July 01, 2008

Some 40,000 pages of Tibetan oral histories at Case Western Reserve to appear online in 2009

Anthropology professor works with Library of Congress to create lasting archive of Tibetan history

scene in Tibet

Begun in 2001 at Case Western Reserve University, the Tibet Oral History and Archive Project in anthropology will be completed with support from a two-year, $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In the final and third phase of the project, Melvyn Goldstein, the project's director and the John Reynolds Harkness Professor of Anthropology, has the yeoman's task of editing 35,000-40,000 pages. These oral stories are transcribed from thousands of hours of interviews with nearly 1,000 ordinary rural and urban Tibetans, Buddhist monks and political figures, including the Dalai Lama.

Once finalized, the Tibet Oral History and Archive Project will find a permanent home in the Asian Division of the Library of Congress with online accessibility to one of the most comprehensive histories of everyday life in a changing Tibet from 1945 to the present.

Goldstein estimates that approximately 30 interviews will go online in early 2009 with the others to follow. Visitors to the archive will be able to search by topic and then simultaneously listen to the voices of Tibetans while reading the English translation. Where words might be confusing, a link to a glossary will appear.

"This fills an important gap in the literature about ordinary Tibetan people," said Goldstein. "It is preventing the loss of a critical component of the Tibetan social and historical record? the voices of ordinary Tibetans and an accurate understanding of the diversity of life as it was lived in Tibet and in exile."

The NEH Grant

The new NEH support is the second grant from the humanities organization, which funded the second phase of the project. Initial support for the project came from a $239,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

The newest funding will enable Goldstein to enlist the help of T. N. Shelling, a Tibetan refugee living in India who is a trilingual scholar and former aristocratic official in the traditional Tibetan government. Shelling, who understands and speaks many Tibetan dialects as well as Chinese which he learned during his 18 years in prison following the 1959 Tibetan revolt, will assist in translating and editing transcriptions -- a job he is currently doing from Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama's Government in Exile.

Collectively the interviews provide what Goldstein describes as one of "the most impressive" depictions of how Tibetans' lives changed from the traditional era, through the 1959 uprising, to the new socialist society and then in 1966-76, the Cultural Revolution.

Archiving the histories

There are over 2,200 hours of taped interviews that were recorded on analogue tapes, and then converted to .wav and MP3 files for listening. The English transcripts of these interviews comprise more than 450 gigabytes of digital data and approximately 35,000-40,000 single-space, reports Goldstein.

All materials associated with the archives will be maintained by the Library of Congress. In addition to the oral histories, Goldstein has a number of rare Tibetan documents that will be translated and supplement the collection.

After much consideration, Goldstein said he made the decision to donate the set to the Library of Congress because of its vast collection of Tibetan materials and also its technological and financial resources to maintain this large database in perpetuity, modifying the IT programs as technologies inevitably change over time.

The anthropologist has conducted research on Tibet in his scholarly work and has published in such outlets as dictionaries, histories, biographies and research journal articles, to white papers and magazine articles like those for National Geographic and Natural History magazines.

But, Goldstein says, the Tibet Oral History Archive stands out as unique. "There has been an urgency to this undertaking as time is literally running out to conduct such research," Goldstein said. The number of individuals still living to tell their histories is dwindling in a country where few individuals live beyond their 70s. Many of the people interviewed about the earlier years would have been about 20 years old when China took over the country in 1950.

Without the archive, Goldstein said, "In 20 years, much of this history would have been lost or forgotten to the world."

"This project is preventing the loss of a critical component of the Tibetan social and historical record—the voices of ordinary Tibetans and an accurate understanding of the diversity of life as it was lived in Tibet and in exile," he added.

The origins of Tibetan research

dalai.jpg
Professor Goldstein conducting an oral history interview with H.H. the Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala, India, 2004.

In the mid-1980s, Goldstein and fellow Case Western Reserve anthropologist Cynthia Beall, who studies high altitude adaptation, were the first investigators to receive permission from China to do field work in Tibet through the National Science Academy's Committee for Scholarly Communications with the People's Republic of China. Goldstein forged an affiliation between Case's Center for Research on Tibet and the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences for research and training Tibetan graduate students in the anthropology department.

In addition to the archives, the oral histories will yield a number of books that Goldstein plans to write based on information gathered. Among those is a Studs Terkel-like glimpse into Tibetan life where Goldstein will pick several oral histories representative of the people. He also plans to write about Tibetan monks from the monastery's poorest servant members to the rich and wealthy monks. The University of California Press will publish one book coming from the archive materials called On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969 by Goldstein, Ben Jiao and Tazen Lhundrup later this year, and his 2007 book, A History of Tibet, Volume 2. The Calm before the Storm. (U of California Press) made extensive used of the interviews.

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Kimyette Finley, July 1, 2008 11:15 AM | News Topics: College of Arts and Sciences, Faculty, HeadlinesMain, Provost Initiatives, Research, news

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