Thai Treasure Trove: the Thai Collection at the National Library of Australia by Rosemary Borthwick. Originally published in National Library of Australia News, 6 (9), June 1996, pp 14-16

It is now almost 40 years since the establishment of a bilateral exchange agreement at governmental level between Thailand and Australia, to be implemented through the respective National Libraries of the two countries, was successfully concluded with an exchange of notes in December 1956. These formal arrangements received a further impetus in the same year from discussions begun in Japan between the National Librarian of Australia, Sir Harold White, and the Chief Librarian of the National Library of Thailand, Nai Tri Amatykul.

The first consignment of official publications arrived from Thailand in 1958. It was not, however, until Thai language material began arriving in quantity under the blanket order agreement concluded in December 1965 with the firm of Nibondh & Co., Bangkok, that it was considered necessary to make special arrangements for bringing it under control. Indeed, it was not until some 20 years after the drawing up of the initial agreement that the accumulation of Thai language material was recognised as being other than a transitory phenomenon whose affairs might be satisfactorily concluded within a defined period. (Three weeks was the original estimate!) Persons suitably qualified to deal with it were hard to find, and from the first appointment in early 1966 until mid-1978, their services were recruited on an ad hoc basis as opportunity offered. Management was a perennial problem, and the development of a coherent selection and acquisition policy had constantly to be postponed. Indeed, at that time it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the collection was being regarded as a problem area which, if ignored firmly enough, might eventually go away. Fortunately, wiser counsel prevailed.

A temporary improvement was effected in 1968 with the assembling of the Thai language publications in a single location in the Orientalia section of the National Library's new building in the Parliamentary Triangle. Even at that juncture, the long-awaited event might never have taken place had it not been for an accidental meeting between Sir Harold White, then National Librarian, and the officer-in-charge of Thai language material, late one evening in the Library's temporary accommodation in warehouses at Kingston. The officer was struggling to compile a separate author/title catalogue of Thai language material widely scattered throughout the Library's general collection, in an effort to provide the ever-growing number of users with a guide to the location of the items they were seeking, too often in vain, to retrieve. Sir Harold wanted an explanation as to why any officer should find it necessary to work back late on an unauthorised project. However, as was his wont, he listened carefully to the arguments presented, and immediately grasped the nature of the constraints under which this collection was obliged to operate. His reaction was prompt and positive. The Thai language collection, in the genesis of which Sir Harold himself had been a prime instigator, had undeniably acquired the status of a separate collection, and when the great move took place, he would seek to have it fittingly housed in a separate location which would allow for its exceptionally and unexpectedly rapid growth and future expansion. He was as good as his word.

Ten years later, in 1978, the decision to appoint a full-time officer to take charge of the Thai collection had at last been approved, and by 1981 the collection had once again been rescued from sundry inaccessible and inconvenient locations throughout the building and relegated to a single site. Unfortunately, this was not with all the other language pool material in the user-friendly vicinity of the reading room of the Area Studies Section's new temporary home, but in the dim recesses of the lower ground floor bookstacks, a location even more inaccessible and inconvenient than before.

To accommodate the insistent demands of Thai collection users, now increasingly numerous and vocal, for browsing facilities and easy access to Thai language material, facilities yet again unavailable to them, further measures urgently needed to be taken. The Area Studies staff were concerned to meet these unexpected requirements, but unable to find an immediate solution. Staff in the stacks were already locked into moving schedules stretching into the following year. It was certainly not included in the duty statement of any library officer. Finally, in a step not then officially sanctioned, two officers, each equipped with a small wooden book trolley, set to work on a mission to move the entire Thai language collection from its dark and difficult-to-access home in the below-ground bookstacks, up to the Area Studies Reading Room, where it would be readily available to users, replacing in a two-way transfer some rarely used collections which at that time still occupied Reading Room stack space, a move embracing some 50 000 items. Working in the early mornings and late afternoons, the move was accomplished over a period of several months, to the eventual delight of Thai collection users. Officialdom, while administratively obliged to register disapproval, nonetheless finally recognised the inevitability of this practical solution and it was allowed to stand.

