Joining cultures and scholars online.
Posted January 2004
Photo by Jackson Smith.
Charlottesville and Tibet are more than 7,500 miles apart. Politically and socially, the figurative distance is even greater. Yet Charlottesville is home to a world-renowned center of learning about Tibetan language, religion, history and culture: the University’s Tibetan Studies program.
The program is among the oldest and biggest of its kind in the nation. It is arguably the most technologically advanced, with a remarkable online project — the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library (THDL) — that is knitting together the diverse international community of Tibetan scholars and fast becoming a voluminous repository for Tibet-related knowledge.
“From an outside perspective, it’s a very well-balanced program,” said Jose I. Cabezon, the 14th Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“It has not only two world-renowned Tibetologists that head it — Jeffrey Hopkins and David Germano — but also with Nicolas [Sihlé] in the anthropology department, there’s a social science component to it that very few programs have. You have one of the best libraries for Tibetan studies in the world and you have a full-time faculty that is dedicated to maintaining the collection. In addition to that, with the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library initiative, in the sense of having so many different and well-integrated components, it’s kind of unique.”
Another dozen University professors, librarians and computing specialists work with Tibet-related materials as part of their regular duties, and 30 others are tangentially connected.
“That’s a lot of people for Tibetan and Himalayan studies,” said Germano, an associate professor who joined the department in 1992. “I doubt if you’d find anywhere else in the country that has that many people doing these kinds of things.”
For much of its 30-year history, the program consisted solely of Hopkins, professor of religious studies at U.Va., who constructed it from scratch while using the sizable collection of Tibetan materials bibliographer Richard B. Martin acquired for the University in the 1960s. One of the field’s most respected scholars and author of 23 books, Hopkins organized the Nobel Peace Laureates Conference that brought the Dalai Lama and other dignitaries to the University in 1998.
The arrivals of Germano and Sihlé enabled the program to expand its course offerings in number and in scope.
“When I started, Tibetan Studies was largely oriented toward the study of Buddhist doctrine,” Hopkins said, “and now there is equal concern with anthropology and history.”
In the late 1990s, Germano began working with the University Library and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) to bring technology to Tibetan Studies. Those efforts eventually culminated in the March 2000 launch of the THDL as part of the library’s Information Community Initiative. The THDL includes reference volumes, archived collections, education tools and information about the community of Tibetan studies scholars.
“Our project has been about using the University of Virginia — the library and IATH in particular — to offer a base where different universities, scholars, institutions, communities either in Tibet and the Himalayas or studying about Tibet and the Himalayas can pool their resources and work together in a collaborative fashion,” Germano said.
Partners in the THDL include some of the world’s premier universities-the University of Chicago, Rice University and Cambridge University, to name three. The collective efforts of international scholars ensures that the digital library is not merely a series of texts reborn in online form, but also features more complex, visionary projects.
“It’s just getting off the ground, but certainly the overall vision of that project is, I think, the future for humanities scholarship in general,” said Cabezon, whose contributions to the THDL include an interactive, multimedia project on the Sera Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet. “And in a fairly conservative field like Tibetan studies, which is largely focused generally on text, it holds a great deal of promise.”
Cabezon’s project is an example of one of the most notable features of the THDL: an increasingly detailed map of Tibet that can bring users on a virtual tour of many major and minor sites in the region, mapped through satellite images and confirmed by scholars on the ground-right down to empty fields and courtyards in some cases. A project on Meru Nyingba, a monastery in Lhasa, includes movies in both live action and 3-D animation that walk the user through the buildings themselves.
Technology like this is crucial for Tibetan scholars, who are scattered around the world in small groups without any unifying international institutions.
Other fields “already have physical bases,” Germano said. “You can go to the English department right next door. There’s how many people in that department, all doing English literature? And how many people are doing Tibetan literature? So you can see the comparison. … For us, technology is not a luxury; it’s a necessity if we want to work together, if we want to have a broader community that we’re belonging to.”
International scholarly interest in Tibet-particularly in Buddhism and the Himalayan mountains-is huge relative to its sparse population, but that interest is focused specifically enough that the task of creating an all-encompassing archive of knowledge is not prohibitively unwieldy.
“If you’re working in small, under-funded fields like the Tibetan field-or especially in my case, the modern Tibetan field-you don’t want to be competing,” said Robert Barnett, a lecturer in modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University. “You want to be cooperating with people. Virginia is very good at this.”
The University also has ties with the area Tibetan community, which has been strong for decades, as evidenced by the presence of Buddhist monasteries and retreat centers in central Virginia and an organization called the Jefferson Tibetan Society.
A few dozen ethnic Tibetans arrived in Charlottesville after the city was one of 21 sites chosen in the 1990 Congressional bill that permitted 1,000 Tibetans to immigrate to the United States. The group remains small, though-no more than 40 Tibetans at any given time. It’s only recently gotten to the point where Germano doesn’t personally know every ethnic Tibetan in town. Several of them teach, work or study at the University, some with the Tibetan Studies program.
The THDL has yet to truly incorporate the Tibetan expertise of these civilians, but that will come soon.
“As we enter our next stage, where the technology stabilizes and we really open fully for business, then I think there’ll be a lot more involvement among local people, people who don’t have professional expertise or interests in Tibet but are more personally involved,” Germano said. “I think the next three-year period of development is going to radically open up [the THDL] to those kinds of people.”
View the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library here.