beyond so I've just lost my train of thought there but we also want but the collections are also of interest here wider audiences as well so although most of the people who will actually come and physically use the collections in our reading room will tend to be from it from her for an academic background on social media audiences are much much broader and we get we know that there is a great deal of interest from from the wider public in the collections that we hold and the the material holds a great deal of interest both paintings and objects of great aesthetic beauty which can inspire people which people can enjoy and also the stories that our objects tell and the stories behind the objects creation are things that are our interest to to a wider audience so so so we we serve both an academic community but we also serve the wider public and our that's our our central mission is to promote scholarly exchange and public understanding of the history history and cultures of Asia and also of how British people in the past have sought to understand the history and cultures of Asia do you link up with any other organizations to work oh yes absolutely I mean there are a number of Asiatic societies around the world for one thing so we have good links with with a number of those organizations so there there are Asia had several Asiatic societies in India the original Asiatic Society was founded in in Calcutta in 1784 by Sir William Jones and that was the progenitor institution really for the founding of our organisation in 1823 that that it's a society and it's still going strong today as are several others in India there are several Asiatic societies in China and Hong Kong and other Asiatic societies across Southeast Asia Japan and and elsewhere and we also collaborate with national museums the national libraries and other organizations across Asia and we have good links with universities Learning societies and other organizations in in the UK and Europe as well so so we're very keen to collaborate with with other organizations wherever possible to improve on standing about the collections that we have and to help make them available to to more people both in the UK and Asia and and everywhere else do you do any publications on modern academic things absolutely so the Society has has an up there's several ways that society tries to fulfill its mission make free public access to its collections is one way it does that but another way it does that is through publishing activities so Society publishes academic monographs to help ensure that new scholarship on Asian Studies it become is made available and we also publish a journal the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society which has been published more or less continuously since the society was founded so that's published four times a year and it includes academic articles and book reviews on the very wide-ranging subjects the ayah though I've already alluded to so you can find therein in a single issue you can find anything from them history of photography in in Hong Kong in the second half of 19th century to the study of Persian linguistics in the 13th century and and almost anything else that you could care to imagine how does your archive go back then because I mean you're talking about the Ottoman Empire that used to be the Persian Empire and then obviously China and India have a long rich history going back quite some way what's your oldest object oh well probably we actually a very small coin collection and I think I suspect our oldest object is what is some one of our coins we have we have coins tend to be extreme a lot of coin collections can take extremely ancient objects because so we have callings that I think are going back to years old but uh in terms of arm we have our oldest manuscript is a palm leaf Buddhist manuscript from Nepal which I believe the connect brows yeah to be something like Prajnaparamita sorry I can't I it's on I slipped my mind but the the yes so to our oldest manuscripts is a Indian sorry Nepali Buddhist manuscripts which is about a thousand years old the archival holdings that we have the personal papers that we have go back really to the late 18th century course we have the society's own archive which goes back to its founding in 1823 our book collection we oldest books date from the late 16th century Wow are there any particular challenges that come with managing this collection if you've got such a broad scope of material and age absolutely so because it's a very linguistically diverse collection so we have materials in dozens of different languages and as I mentioned earlier we only have two staff working within collections so we don't have the linguistic expertise in our staff to properly understand or even describe all of all the materials that we have unfortunately we benefit from a lot of legacy catalogues so most of the collections have been catalogued by scholars and experts over the over the over the decades so we wrote we lean very heavily on those and we also are very lucky to benefit from the generosity of scholars working today who tend to generously lend us their expertise to help us catalog interpret some of our calculations so so that's one of that's one of the ways that we are able to make her collections widely known the the challenge of actually managing a multi-format collection is also significant because we're a small organization but as I said we don't simply have books we have a very wide range of physical formats and being able and making sure that all of those formats are kept and stored conserved in appropriate conditions is is is something where we're very keen keen to ensure and simply having a very old collection is a challenge in itself because old manuscripts and old books often need rebinding in or other forms of preservation intervention and so that is that's an ongoing challenge as well future of the collection are you hoping for and more expansion or more diversity in audience what's your goal going forward well we want the collections to be to be used by as many people as possible so we want the collections to be we want the usage of the collections to increase that means not just the number of people coming in to use our collections in the in the reading room but also the number of people using our collections online so to do that we we need to continue to improve our cataloguing and metadata we're also very keen to digitize more and more of our collections and we're very fortunate that over the last few years we've been able a extraordinary proportion of our collection to cleave our manuscript collections being being digitised thanks to partnerships with a number of institutions including the Internet Archive the National Library Board of Singapore and we were also very fortunate to be able to launch a digital library in just over two and a half years ago which was developed for us by Max and that was supported by the Friends of the National libraries that allows us to make our digital collections available online for free to people from all around the world and that is something we're very pleased about we take on responsibility to make the collections available to as many people as possible particularly in Asia we take that responsibility very seriously and so we want to continue to make more material available online so that people can see it even what you know without having to come to our reading rooms so and we also want to take in more collections where where we can where they fit with our you know we want to take in more collections that people now and people and future generations will want to see to understand the work that is being done today with with Asian Studies you mentioned that you've got an envelope or mount