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The importance of preserving documentary heritage: UNESCO Memory of the World register

One of the main functions of a University Library is the preservation of documentary heritage. Not just to facilitate research and education, but also because this heritage in many ways represents our collective memory. UNESCO has been registering special and often threatened documents in the international Memory of the World register since 1992. In this way, governments, private institutions and other parties have the opportunity for international co-operation in order to the preserve documentary heritage for future generations. Leiden University Libraries (UBL) holds three documents, recorded in the Memory of the World register: the Panji manuscripts, the chronicles of prince Diponegoro, and the La Galigo epic poem.

UNESCO Memory of the World register

In 1992, UNESCO established the Memory of the World register as a result of a growing awareness about the precarious state of documentary heritage in many regions of the world. Many of the problems the Memory of the World register endeavours to address are centuries old. Conflict, social upheaval and a lack of resources have always been major threats to the preservation of documentary heritage. Through the Memory of the World register, UNESCO is able to contribute to the preservation of these documents, safeguarding them for the researchers of tomorrow. The Memory of the World programme’s vision consists of three parts: facilitate preservation of documentary heritage through the employment of appropriate techniques, assist in making documentary heritage universally accessible, and increase awareness worldwide of the existence and significance of documentary heritage.

Unesco Memory of the World - Why Documentary Heritage Matters

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Documents from Leiden Special Collections in the Memory of the World register

The Leiden University Libraries’ Special Collections hold three documents inducted into the UNESCO Memory of the World register between 2011 and 2017. Each of these nominations to UNESCO was made in conjunction with institutions from the region, like the National Libraries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia, as well as the La Galigo Museum in Makassar. The three documents are part of the Southeast Asian Collections.

The Panji manuscripts (2017)

The Panji Tales tell the story of the adventures of Javanese prince Panji, in his quest to find his beloved princess Candra Kirana after their involuntary separation. The tales have been written down in many different versions over the ages, with differences in locations, names and characters, but in each version, prince Panji invariably ends up experiencing the most curious adventures, featuring metamorphoses, disguises, sex-changes and all sorts of supernatural occurrences. These Javanese stories gained popularity throughout Southeast Asia during the 14th and 15th centuries, growing into a new folklore and replacing much older Indian epics that had dominated the literary sphere until that time in the Indonesian archipelago. The Panji Tales represent an important step in the development of Javanese literature, which rose to become the most popular literary genre in the region. We made a video about the Panji manuscript. Watch it here.

Fragment of an ornamental page from a Leiden Panji manuscript.

The Chronicles of prince Diponegoro (2013)

The Chronicles of prince Diponegoro (Babad Diponegoro) (1785-1855), a Javanese prince and the foremost resistance leader in the Javanese War the Netherlands fought between 1825 and 1830 in Indonesia, was written during his exile on North Sulawesi. The document, part of the KITLV collections, laid the foundations for a national narrative in Indonesia and is considered a quintessential piece of Indonesian literature. The Babad Diponegoro is probably the first autobiographic work in Javanese literary history. The official Dutch version, a translation held at the UBL Special Collections, was commissioned by the Royal Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences (Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen), because this society recognized the crucial importance of the text in understanding Javanese subjects. We made a video about the Chronicles of prince Diponegoro. Watch it here. 

Babad Diponegoro
Fragment from the Dutch translation of the Babad Diponegoro

La Galigo epic poem (2011)

The 6,000 pages of the La Galigo manuscript were written down in the 19th century, and are based on an ancient Buginese oral tradition. The mythical epic is written in a characteristic South-Sulawesi Buginese pentameter and is recognized as one of the most extensive mythical epics in the world. Because of its sheer magnitude, no single copy holds the epic in its entirety, but the twelve volumes held in the UBL Special Collections represent the largest known continuous part of the La Galigo epic in existence. These works represent a long and rich tradition, still thriving in theatrical performances and manuscripts in many languages, forms and scripts. We made a video about the La Galigo manuscript. Watch it here.

La Galigo
Fragment of Buginese script from the La Galigo manuscript.
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