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Asian Collections at the Library of Congress: An Overview

Southeast Asian Collection

"Story of a War Between Two Young Bugis Rajas over a Princess." 19th century. Bugis Manuscript Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

Representing a wide range of cultures, religions and languages, modern Southeast Asia includes the nations of Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam. The Library’s holdings in the languages of the region include modern publications as well as rare, historical material.

Among the earliest Southeast Asian books to come to the Library of Congress was a collection obtained in Singapore in 1842 by the U.S. Exploring Expedition led by Lt. Charles Wilkes. The expedition collected Malay manuscripts and early printed books with the assistance of Alfred North, an American missionary in Singapore. This collection was first placed in the care of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science and stored at the Patent Office in the 1840s. Later in 1857, the collection was moved to the Smithsonian Institution, which later transferred the collection to the Library in 1866. Included are rare manuscripts written in the script used by the Bugis of South Sulawesi who controlled an extensive trading network of which Singapore was a central part. Other items of note are an 1843 manuscript copy of Hikayat Abdullah, a rare edition of the famed Malay author Mushi Abdullah’s autobiography, and an 1840 Mission Press edition of Sejarah Melayu, an important Malay history written in 1612. The Wilkes expedition also acquired a collection of forty-six nineteenth-century Malay letters, mainly from Malay kings and notables to William Farquhar, a key figure in the founding of modern Singapore. Among the letters is the only known extant Malay letter from a reigning female monarch from the nineteenth century.

The Southeast Asian collection also contains palm leaf manuscripts and folding books from Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Religious texts in Balinese, Burmese, and Tai-languages make up a good portion of these holdings. Examples of these are an especially fine collection of Burmese manuscripts in the Pali language as well as a Tipitaka in Pali using Burmese script that was presented to the Library in 1949 as part of a large Burmese donation. In addition, a special Thai Tipitaka was presented to the Library by Thailand’s King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1905. While religious works form the core of the palm leaf and folding book collection, astrology, medicine, magic, literature, and folk tales are major topics that surface in these texts.

Beyond palm leaf manuscripts and folding books, several examples of Vietnamese dynastic histories are also represented in the collection, including texts printed from early woodblocks at the former imperial palace at Hue. In addition, the Library holds a wide range of reprints from early works that have been translated from Vietnam’s old Chinese-character writing system into modern Vietnamese.

The Southeast Asian collection also holds a unique collection of Burma World War II records that consists of papers from the Burmese government during the country’s involvement in World War II. The records include public and private correspondence, financial and legal records, correspondence of police and military officials, newspaper clippings, and documents once held by the Burma Corporation Ltd. The collection is also made up of a large number of documents regarding the Indian Independence League (IIL)/ Indian National Army (INA), including a census and volunteer roles for the IIL.  The documents are predominantly in English and Burmese but there are also documents in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Japanese.

Another highlight of the collection is rare material from the Philippines. Of special note is a set of inscribed bamboo tubes, with lettering in the old Indic script similar to the ancient scripts used in neighboring Indonesia. The collection of 55 bamboo tubes in prose and 22 in verse provides a fascinating glimpse into Mangyan (Hampangan) and Tagbanua society.

The Southeast Asian collection continues to grow and to benefit from the presence of the Library of Congress field office in Jakarta. Coordinating with branch offices in several countries in the region, and dealers and representatives in most Southeast Asian capitals, the Jakarta office ensures a continual flow of current publications.

Contemporary holdings in the languages of Southeast Asia reflect the full range of publications available in the region. The Asian Division also collects grey literature documenting a wide variety of subjects including the growth of civil societies, local music in minority languages, and environmental change. More recently, library staff in the Jakarta field office and in Washington, D.C. have begun to develop web archives to capture material on various topics that might not appear in print.

By the end of 2019, the Southeast Asian collection had grown to incorporate holdings in more than 86 languages: more than 270,000 monographs, 2,740 serials, and 1,300 rare items. These items are mostly searchable in the Library of Congress online catalogue. For material rendered in non-Latin scripts such as Burmese, Thai, Lao, and Khmer, transliteration based on ALA-LC romanization tables is necessary. Please direct inquiries on uncatalogued material to Southeast Asian reference librarians using the Ask-a-Librarian form.


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