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Keys to Unlocking Digital Buddhist Collections: Access, Interconnectedness, Interoperability

Justin D. Shanks

Around the world, libraries and archives are spaces for the collection and preservation of as well as access to important cultural heritage materials. It is this final point—access—that has long captured my attention as a library-based science and technology studies (STS) practitioner scholar. Finding methods and mediums to make collections and information more readily available to, widely understandable by, and useful for diverse audiences has shaped my work in academic libraries and continues to play a role in my STS research.

In early February, I attended the “Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage” conference at the British Library. The conference focused on ways in which collections and the items that create collections provide context to understanding Buddhism and its practices. Two aspects of the conference particularly resonated with me. I was heartened by the articulate understanding of the complex and powerful interconnectedness of libraries, archives, and cultures that ran through presentations and discussions. Similarly, I was encouraged by the widespread emphasis on accessibility, but wholly motivated by one discussion of accessibility in terms of ontology, interoperability, and collaboration.

Birgit Kellner’s opening keynote addressed how the circulation of heterogeneous monastic Buddhist manuscripts established networks of knowledge diffusion between India and Tibet. While explaining the movement of texts and teachings Kellner not only identified historical events and geographic routes, she also raised questions about who imbues manuscripts with value and meaning, how they do so, and why. Kellner provided a conceptual starting point for the remainder of the conference to explore how manuscripts and collections have played and continue to play important sociocultural, religious, and geopolitical roles.

While there is need for widespread and ongoing international collaboration in identifying, cataloging, preserving, and digitizing rare, endangered, and otherwise significant Buddhist manuscripts, it is crucial to acknowledge that any such efforts are laden with sociopolitical values. Acts of collecting manuscripts imbue value and ascribe meaning that carry profound, long-lasting implications. Identification and selection of items. Arrangement and description. Negotiation and stabilization of translation. These and other processes of ascribing meaning must be unpacked to properly acknowledge the sociocultural, political, economic, and other values that inform collection building and subsequently shape the history of peoples and places by privileging some information or materials over others. It is incumbent upon those involved in building collections to ask how collections are developed, by whom, and under what conditions. Moreover, it is essential to ask how various publics will access and interact with materials and collections.

In tandem with the conference, the British Library curated a multi-sensory special exhibition that used artifacts, manuscripts, video, ambient audio, and interactive features to historicize Siddhartha Gautama, explicate Buddhist philosophy, summarize the preservation and dissemination of Buddhist dharma, and contextualize monastic and lay practices. Various courses, talks, and publications complemented the conference and longer-running exhibition. The collective heft of these initiatives provided an example of the enriching power that can result from the interconnectedness of library, archive, and culture. Curation and presentation demonstrated self-awareness and facilitated physical and digital access for various publics.

The final panel grappled with technological, ethical, material, and ritualistic complexities of conserving, preserving, and disseminating content for global audiences. Jann Ronis detailed the story of Gene Smith, as well as the creation of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center and its growth into the Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC). This emphasized fascinating work occurring at the intersection of (inter)disciplinary domain expertise and informatics. Individuals who are able to fluently operate these liminal spaces are becoming increasingly relevant (and presumably in-demand) assets. These are ideal spaces for present, former, and future CLIR postdocs who are uniquely prepared to identify, understand, and implement (inter)disciplinary and technical considerations to ensure discoverability, accessibility, and usability of digital content by various audiences and enable highly specialized researchers to engage in digital scholarship research.

The organization has sought to identify, collect, preserve, and (somewhat more recently) digitize Buddhist texts. To realize the next iteration of digital Buddhist resources and better facilitate information accessibility, research collaboration, and knowledge discovery, BDRC is taking a proactive approach to the development and standardization of a unified yet flexible ontology and ensuring interoperability of content via Linked Open Data. The scope of this project is substantial and its purposeful attention to structured data and interoperability is at the forefront of Buddhist studies. Such efforts can create robust connections among manuscripts, researchers, practitioners, and knowledge seekers.

Nearly all of the conference presentations highlighted digitized materials or mentioned online components associated with research activities. Only Ronis focused on the need to optimize digital collections for computational analysis and provide infrastructure to support digital scholarship. Given my research interests (digital technology, contemplation/mindfulness), previous library-based work with Linked Open Data and Semantic Web, and CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship (digital scholarship, public engagement), Ronis’s talk and the work occurring at BDRC is tremendously inspiring.

In broad terms, my interdisciplinary STS research focuses on sociocultural roles of personal digital technologies and practices of mindfulness. As a CLIR postdoc at Montana State University Library, my research seeks to understand how processes of information exchange have changed as modes, infrastructure, and tools have changed during and after the digital transition. One outcome is a digital project that combines survey data, ethnographic interviews, and materials from MSU Library’s Ivan Doig Archive to communicate research in a compelling visual manner that is informative and engaging for non-specialist audiences. From a translational perspective, research findings will be used to develop a framework that individuals, communities, and institutions can access to make more mindful decisions regarding the consumption and (re)creation of information.

Inspired by the presentations and discussions during the conference, I now more clearly see the interconnectedness of my research expertise, previous library-based work, and postdoctoral activities and how such streams converge to create the next phase of my research program. Similarly, the multi-sensory exhibition at the British Library provides further inspiration as my MSU Library colleagues and I continue to explore new methods for disseminating research to diverse audiences and connecting various publics with our unique archival materials.


Justin D. Shanks received his PhD in Science and Technology Studies (STS) from Virginia Tech. He is currently the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at Montana State University where he studies sociocultural roles of digital technology, practices of mindfulness, and processes of information exchange. Email: ORCID: 0000-0002-0587-8256

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