Digital Humanities and the Study of Asia, Part II

Submitted by Antonio Terrone, ATLA East Asia Metadata Analyst 

Librarianship continues to evolve and develop in terms of access, preservation, education, and technology. As research in information provision and digital technology advance swiftly, launching new products and ideas for the dissemination of knowledge, libraries are forced to continually adapt and innovate. As centers of information, libraries have the burden to both preserve and respond to their patrons’ request for more efficient, faster, and reliable forms of retrieval. And considering that libraries are now fully dependent on computerized searches, the rapid pace of technological evolution will continue to remain one of the major challenges.

Beyond the challenges that librarianship faces in the digital age, however, progress is being made in the field of preservation, management, and bibliographic description. In this second part of an essay dedicated to the Digital Humanities in Asian Studies, we will explore some of the recent advancements in the field of librarianship as described during the recent conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) convened in Washington D.C., last March 25-28, 2018.

Asian Studies Databases

The nature of bibliographic collection is becoming more democratic, diverse, and accessible. As tools to foster not only knowledge but also education, learning, access, and research, online databases continue to be relevant in academic studies. With more databases available in libraries anyone can now virtually access them from anywhere and at any time. With the Internet and digital technology continually advancing, databases offer the opportunity to make materials immediately available. They also succeed in the preserving otherwise unobtainable sources and contribute to making them accessible and more affordable to a broader public.

The Asian market of databases is expanding rapidly with Japanese, Chinese, and Korean companies offering vast collections of academic and non-academic titles, rare books, newspapers, and specialized magazines. Chinese vendors including Beijing Zhenben Technology Co. Ltd., China National Publications Import & Export (Group) Corporation, China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation Ltd., China Knowledge Resource Integrated Database, Bunsei Shoin Booksellers Co., Ltd., Korean Studies Information Ltd. Co. were some of the East Asian vendors present at the Association for Asian Studies last March 2018 in Washington D.C. These companies offer an ever-growing plethora of materials of various types for the study of culture, politics, society, and religion.


One of the challenges that competitive librarianship and database technology must face in the rapidly shifting digital world lies not so much in the vastness of publications available in both print and electronic format, but the continuous innovations in the field of bibliographic description. As new data models are being studied and launched, the goals are not limited to more efficient use and consultation of bibliographic records but to making the data more interlinked and accessible to wider audiences and users. The BibFrame, a Bibliographic Framework Initiative initiated and designed at the Library of Congress in the past few years, was released in 2016 with the specific intent to replace the MARC Standards so far used to catalog and describe bibliographic materials through digital formats. Paul Frank is the NACO/SACO Coordinator with the Cooperative and Instructional program Division at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. During a discussion at the Library Technology Committee Joint Session, Mr. Frank explained that “the BibFrame model offers bibliographic description standards to a linked data model, in order to make bibliographic information more useful both within and outside the library community.” According to him, BibFrame is the future of bibliographic description.

Internet Websites Archives

The world of digital librarianship, however, has to come to terms with the fact that as everything can be virtually created on the Internet, likewise it can also easily disappear from cyberspace. Among us researchers and librarians, who has never faced the disappointment of failing to access a website, a webpage, or digital documents online because the URL is no longer active or the material is no longer available? For nearly twenty years, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has collected and archived cached pages and internet content in order to prevent permanent loss. Anyone can technically use Internet Archive to search and view cached and archived websites preserved in this database. More recently, a little more than a decade ago, Archive-it was created to facilitate archiving services. UCLA librarian, Jade Alburo believes that “as a subscription-based web archive service offered within the Internet Archive, a simple web application helps organizations build, preserve, manage, harvest, and search any collections of digital content.” Archive-it is meant to offer exactly that: the preservation of digital collections of cultural heritage materials and the creation of an archive that would help retrieve information.

The Future of Humanities

The digitization of knowledge has great advantages especially in terms of preservation and accessibility, but it begs the question: what will that future bring? With regard to Asia and Asian studies, the more databases, sophisticated bibliographical descriptions, and web applications are created, the more materials and resources will be available to understand and engage with knowledge across the oceans, thereby challenging the limitations of time and space. It is not possible, however, to foresee or predict at this point the future of humanities and the long-term impact that this technological revolution will have on us and on future generations. As always, the hope is that universities, governments, and public institutions make good use of wisdom and balance to support new technologies while protecting traditional sources of knowledge and production. These can coexist as essential expressions of human endeavor and universal communicators. Prioritizing the former over the latter might have dire and irreversible consequences for human civilization. Using digital or quantitative methodologies (big data) to answer research questions in the humanities, promoting project-based learning, online reading, computer work, and lab-based research over traditional reading, writing, and analysis could have the effect of emphasizing the production of digital archives and tools at the expense of traditional interpretive literary research, thereby weakening humanities scholarship. The best way to explore the digital revolution is by maintaining a critical attitude and responsible approach to it, keeping in mind, as Adam Kirsch warns, that “Humanistic thinking does not proceed by experiments that yield results; it is a matter of mental experiences, provoked by works of art and history, that expand the range of one’s understanding and sympathy. It makes no sense to accelerate the work of thinking by delegating it to a computer when it is precisely the experience of thought that constitutes the substance of a humanistic education.”


The impact of digital tools and technology on Asian studies is continually changing and shaping the way we organize and analyze cultural and historical information. Text analysis (data mining) and network analysis (network analysis of Asian societies) are increasingly popular methods of scholarly investigation. Specialists continually perfect the standards of metadata creation in order to offer effective ways to retrieve information from different types of files and are working on the development of Digital Humanities tools and platforms designed to face some of the unique challenges of Asian Studies scholarship including the integration of non-Latin scripts.

Numerous panels, meetings, and papers at the Association for Asian Studies this year were particularly focused on the advances and challenges of Digital Humanities in this field. However, they all conveyed the idea that data and digital methods in the study of Asian societies in their multiplicity of manifestations is not simply a trend, but a product of the evolving nature of the humanities in academia. Despite the challenges, the work and cutting-edge innovations proposed by IT specialists, library scholars, academics and analysts, and the continued involvement in Asia studies database development, as in the case of ATLA, can help balance the new technology with traditional humanities.

Read part one on Asian Studies Librarianship.

Antonio Terrone (PhD) is a specialist of religion and politics in China and East Asia and serves as an East Asia Metadata Analyst for ATLA since 2016.

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