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The Tibetan and Himalayan Library (THL) began in the spring of 2000 as an initiative with no funding whatsoever, either at the institutional or external level. It was named at that point the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library (THDL). It was sponsored technically in large part by the University of Virginia (UVa) library and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at UVa, and indeed its main technical staff have resided at UVa from inception until the present. However, the project from its onset intended to create a collaborative research environment and publishing system for scholars and projects from around the world. David Germano founded the project, while there were several graduate students and academic partners from outside UVa involved from the beginning or near the beginning - Frances Garrett, Nicolas Tournadre, Matthew Kapstein, Mark Turin, Tsering Gyalpo, José Cabezón, and others.
Despite the initial lack of staffing and resources, the project was ambitious in its goals and plans. We founded it with two overarching intentions. Firstly, we had the goal of serving all types of media and disciplines whatsoever, and establishing a far-ranging international consortium of researchers, teachers, and students interested in collaboratively building rich resources on Tibet and the Himalayas. We hoped to promote collaboration, interdisciplinary orientation, active student learning, incorporation of new forms of media, and innovative new forms of publication that were more accessible to the public, more integrated with each other, and ranging from the most granular items that typically never find their way off hard drives (dictionaries entries, place studies, bibliographies, etc.) to the most expansive (projects integrating maps, texts, video, images and more). Secondly, we hoped that THL could be an initiative that brought social benefit to Tibetan communities through engaged scholarship, support of partnerships between NGOs and academics amongst others, and direct work with local communities in their production and use of knowledge. Thus we hoped THL could become a support of engaged scholarship whereby academic researchers, teachers, and students were encouraged and supported in exploring how their work and activities could benefit Tibetan communities socially; a neutral base for new social partnerships to be envisioned and practiced; and a means for new models of local community participatory research and use of knowledge.
These were fine ambitions, but the reality was we had no staff, no funding, and, apart from a solid project in Tibetan Buddhist text cataloging, a handful of projects that were mostly in the planning stages. Fortunately, shortly after THL's founding, UVa received or became the co-host of three major grants for Tibetan Studies - for Tibetan language instructional materials development (Germano-Tournadre-Kapstein), for Tibetan Buddhist text cataloging (Germano), and for exchanges concerning Tibetan folk music (John Flower). In 2000, we thus hired our first core staff at UVa – Travis McCauley, Edward Garrett, Than Grove (then named Than Garson), and Steve Weinberger. These individuals, over the next three years, worked closely with a number of UVa Library and Institute staff - including Worthy Martin, Daniel Pitti, Will Rourk, Thorny Staples, Judy Thomas, Michael Tuite, and others - at building a technical infrastructure for HTL. That summer, we also began our first major fieldwork trip in Tibet – an expedition focused on audio-video taping of Tibetan music and language in Central and Western Tibet led by John Flower, and involving Germano, F Garrett, McCauley, Tournadre, Gyalpo, and others.
This was a huge windfall which made it possible for THL to go from conception to reality through providing the funding that allowed us to hire staff, begin to build technology, engage in fieldwork projects in Tibet to generate content, and build social relationships with Tibetans and Tibetan institutions. However, this activity was also constrained by the fact that the funding was all for very specific projects - language, music and literature. Indeed, it was even more narrow than that, since it was for specifically building language instruction, documenting Tibetan folk music, and cataloging the Nyingma Gyübum scriptures. It was not for building a comprehensive digital library in any sense whatsoever, and thus the broader THL project had a very bumpy startup as we tried to fulfill the goals of these specific projects, but also use that work to build the nucleus for a much broader initiative.
