Eastern Turki Materials in European Archives Part I


Eastern Turki Materials in European Archives

Part I of II:

The Jarring Collection, Lund University Library. Lund, Sweden.


The British Library. London, United Kingdom.

The world’s largest single collection of manuscripts in Eastern Turki (the predecessor to the modern Uyghur language) probably belongs to the impressively named “Workshop of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Minority Nationalities Leading Unit for the Collection, Organization, and Planning for Publication of Ancient Texts.” This “workshop” can be found in the city of Urumqi, just north of Altishahr, the traditionally Uyghur area of Xinjiang. Sadly, I have been unable to access this and other important manuscript collections in Urumqi due to bureaucratic obstacles. However, the Chinese are not the only ones who have exported Eastern Turki manuscripts from Altishahr. Collections scattered across several European cities together contain a number of manuscripts not far short of the holdings in Urumqi. Thanks to informed collecting by some European visitors, these holdings contain specimens of nearly all titles described in catalogues of the Urumqi material. Unlike the Chinese archives, they are open to all scholars regardless of nationality or research agenda.

With my first book manuscript nearing completion and a conference in Copenhagen scheduled for May, 2012, I decided to make a quick tour of some key European archives to recheck data and access sources that I now realized I should have given more attention during my main round of research in 2007-8. My research concerns Uyghur notions of the past and their connection to regional pilgrimage and manuscript technology, from 1600 to the present. European archives were thus useful to me both for their collections of Eastern Turki manuscripts and for the recorded observations of European visitors about life in Altishahr. On this trip I spent two to three days in each of four archives. In two installments I will introduce these four archives. It is important to note that important Eastern Turki materials also exist in European archives not discussed here, for example in St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Paris.

Lund University Library

Stories of archive frustration are bound to be more entertaining than glowing praise, but it is only fair to give pride of place to the most researcher-friendly archive of the bunch and start with the hospitable Lund University Library. The Lund University Library’s curation of the Gunnar Jarring collection of Eastern Turki manuscripts is about as good as it gets. Jarring’s own handwritten catalog is available online, along with a searchable transcription, and a good number of the manuscripts have been digitized and made globally accessible on the Lund University Library website. Jarring’s entire collection of the Kashgar newspaper Erkin Turkistan (later Yengi Hayat), 1933-7, is also digitized and available online in downloadable PDF files. Still, the majority of the 500+ manuscripts will require a personal visit to Lund, although the librarians have expressed hopes to digitize more in the future.

The collection is housed in the ivy-covered main building of Lund University Library, a ten-minute walk from the main railway station. For navigation, some may find a campus map more useful than the official address, which is simply “Helgonabacken.” The special collections reading room is on the lower level, where you must register with your home address and, if I remember correctly, identification.

The librarians appreciate advance notice, and it is a good idea to email them a preliminary list of items you want to see, based on the online catalog. They will have them ready and waiting on the day you arrive. In both 2008 and 2012 I found the librarians extraordinarily helpful, and I was treated almost as an honored guest. During my two-week 2008 stay, for example, the head librarian showed up one day with unasked-for photocopies of Jarring articles relevant to my research. The Jarring collection is among the stars of the Lund Library holdings, and the librarians are genuinely excited to see it used.

Items can be called up, apparently in any number, for delivery the next day, although on several occasions librarians personally saw to it that I received items on the same day, often within the hour. Orders are submitted on paper slips. The one problem with this library is internet access. There is no system in place for non-affiliated researchers to access the wireless network, although with some trouble it is possible to set up a visitor’s account for the one or two desktops in the reading room. My advice is to bring a list of manuscripts that are already digitized, since you will not want to waste time consulting material you can just as easily see from home, and you may not have convenient access to the online catalogue. On request, the staff can loan a photocopy of Jarring’s handwritten catalog for use in the reading room.

When I first arrived, I noticed other researchers photographing books and documents. Naturally, I followed the local custom. Thus, on both visits I was able to utilize much more of the collection than my modest research budget and Sweden’s high cost of living would have otherwise permitted. The permissiveness regarding flash-free photography is probably the single most important feature of this archive, making it hands-down the most useful archive I visited. It is the clearest evidence that this is a library interested in seeing its most important materials used to the fullest extent possible. At the same time, staff members are reassuringly devoted to careful preservation, and they pay close attention to the researchers’ handling of the books. The librarians told me I was permitted to access materials in poor condition because they had noticed that I handled the manuscripts carefully.

The reading room is quiet, comfortable, and well lit, with ample daylight from a row of windows along the top of one wall. Electrical outlets are numerous. The room remains open through lunch and a café can be found on the first floor. For those on a tight budget there is a trusty a falafel restaurant at the corner of Paradisgatan and Kyrkogatan.

The British Library

So much for archives that make historians’ lives easy. Let us have a look now at the British Library, which gets good reviews in many subject areas, but has a serious problem when it comes to the Islamic manuscript collections. The British Library’s Islamic manuscripts collection shares something unusual with the library of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences (XJASS) in Urumqi: at both I was allowed to order any book I wanted by catalog number, but I was not permitted to see the catalog. But first things first.