The next forward step came in 1982, when the Thailand Acquisition Program was set up to ensure a regular and reliable supply of publications not available through commercial sources or the normal gift and exchange programs. Undertaken through the good offices of the Australian Embassy in Bangkok, this program has enjoyed significant, if intermittent, success ever since.

In 1984, the Thai collection was upgraded and put in the care of a qualified librarian with a full-time assistant. It has proceeded from strength to strength under this combination, which has for the past ten years done its own cataloguing, with monographs received after 1985 being added to the computerised database ABN (Australian Bibliographic Network).

As reference services expand to keep abreast of user demand and the challenges of modern technological advances are taken up, it is hoped that, in the relatively near future, Thai material may go onto a system parallel with that of the Australian National CJK (Chinese Japanese Korean) System, able among other things to provide facilities for using script (other than roman script) in search terms and seeing it in the results, and to provide a national union catalogue function and gateway access to other databases. Thailand's own technological advances in the field and its rapidly expanding resource base would substantially contribute to the viability of such a project.

The demand for Thai language material from both the private and public sectors of the community has grown consistently from the mid-1960s onwards. In the light of Australia's strong interest in the fast-growing Asian economies, the Thai collection's origin in a country which holds a unique position in the Southeast Asian mainland, in terms of political stability, regional access and economic prosperity, provides every reason to believe that the scene is set for many more decades of strong performance and competitive growth from a consistent and self-generating resource, with a capacity to provide for an extensive range of research projects, feasibility studies, data projections and statistical analyses, especially in the fields of the economy, agriculture, processed foods, energy and the environment, and manufacturing and construction industries, making it particularly relevant to current trade and business-oriented strategies.

This brief description would be incomplete without mention of a unique category numbered among the rich variety of holdings in the collection. I refer to the cremation volumes. These are published in strictly limited soft-cover editions by relatives, friends and colleagues of a deceased person, and range from a single slim volume for a member of the general public to a voluminous production in the case of royalty, the nobility and persons of importance. Each volume may be the contribution of a different organisation or group of persons, and such publications are frequently an invaluable repository of information not provided elsewhere, and are much sought after as a consequence.

The collection as it now stands is both extensive and comprehensive, and, as 1995 Harold White Fellow and regular user Peter Jackson found on recent visits to Thailand and the United States in search of material, undeniably of world standing and 'definitely comparable to any in the United States'.

It is clear that the National Library's Thai language collection, both in its range of current publications and in ease of access to materials held, is to be compared with major collections of Thai language material anywhere in the world, in some aspects rivalling even Thailand itself! (Its global significance is indicated in reference material requests received by the Library's Thai librarians over time from users in such far-flung places as South Korea, Hawaii, Fiji and Japan, who appeared to find both access and availability more satisfactory than in more conventionally regarded locations.)

In conclusion, I quote again, with his kind permission, from Peter Jackson's 1995 Harold White Fellowship report: 'Given the increasing academic links between Australia and Thailand, and the increasing importance of Southeast Asia to Australia's economy, it is my sincere hope that the NLA will continue its current support of the Thai collection … Provided the current acquisitions policy is maintained, I believe that in the coming years the NLA's Thai collection has the capacity to become the world's most important holding of Thai language materials outside Thailand.' Peter Jackson suggests that this proposition should be included in any future planning, and I can do no better than to conclude with his ringing endorsement that the National Library of Australia should aim at nothing short of 'adopting the achievement of world pre-eminence by early next century as the mission statement of the Thai collection'.

Rosemary Borthwick was the officer-in-charge of the National Library's Thai and Lao collection during its formative years, and now runs a typesetting and translation business in those languages.

Last updated 4 June 1996