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By Gregory Green, Curator of the John M. Echols Collection on Southeast Asia, Cornell University Library
The Gale Archives Unbound collection titled Western Books on Southeast Asia brings together nearly three hundred years of writings by travellers from Europe to Southeast Asia. These publications range from official reports of government sponsored expeditions to personal journals of people travelling through the region on business or pleasure. With that variety, one can expect to find a wide range of observations in the collection. Much of the information is quite accurate, while a large amount is based on misunderstandings of what people were seeing, or in other ways, simply incorrect. Whether accurate or not, the collection provides a clear view of how Southeast Asia was seen during this period of time by Western eyes.
The earliest book in the collection was published in 1606, while the most recent was published in 1899. This range of time represents an age of exploration, trade, conflict and the eventual colonisation of much of Southeast Asia. Through these publications, researchers can gain firsthand, contemporary knowledge of how the region, or specific areas within Southeast Asia, were viewed by the Westerners who first came to trade and convert, and then to rule, either directly or indirectly. The breakdown of the languages in the collection and the range of years covered by each language shown in the chart below will be useful for understanding its coverage.
Selecting the publications to go into this collection actually happened many years ago when the collection was originally microfilmed by Gale from publications held in the John M. Echols Collection on Southeast Asia at Cornell University Library. The goal of the original project was to gather as many sources as possible covering Western travel writings about Southeast Asia and make them more widely available through the microfilm format. The filming project chose to work with the Echols Collection at Cornell because of its vast holdings in Western languages on Southeast Asia.
Collecting material related to Southeast Asia began in earnest at Cornell in the early 1950s with the establishment of the Southeast Asia Program. A number of large grants and a dedicated group of faculty and librarians helped the library quickly build a large collection that remains the most comprehensive of its kind in the world. In 1977, the Southeast Asia Collection was named in honour of John M. Echols (1913–1982), professor of linguistics and literature in the Southeast Asia Program, who devoted three decades to its development. Cornell University Library and Gale later teamed up to help make this wonderful subset of the collection available to researchers based at other institutions. At the time, microfilm offered a useful, if cumbersome, option for libraries to give researchers access to these rare publications. This allowed people much quicker access than they would otherwise have, while avoiding the costs and inconveniences of travelling to find them in distant, restricted rare books reading rooms. In fact, the original project sought out only rare books, choosing not to film those held at too many libraries, for just this reason.
With the ability to scan from microfilm, the cumbersome aspects of using the collection can now be eliminated as these works are now incorporated into the online platform provided by Gale, Cengage. The additional metadata added, and the full-text optical character recognition procedure done during the process of scanning means that these texts are now accessible in ways that researchers could only dream of during the days of loading microfilm onto a reader.
It must be noted that this digitised collection is only a subset of the original Western Books microfilm collection. It does not include every publication because many of them have already been digitised and made freely available in other collections, such as through the websites for Hathi Trust https://www.hathitrust.org/ and the Southeast Asia Visions collection at http://seasiavisions.library.cornell.edu/. The bulk of the previously digitised publications are available through the Southeast Asia Visions site. The Southeast Asia Visions project focused on a subset of the Western Books collection that encompassed visually interesting works, mainly in the English language. Using this Gale product alongside the Southeast Asia Visions site will provide a more complete digital version of the original film collection.
The Gale digital collection, Western Books on Southeast Asia, contains many treasures for researchers interested in the region. For those looking at Southeast Asia specifically, these are many of the earliest works describing its people and places. For those interested more in a general history of the world as seen by these travellers, the collection includes a good number of general travelogues that also happened to include Southeast Asia. Many of the early travellers writing about their experiences gave descriptions of every stop along the way from Europe to the Far East. A few even claim to be describing the situation in and the traditions of every known country at the time, such as this title from 1608:
Briefe description of the whole worlde : wherein is particularly described all the monarchies, empires and kingdomes of the same, with their academies / newly augmented and enlarged; with their severall titles and scituations thereunto adioyning.
Or this one from 1758:
Hymen: an accurate description of the ceremonies used in marriage : by every nation in the known world: Shewing, the oddity of some : the absurdity of others : the drollery of many : and the real or intended piety of all.
Early attempts to describe the entire world aside, there are many worthwhile and detailed descriptions of numerous locations around the world contained in the collection. In a number of cases, these publications represent some of the earliest recorded descriptions of a particular people or place. As such, they are incredibly valuable for historians, especially those looking at how those peoples or places were presented to the intended audiences for the various publications.
Blog post cover image citation: Sanson, Nicolas. Asie, en Plvsievrs Cartes Novvelles, et Exactes, etc, en Divers Traitez de Gâeographie, et d’histoire : Láa Oáu Sont Descrits Succinctement, et Auec Vne Belle Methode, et Facile : Ses Empires, Ses Monarchies, Ses Estats, etc. Les Moeuvrs, les Langves, les. Paris: Chez l’avthevr, 1652. Archives Unbound.