Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Preserving a culture: scripts, digitisation and librarianship from Inner Mongolia

Last week I attended the International Library and Information Group (ILIG) Informal at CILIP headquarters, which took the form of a talk entitled Preserving a culture: scripts, digitisation and librarianship from Inner Mongolia. I’m not a member of ILIG and had never been to one of their events before, but this really appealed to me as it sounded so fascinating.

Professor Delger Borjigin, a Visiting Scholar at the Department of the Languages and Cultures of China and Inner Asia at SOAS, spoke on the history of Mongolia and the languages and scripts used by the Mongolian people, from the beginning of the Great Mongol Empire formed by Chinggis (‘Genghis’) Khan in 1206. He discussed the various scripts invented and used by scholars through the centuries, including phonetic scripts, classic Mongolian, and the Cyrillic script (still in use in Mongolia; the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region uses classic Mongolian script). His presentation was illustrated with several examples of written Mongolian script. As a history graduate, I enjoyed this part of his talk in its own right, but its purpose was to demonstrate how important the development of language and writing is in the study of Mongolian history and culture.

Professor Borjigin then spoke about the projects he has been involved in as Director of the Catalogue Database of Mongolian Books (in classical Mongolian), and the Digitizing Program of Mongolian Documents, at the Library of Inner Mongolia University. IMU joined the Million Project of the China-America Digital Academic Library (CADAC) in 2003 and has been digitising the ancient books of Mongolia and the modern books of China.

Staff on the project faced difficulties not generally faced by staff in Britain. Many older Mongolian books were produced on long scrolls: rather than scan sections separately like the pages of a typical Western book, the library imported a scanner from Japan which allowed them to scan the whole thing at once. Other books are produced differently from Western-style books with spines: some older books come in Sanskrit style sutra bindings which are folios of unbounded sheets. The catalogue and full text databases have been completed and the plan is to have digitised two thirds of the Mongolian ancient books of IMU within the next three years.

I was also interested to hear about the collaboration between the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Mongolia, in response to a question from a member of the audience. Professionals exchange visits each year to discuss ideas and share expertise: this works well as Inner Mongolia has greater knowledge of classic Mongolian script while Outer Mongolia has stronger expertise in Cyrillic script. Collaboration and co-operation are big in the UK so it was interesting to find that they are popular the world over.

Altogether I really enjoyed the evening and found it really fascinating, not only from a librarianship point of view but from a historical and cultural viewpoint as well.