The British Library of course holds vast materials documenting Britain’s interaction with the rest of the world, including China proper, but this review will focus on the materials from Chinese Turkestan. Most material is available on the same day, however, manuscripts from Dunhuang require special permission, with an application filed one month in advance. I was there for manuscripts from the India Office Library and records from the India Office archive, which include diplomatic correspondence from the British consulate in Kashgar. In addition, the British Library now houses the “oriental” manuscripts formerly kept by the British Museum, including those collected by Aurel Stein. For these, the British Museum’s old “OR” numbers have been kept. All of the materials mentioned here are accessed in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room at the main (St. Pancras) location in central London.

Registration requires two very specific forms of identification. The process includes a very short interview in which the staff member wants to see that you know what specific materials you are after and why, i.e. that you are not just there looking for a good beach novel. It is worthwhile to complete part of the registration online, allowing you to request items in advance. If you are a graduate student or a faculty member at a university, tell them. You will receive a reader pass with a longer validity period.

All orders are made online using one of the computers in the reading room, and material generally arrives within two hours. The system automatically blocks orders once you reach your daily limit of ten. In order to get permission for additional orders I had to compose a handwritten appeal and deliver it myself to an office on the other side of the building. By the time I returned to the reading room my user account had been updated to allow more requests.

The India Office Records related to the consulate in Kashgar are most easily approached with the help of a PDF guide, which can be downloaded from the British Library website. The numbering system in the guide is slightly different from that used to call up items, but the research librarian can tell you how to translate the numbers. Records arrive on microfilm, and images can be printed from the microfilm. You will have to add money to your account at the desk near the microfilm readers. Be advised that there is sometimes a wait for the microfilm readers that print.

For Persian and Eastern Turki manuscripts, you will have to rely on the myriad published catalogues, some, but not all, of which are available on the open shelves in the reading room. Catalogues of the holdings of the India Office Library will be only partly usable, because the shelfmarks have changed. Thus, what was catalogued as Mss Turki 13 is now stored under the shelfmark “I.O. ISL 4856.” For these manuscripts, and for anything Turkic acquired after 1958, including much important material from the British Museum, one would ideally consult the resource listed on the library website as:

“Waley, M. I. Islamic manuscripts in Eastern Turkic languages in the British Library: a provisional handlist. Unpublished.”

I expected that this handlist would be available in the reading room, but when I inquired about it, I was introduced to Mr. Waley himself, on whose computer the document is apparently stored. Mr. Waley was strangely unwilling to let me see his handlist, and would only provide a printout of a selection of entries that he considered relevant to my research. Once I had consulted everything useful from this printout and received assurances from Mr. Waley that he would offer no further access, I had to get creative. I began to blindly request numbers sequentially, proceeding from manuscript numbers that appeared among the catalog entries that had been selected for me, hence my need to surpass the ten-item limit.

The reading room is busy, and short lines sometimes form at the issue desk and research librarian desk. Your fellow researchers will range from amateur genealogists to philologists working in languages you have never seen before to the many scholars of India under British rule. The often fascinating, sometimes hilarious conversations I overheard between researchers and the librarians were the only distraction of note in an otherwise quiet and well-run reading room. The research librarians are enormously friendly, resourceful, and patient. Despite the large scale of the operation, a care for the materials themselves is in evidence. I told one staff member that a certain manuscript was misidentified, and two hours later a higher ranking librarian approached me for more information about the mix-up.

Plan on extensive in-person handling of the documents and usage of reading rooms, because the British Library has a blanket ban on researcher photography, regardless of the nature of the material. Images can be ordered online, starting at a cost of 28.35 British pounds per one hundred pages. Images I ordered of material that was not already available on microfilm took something over six weeks to arrive in the mail on CD.

The Library’s location (Euston Road, London NW1) means that your hotel bill will be high, but on the upside you will have the British Museum and SOAS close by. The Asian and African Studies Reading Room is open 10:00 am to 5:00 pm on Mondays and 9:30 am to 5:00 pm, Tuesday through Saturday.

In the second installment: the Hartmann collection in the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin and the Hartmann papers in Halle.

Rian Thum
Department of History
Loyola University New Orleans
Image: A photo of the Lund University Library, by Rian Thum

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  1. I’ve just had my third visit to the Lund University Library, and it remains my favorite place to do Xinjiang research! The archivists were helpful as ever. One gets the strong sense that they actually want people to use the materials. Indeed, as I was told, they are engaged in a new effort to digitize more of the collection using a new scanning technique. In the meantime, a light table (!) has been added in the corner of the reading room for those who are “tired of bad photos,” as the sign says!

    The trusty falafel place has sadly been replaced by an upscale bar/restaurant. You can still get a falafel for 30 SEK elsewhere, though. Otherwise, you might try a cafe called Ebbes Skatteri at Bytaregatan 5, which does a well-rounded lunch with unlimited coffee or tea and free wifi for 89 SEK, 79 SEK student price. I survived on one Ebba a day and cheap self-catering, as I hardly needed supper. The Chinese food situation has improved substantially with new ownership at Muigang, which now does authentic Sichuanese, but at a much higher price. Also happy to note that there are more places to stay than before, with the opening of a new hostel and the proliferation of AirBnB.

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