THL was thus born abruptly over the course of a few months with constrained funding, with pressing and urgent needs on multiple fronts suddenly confronting a newly hired staff: how to build necessary technology, how to manage complex workflow management systems, how to process large amounts of data, how to support complex digital fieldwork efforts, how to host many visitors to UVa - especially Tibetan visitors, how to build a series of necessary partnerships within UVa to support all of this on a sustainable basis, and finally how to build long term institutional partnerships back in China as a support for such collaborative work. All of this was further made complex by the need to apply solutions to a far flung set of partnerships across multiple comments, and to make sure they were viable for Tibetan language use in a digital context - during a time when no Tibetan Unicode solution was implemented at all. Any one of these items would have been a major challenge, but to have all of them coincide with each other in the space of a few months with inexperienced and newly hired staff was overwhelming.
The initial results were, thus, not surprisingly chaotic. We were scrambling to have the same staff try to implement technical solutions - ranging from workflow management to final storage repositories to a public presentation - while simultaneously carrying out difficult fieldwork in Tibet, writing content, hosting long term Tibetan and other visitors at UVa, and negotiating difficult partnerships back in Tibet. Thus THL was born in painful fits and starts, as it tried to addresses these challenges, and to balance fulfilling complex specific project goals it was funded to execute, even while also generalizing the work towards the birth of a broader institution. The successful negotiation of these extraordinarily difficult years was only made possible because of the great efforts and patience of the UVa staff, faculty and students involved, the generosity and commitment of the various non-UVa partners who overlooked the day to day problems and focused on the promise of the future, and the great commitment of many other departments and individuals at the University of Virginia, especially the Library and Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.
This initial period focused on the audio-video technology in particular, since this was the key to the music project as well as the language instructional project. We developed software to create Tibetan language transcripts with English translations, which could then be viewed by users while watching the recordings in synchronization. We did three major summer fieldtrips in Tibet during this period (2000, 2001, and 2002) in collaboration with the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences. This period was thus dominated by the creation of audio-video recordings, their transcription, and the development of software and a workflow system to process and deliver them. We also had extensive photographs deriving as a byproduct of this grant.
The other project focused on Tibetan texts, and involved building a publishing framework for textual content – at first primarily for catalogs of Tibetan texts, but increasingly for editions of the texts themselves, as well as scholarly essays as time went on.
Because of initial successes in 2000-2002, we were gradually successful at getting additional funding which was had a broader scope, which gradually allowed us to develop others parts of THL from 2003-6. McCauley and E. Garrett left the central staff by the end of 2003, while Grove and Weinberger began to take more central roles. David Newman spanned this period as the main staff member supporting image and place research from 2001 to 2005; he was replaced by Dan Haig from late 2005 to early 2008. The new funding allowed us to go beyond the initial focus on language instruction and Tibetan texts, and begin to work more intently on the development of a comprehensive set of collections along with their necessary technology. Particularly important was the development of the place-based initiatives - which consisted of a Place Dictionary, GIS, images, audio-video, immersive objects - which began as the Cultural Geography project, and has later into the Tourism initiative. In addition, the International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS) asked THL to publish its new digital journal, JIATS, which became the basis for our refinement of a publishing system for scholarly essays. We also developed the Thematic Collections and Encyclopedias in various subjects.
We also began to expand our geographical reach into Nepal with a partnership with Kath March and Mark Turin, amongst others, at Cornell University from 2002-2005. This also grew into evolving partnership with the nation of Bhutan on supporting the creation of a Bhutan Digital Library which would share collections and technologies with THL. In addition, there was the rise of important new projects focused on Lhasa which used THL resources and tools to build exciting and complex publications. These included as the Sera Monastery initiative led by Jose Cabezon, Drepung Monastery by Georges Dreyfus, Meru Monastery by Will Rourk (in collaboration with Andre Alexander of Tibet Heritage Fund), and Lhasa’s Cultivated Landscapes by Emily Yeh. Specific collaborative projects continued to be developed as well, such as the Place Dictionary and the Tibetan Dictionaries initiatives. We also expanded out institutional partnerships in Tibet to include Tibet University which because the base for transcribing audio-video resources and working together on Tibetan language computing, amongst other things.
