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This article originally appeared in CRLs online newsletter, FOCUS Volume XXV, Number 1, Fall 2005.

Southeast Asia Microform Project:
35 Years of International Collaboration

by James Simon, Director of International Resources, Center for Research Libraries

Throughout the 1960s, the challenges to acquiring scholarly materials from Southeast Asia were acute. Unstable political climates, inflation, and conflict in the region all made identifying and preserving historical materials and records from nations like Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and others difficult. Government documents proved exceedingly difficult to acquire, as most agencies refused to allow their publications to be sent out of country.[1]

During this period, the strongest representation of material collected was from the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia. The advent of the Public Law 480 program for Indonesia in 1964 subsidized the acquisition of monographs, serials, and newspapers by North American institutions. A similar program for Burma, however, met with less success. Materials from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam (then in the midst of military conflict) remained virtually inaccessible.

It was in this climate that research libraries sought collective solutions to the challenges of acquiring and cataloging Southeast Asian material. Early cooperation among universities (particularly Cornell and Yale) gave rise to microfilm projects producing copies of newspapers, theses, and out-of-print materials. With the growing availability of these resources, institutions began to express interest in an inter-institutional repository for Southeast Asian microfilms, where management and distribution of these resources could be undertaken centrally. [2]

January 1969 proved an auspicious month for Southeast Asia librarianship. At a conference on Southeast Asia documentation in Chicago, librarians met to discuss a proposal to establish a “Southeast Asia Microforms” (SEAM) partnership. Organized by Professor Fred Riggs (University of Hawaii), the conference was attended by scholars, librarians, government officials, and other interested individuals.[3] At the meeting, the basic principles for establishing a cooperative arrangement were put in place and a subcommittee was established to craft a statement of need and a development plan.

SEAM’s Foundation and Development

From the outset, the SEAM committee envisioned the project as an international collaborative network. Preceding models, such as the Cooperative Africana Microform Project (CAMP) and South Asia Microform Project (SAMP), were geared primarily towards North American participation. Instead, SEAM aimed to create a project that featured participation and ownership from institutions within Southeast Asia, North America, and other regions. Ultimately, the concerns of the overseas partners and the practicality of sharing a collection across such distances weighed against a true global partnership, and an alternate strategy--to constitute SEAM as a partnership of institutions external to Southeast Asia--was put in place. [4]

A prospectus for the organization of the Southeast Asian Microform Project was forwarded to interested institutions in February 1970, and by the first organizational meeting on April 5, 1970, in San Francisco, 21 North American members had joined the project.[5]

From the beginning, the Center for Research Libraries would play a paramount role in the success of the project, not only due to its experience in administering similar projects but also for its ability to lend materials to a wide array of participating libraries and to sell copies of materials for which it owned the negatives. Hence the Center was established as the legal entity under which SEAM would operate, though the project was constituted as a joint project with the Committee on Research Materials on Southeast Asia (CORMOSEA), which would hold continuing and supportive interest in the project. Representatives of both CRL and CORMOSEA serve ex officio on the executive committee of SEAM. Gordon Williams, the first director of the Center, played a leading and decisive role in establishing SEAM and in the activities of the first several years.

The SEAM partnership was created out of the same concerns and held the same shared principles as the CAMP and SAMP programs:

  • The need for preservation of scarce, rare, or otherwise endangered materials.
  • The opportunity for better distribution of research materials.
  • An interest in developing capacity in the region of study.

SEAM also saw value in providing wider access to previously filmed material, and a distinction was made between original filming projects and materials to be purchased from other sources. The SEAM/North American Pool (SEAM/NAP) was initiated to separately “pool” the funds of participating institutions to acquire extant microfilm—an admirable cooperative effort in its own right, as well as an economical way to quickly stock SEAM’s shelves with available material. SEAM/NAP activities got underway prior to those of SEAM itself, with its formal launch in April 1970.

Acquisition Activities

Under the chairmanship of Peter Ananda (University of California, Berkeley) SEAM/NAP acquired its first materials from the British Public Record Office (PRO). These included India Office Records for Burma (administrative reports, Legislative Council debates, proceedings) and Straits Settlement reports (records, Legislative Council proceedings). SEAM/NAP also devoted portions of its budget to acquiring newspapers such as the Straits Times (1936–42).

After a rather slow start, the activities of SEAM proper (that is, the portion of SEAM devoted to original microfilming) started generating results in 1973 with the acquisition of the Deli Courant (1885–1940), an important early colonial newspaper (filmed from the holdings at the Koninklijke Bibliothek in the Netherlands). SEAM also commissioned original filming from the PRO to preserve various Sessional Papers (Borneo, Brunei, Kelantan, Malay States, Malacca, Singapore, and Trengganu) from the Colonial Office records. A third item was the Burma Gazette (1875–1927), the official publication of colonial Burma. This major undertaking took several years to accomplish and filled more than 300 reels of film.

