The Convenience of Digital Resources in Southeast Asian History during Isolation

It is an understatement to say that these are exceptional times. The spread of Covid-19 and the havoc it has wreaked on our healthcare systems and the political landscape has greatly limited our ability to meet and to travel. For those in academia, this means that many of us have had to cancel plans to attend conferences or conduct field research, something that often takes place during the summer. Personally, I arrived in Indonesia in mid-January to do some research in the National Archives, visit some sites that are relevant to my dissertation topic, and consult local scholars. Unfortunately, since mid-March, my ability to conduct this sort of field research has been effectively put on hold and remains so for the foreseeable future. However, this is not to say that all is lost. 

Although this specific period is indeed burdensome, scholars today have access to a great number of resources that were unimaginable decades ago. I can only imagine what previous generations of scholars had to go through before the internet or, even, laptops were widely available. Universities, libraries, museums, and archives have done tremendous work in digitizing their collections and making information publicly available online. This is especially true of those well-funded institutions in Europe, North America and Australia; however, some progress is being made in Southeast Asia as well. I have already compiled some links to the most useful online sources relevant to my own research and shared them on my resources page. I highly recommend checking that out. I do periodically update that section. Nevertheless, I am always finding exciting new resources. I want to share some of those resources, especially those ones which provide a bit of relief from our currently stationary living situations.

Digitized Documents and Manuscripts
These libraries and organizations have been actively supporting projects to digitize their own collections as well as manuscripts around the world.

British Library: I highly recommend exploring the items found in their Asian and African Studies blog. The British Library has also done incredible work in their Endangered Archives Program. In that source, you can look up sources from private or isolated archives that are being digitized. Many of these sources are very rare and at-risk, but nevertheless very useful.

Page from Bugis Epic poem La Galigo
(NBG-Boeg 188; Leiden Digital Collections)

SOAS Digital Collection: The School of Oriental and African Studies in London has digitized a diverse array of manuscripts and items from around the world.  

Leiden University Library: This library has also digitized a great amount of manuscripts from across the world and from Indonesia, specifically.

DREAMSEA: The acronym stands for “Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts in Southeast Asia”. This program continues to digitize and make publicly available manuscripts from the region. It is jointly run by State Islamic University in Jakarta and the University of Hamburg. 

Southeast Asian Visions: This project from Cornell University provides access to its collection of European travel accounts of Southeast Asia. 

Museum Digital Collections
It may not currently be possible to visit museums. Fortunately, some museums have digitized parts of their collections. This is particularly true of museums in Europe and North America. It should be acknowledged that there is still controversy over those museums’ collections of non-European items. Nevertheless, I appreciate their digitization efforts and their work to make these digital collections accessible. 

National Collection of Singapore: This website provides access to the various collections of Singapores’ national museums, including the Asian Civilisations Museum.

British Museum: The largest museum in the world has an easy to search catalog of items from across Southeast Asia. 

A nineteenth century Balinese keris from the Museum Volkenkunde in the Netherlands.
(Inventory RV-Liefkes-450: Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen: This digital collection includes items from the Netherlands’ Tropenmuseum, Afrika Museum, Museum Volkenkunde, and Wereldmuseum. 


Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: This resource, made available by National University of Singapore, allows you to search for references to Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu, the historical records of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This resource is super fun to explore and it is in English. 

Take a Virtual Tour of Yogyakarta’s Taman Sari on Keraton Nusantara (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

National Library of Indonesia: So to be honest, I don’t really use this website to access digitized manuscripts. The “Indonesiana” menu has some pretty great items though. I really enjoy the Keraton Nusantara, in particular, because you can take a virtual tour of the Water Palace in Yogyakarta or the Sultan’s Palace in Cirebon. 

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