However, we continued to face great challenges due a discrepancy between our goals and our resources, all against the backdrop of a rapidly changing technical landscape that prevented us from simply implementing off the shelf easy to deploy solutions, in addition to the extra challenges of supporting multi-lingual (especially Tibetan) solutions, radically pluralistic collaborative approaches across countries, languages and sectors which aim to still retain quality control, peer review, and appropriate crediting, and a commitment to long term sustainable archiving of knowledge beyond today's display. At times it has seemed all but impossible to pull this off, though stepping to the side and considering THL's birth and growth, we continued to make steady progress the main areas - technology, content, partnerships, workflow, management, and end-product.
By the end of this period, we had made impressive achievements with powerful technology, extensive holdings of data, and a number of mature published products. At the same time, we faced multiple challenges. Technology was changing rapidly, and our tools were often heterogeneous in character, leading to problems with integration. Our rapid development in the absence of centralized funding and plans also had led to an uneven set of resources, ranging from projects that were extensive enough to be websites in their own right to publications that were so incomplete as to not warrant a public presence.
At the beginning of 2007, we had reached a critical juncture for THL. We could have proceeded as we had, no doubt attracting funding and participation, or we could go through a painful process of transformation to create the basis for a sustainable future. We choose the later path, and embarked on a two year effort to reinvent THL from the ground up. We decided to put the old web site to the side, and create a new publishing infrastructure for websites and services into which we would gradually migrate the best collections from the old THDL. We renamed the initiative the Tibetan and Himalayan Library, since we felt the word “digital” was no longer necessary, and took attention away from the real focus, which was intellectual and social in character.
The reinvention of THL had multiple goals. Firstly, we aimed to recreate all the technology so that it had online submission and editing facilities, so that the various tools and repositories could be integrated with each other, so that they were as much as possible based upon new technologies and standards, and finally so that they were more stable and reliable in peformance. Secondly, we wanted to create a strict distinction between our development and publishing environment, so that only projects were shown publically only when they had substantial and well-edited content available. Thirdly, we aimed to deliver a more visually attractive presentation of our publications, as well as enable more user friendly means of locating resources and using them. Fourthly, we decided to reconceptualize THL not as a single sprawling web site, but rather as a published of multiple websites and services to better profile the individual projects, as well as make THL resources more useful to other projects and websites. Thus we created a publishing process that allows for a major THL publication – such as Sera Monastery – to have its own distinctive look and feel in the banner, and self-contained user experience within the navigation system. In other words, once a user arrives at a THL published website, they will stay within that website with all THL resources and tools seamlessly provided through background processes. In addition, we aimed to allow for THL data resources – dictionary terms, maps, etc. – to be used by other websites as services that they could incorporate into their own presentations.
We christened this initiative as “THL 1.0” out of our feeling that in some sense the previous seven years had involved an extended experiment at using new digital technologies with tools and approaches that were still in their “beta” versions. Thus the aim of the new initiative in 2007-8 was to create a truly public version of THL which would provide reliable performance and data. In essence, this involved a crucial transit from a start up initiative to a young but mature organization delivering a reliable product. It is this effort which we call THL 1.0, to stress that for 8 years people have been viewing in real time the complex and at times chaotic efforts of a group of hundreds of collaborators to bring into being an initiative on the frontier not just of new technologies, but also new social partnerships and visions of the potential and practice of engaged knowledge - its creation, its dissemination, and its social uses.
The first launch of THL 1.0 (at www.thlib.org) was delivered at the end of August, 2008. Due to the complexity of the endeavor, we began with only a select range of tools and publications. We thus plan during the fall of 2008 and the first half of 2009 to gradually add in other tools and publications week by week until the full system is operative with all collections by the end of 2009. During this process, we will maintain the old site (www.thdl.org), from which we will gradually take off line all content republished in new forms at THL. To follow the process of new releases, sign up to the THL Mailing List for regular updates.
Overall this will allow us to focus more intently on the two great of aims of THL: to publish high quality and innovative scholarly content, and to socially benefit and engage Tibetan communities.