Program Consolidation

Because of the challenges of locating available material for filming and of securing the acquisition of negatives for reproduction purposes--many institutions, particularly in Europe, insisted on the retention of negatives due to archival or depository policies--SEAM continued to face difficulties in completing projects on a timely basis. Added to the challenges were the rising costs of producing original film and the complex administrative challenge of running what were essentially two separate programs under the same banner. As a result, in March 1978 the activities of SEAM and SEAM/NAP were merged in the belief that integration would allow more flexible and effective acquisition of Southeast Asian materials. The merger was sealed with the issuance of a revised Prospectus in July 1978.

Expansion and Diversification

In 1980, a decade into the project, SEAM listed more than 90 individual titles or collections in its catalog, consisting of nearly 2,200 reels of film and several thousand microfiche. As the project moved forward, the committee turned its attention to expanding its breadth of offerings. Early decisions were weighted heavily towards Burma, Indonesia, and the Straits area. Efforts were made to acquire materials from the Philippines (including, for example, Rosenstock’s Manila City Directory, the influential Chinese-language daily Chinese Commercial News, 1948–72, and an extensive set of 19th century Philippines lexicons and dictionaries); Viet Nam (newspapers and serials such as Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Hue, Phu-Nu Tan Van, and la Tribune Indochinoise); Thailand (Statistical Yearbook, Thailand and extremely rare serials and monographs from the Gedney collection at the University of Michigan); and Cambodia (the newspaper Kambuja Suriya and the Bulletin Officiel du Cambodge, 1965–73).

The 1980s were particularly productive years for the project, especially in locating and filming important materials in archives in Southeast Asia. In 1983, Alan Feinstein, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, proposed microfilming of early Javanese newspapers and periodicals held in the Museum Pusat in Jakarta. The museum was considered a "rich and virtually untouched treasure trove for Javanese court literature," and the proposed materials, including the newspapers Bramartani and Jurumartani, represented the first vernacular newspapers in Indonesia. In cooperation with the National Library, SEAM successfully arranged for filming of dozens of titles with on-site assistance by Feinstein.

While undertaking this work, Feinstein was able to develop contacts with other institutions that led to a number of large-scale projects. Undertaken by several Australian universities with the support of the Ford Foundation, a project was established to film the extensive manuscript collection held in the kraton (palace) libraries of the Sultan of Yogyakarta. The approximately 450 manuscripts from the Widaya Budaya collection include court annals as well as works of general interest such as literature, history, genealogy, religion, and arts. With a few exceptions, most notably a Koran from 1797, these manuscripts were copied in the 19th and early 20th century. The estimated 250 Krida Mardawa manuscripts are on dance, music, and wayang (wong and gedhog). SEAM was designated the U.S. depository of all filmed material.

Expanding the Partnership

Encouraged in part by these activities and fueled by the desire to undertake larger projects that member fees could not support, SEAM engaged in strategic planning to identify potential activities and to seek funding support for more extensive efforts. Several foundations had developed interest in Southeast Asian studies and regional preservation programs, and SEAM built fruitful relationships with these, most notably the Henry Luce and Ford Foundations. Alan Feinstein, by now serving as program officer in the Ford Foundation's Southeast Asia regional office, had identified several undertakings for preservation work and was seeking participant support to launch them. For this effort and for several subsequent projects in Indonesia, SEAM would contribute raw film stock to the institutions preserving their material in exchange for a positive copy of the materials produced. Over the next several years, SEAM contributed to Ford projects and received film for such valuable collections as:

  • Sonobudoyo Museum Project: 1,350 manuscripts from the Museum Negeri Sonobudoyo in Yogyakarta. This valuable collection covered all ranges of subject matter, from historical chronicles (babad) to texts on genealogy, law, Javanese ethics and customary law, Islam, almanacs, language, wayang, literature, music, and dance.
  • Fakultas Sastra, Universitas Indonesia (FSUI) Manuscript Collection: More than 2,300 Javanese manuscripts at the University of Indonesia (Faculty of Letters).
  • Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia (PNRI) Manuscript Collection: Nearly 5,000 manuscripts in a variety of languages held at the National Library, by far the most extensive collection in the country.
  • Proyek Pelestarian Naskah Universitas Hasanuddin, Yayasan Ford (South Sulawesi Manuscripts): A collection gathered from a variety of institutions in regional languages such as Buginese, Makasarese, and Mandarese.
  • Surakarta Manuscript Project--Nearly 2,300 Javanese language manuscripts of Surakarta, Central Java, including dynastic histories, genealogies of Surakarta kings, history of Islamic prophets, studies of Javanese language and literature, accounts of royal travel, court ceremonies, Wayang plays, correspondence and diaries, and more.