already digitized if you are having obviously developed diverse languages some of them will no longer be spoken but I mean India itself is well over a hundred languages spoken today would you be open to sort of crowd sourcing translation and things like that like I know some other institutions have sure yes absolutely I mean it's we're very keen to be able to use the passion and knowledge of people who want to use our collections to improve our understanding of them and to be able to share that understanding with a wider public without that that's the the the public's enthusiasm about cultural heritage is is a vital resource that it should be should be used as much as possible so yes we were keen to explore explore ways to do that I think people got wind of this project that and people doing weather studies they had all this data transcribed and so much got hold of the link spread it around and people sitting at home just typed all this data and it was it would have taken ages for someone at the the archival collection done but people powers really helped them and as you say you don't have the expertise for every single language particularly that you have access to I think that would be really interesting to hear even like young people get interested in and what traditional languages that you know their parents maybe speak and they don't see the point of and things like laughs absolutely what in your opinion is the most interesting item that you hold well for me personally the archive of a man called Thomas Manning is the is the most interesting and the most personally meaningful and thing that we that the society has Thomas Manning born in 1772 and he died in eighteen 14 and he was one of the first British people to study Chinese he was quite an exceptional individual he was a mathematician originally but he decided that he wanted study China because he thought that as an ancient and sophisticated civilization it must have there must be lots of things that Britain could learn from study of China and at that time there was very limited knowledge about Chinese cultural traditions in Britain and indeed elsewhere in Europe so Manning really dedicated his life to trying to understand Chinese culture Matt the manners and customs of ordinary people and also its literary and philosophical traditions so he went to China and 1807 to try and learn the language and also to look for opportunities to enter an explorer country and at the time it was it was absolutely prohibited for Europeans to enter into the Chinese Empire but the in the course of trying to enter to enter the country actually attempted an overland journey from India via Tibet with just one man a Chinese Catholic as an assistant and he got as far as last so the Council of Tibet he was the first Englishman to visit Lhasa and indeed no other Englishman got there for almost a hundred years after him while he was there he met the Dalai Lama on several occasions he had a really extraordinary career that the has not been that it's not that well-known partly because for most of the 20th century there was a real dearth of primary sources about Manning's life but in 2015 the society was able to acquire a substantial archive of letters and notebooks and other documents about by Manning which tell us so much more about about about his life and what he was what he was trying to do so that's and so that for me is one of the most extraordinary thing is the society that the society has and it speaks very much to the intellectual world in which the society was founded in the early 19th century and I think that that's something which is that there's opposed a yeah a story which which people will be very eager to to know more about oh and it's it's a it's I should also have it's his archive is now completely digitised and available on the Society's digital library at that time and people were just interested in expanding the British Empire and imposing colonialism on them and our way was the best way that he sounds very refreshing that he knows that there's a lot things to learn from other cultures yes indeed I mean I think that's that's a common that's a common impression that people have about about that period and of course the late 18th and early 19th century was a time when British imperial territories were expanding particularly in South Asia but at the same time it was a period when your British and other Europeans were learning much more about Asian cultures and in the late eighteen thirty nineteenth century particularly there was a great deal of interest and even enthusiasm for the cultural traditions of Asia in Britain and a desire to know more about them to to enrich British cultural traditions so it's it's far from the case that every instance of European interest in Asia at that time was motivated by colonialism or or other forms of Imperial Imperial ambition would you say that the society empties after that ethos of cultural exchange rather than just collecting a foreign culture yes exactly the society was was founded in order to promotes interest and the post positive interest about Asian culture within within Britain and it's been it's been very keen to so so the toots are two of the things the society was was focusing on in its early decades were both making available books manuscripts paintings and so on had been collected by Europeans in Asia making those available to people so that other British scholars could access those materials and learn more about the traditions of Asia but the other thing that it was very keen to do was to and support the publishing of translations of classic works of oriental literature and so that of course there had been some works published in in earlier times but the bit Society wanted to get more and more works of Asian Asian literary works published in European languages so that the the richness of Asian cultural traditions could be better understood by by the European public's and you say that mining in particular all that stuff is available to you online the digital library contains so it reflects the diversity of our of our holdings so it has a number of different manuscript collections online and so you have manuscripts we have Persian manuscripts Malay manuscripts you have a very large number of Indian manuscripts on the digital library we also have a lot of artwork so we have paintings from by European and Asian artists from India China Japan and elsewhere also have an increasing number of photographs scanned and made available on the digital library as well so those photographs from India China Hong Kong and cross Southeast Asia from the 1860s up to the interwar period there's something for everyone well I hope so I think that I think that whatever your interest in age your studies they're likely to be something on the on the dish library will appeal and if there isn't and I'm very keen to know so that we can try to prioritise thesis next so you invite comments from listeners yes boy I hope means yes very very very keen to engage with with with with our audience and thank you for being speak to me today it's been really interesting hearing better the work should be doing and is there anywhere else you want to point people and the directional such as how to get hold of your publications and things like that and I would just encourage people to visit our website answers were lazy attic society dot org and they're also very active on social media we publish a weekly blog which tends to highlight our activities and and our collections and we've been continuing to publish that once a week even during the recent lockdown so yes please please please get in touch to annoy you with with more inquiries and keep you busy that's what we're here for wonderful thank you thank you very much