Special mention should be given to the Library of Congress field office in Jakarta for its assistance in facilitating these projects. The field office provided logistical support, professional expertise, technical equipment, training, camera time, shipping assistance, and many other critical functions--most importantly, perhaps, maintaining good relations and frequent communication with the regional partners. The Library of Congress also played a strong role in organizing another project with the National Library entitled the “Colloquial Malay” serial project, first proposed by Dr. Ellen Rafferty. The project objective was to preserve the most important newspapers and journals in Bahasa Melayu, the regional dialect of the archipelago and lingua franca to transact business among diverse cultures.

The Henry Luce Foundation was another institution that strongly supported SEAM efforts in Southeast Asia. Beginning in 1989, Luce included a provision in its Southeast Asia grant guidelines that any preservation project funded should provide a positive copy of microfilm produced for SEAM. Because of this action by Luce, SEAM was the beneficiary of hundreds of reels from large preservation projects, establishing a tremendous corpus of scholarly material at SEAM. This material included:

  • Copies of manuscripts filmed at the Cambodia National Library and Cambodia National Museum (Cornell University)
  • 4,000 volumes of important and historic monographs preserved at Cornell as part of its “Great Collections Microfilming Project”
  • Pre-war Dutch serials and Burmese documents (Yale University)
  • Various contemporary Southeast Asia newspapers (University of Hawaii)
  • Documents and committee reports of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Ohio University).

Activities in Indonesia and the Luce-sponsored projects occupied much of SEAM's time and resources, into the mid-1990s. SEAM also developed a major collaborative project sponsored by the Luce Foundation and the Harvard-Yenching Institute to preserve materials held in the National Library of Viet Nam.

Preserving the Past, Investing in the Future

From the late 1990s to the present, SEAM has continued its course of identifying materials in need, both within collections in the U.S. as well as in the region. SEAM has provided substantial funding to Cornell University to support preservation of their extensive newspaper collections (to date, SEAM has supported the filming of nearly 175 titles in long or short runs for the period 1950–90, including a long run of the Vietnam Press). SEAM has also collaborated to support preservation of major archives such as the Documentation Center of Cambodia's collection of Khmer Rouge documents. SEAM has increasingly focused more on contemporary materials, such as human rights documentation, election returns, and political ephemera. The project has also begun to focus attention on the creation of digital resources, particularly for materials that prove easier to use in electronic format (SEAM has, for example, sponsored the encoding of Philippine election returns at the Institute for Public Policy in Manila).

Preservation of critical resources in Southeast Asia is again becoming an international cooperative effort. In 2000, a full 30 years after the first proposal discussion of SEAM at Puntjak Pass, a group of preservationists, academicians, and government officials from the various countries in Southeast Asia met in Chiang Mai to form a consortium to improve the infrastructure for preservation efforts within the Southeast Asian region. The Southeast Asian Consortium for Access and Preservation (SEACAP) issued a declaration on its mission statement, objectives, and short-, medium-, and long-term action agenda,[6] and one of the first efforts undertaken was to establish an online Masterlist of Southeast Asia Microfilms,[7] featuring more than 15,000 records from 37 institutions.

Over the past 35 years, the Southeast Asia Microform Project has played a critical role in preserving important research material from Southeast Asia. As institutions in Southeast Asia continue to develop capabilities to ensure the survival of their cultural property, SEAM will be presented with new opportunities to collaborate with colleagues to identify, preserve, and provide access to these resources.



[1.] Johnson, Donald Clay. “Southeast Asian Resources in American Libraries,” (reprinted from Asian Resources in American Libraries, ed. by Winston L. Y. Yang and Theresa S. Yang). Occasional Publication No. 9; Foreign Area Materials Center; University of the State of New York. 1968.

[2.]. CORMOSEA Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 2. 1967. (Accessed 8/25/05).

[3.]. CORMOSEA Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 4. 1969. (Accessed 8/25/05). The meeting also formalized the existence of the Committee on Research Materials on Southeast Asia (CORMOSEA), formed as a successor to two previous committees.

[4.] The proposal to establish SEAM was made at the International Conference on Research Materials of Southeast Asia held at Puntjak Pass in Indonesia, April 21–24, 1969 (sponsored by CORMOSEA and the East-West Center). At the meeting, those libraries from Southeast Asia in attendance expressed preference to start their own local microfilming organization that would work in cooperation with SEAM.

[5.] CORMOSEA Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 4. 1970. (Accessed 8/25/05).

[6.] The “Chiang Mai Declaration,” Proceedings of the International meeting on Microform Preservation and Conservation Practices in Southeast Asia: Assessing Current Needs and Evaluatuing Past Projects, February 21-24, 2000. Accessed 8/31/2005.

[7.] The database is restricted to subscribers.

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