How to Rescue a Culture
August 20, 2012 9:11 pm UTC
By PHIL ROOSEVELT
Nine million pages of rare Tibetan writings have been made available on the Internet.
In the course of a day online—answering your e-mail, paying bills, sending a tweet about your favorite doughnuts—it's easy to forget how completely and utterly miraculous the Internet is. The monks of Tibet have not forgotten.
Some nine million pages of Buddhist texts and other Tibetan writings have been rescued from almost-certain extinction and now reside on the 'Net in a searchable, easily downloadable form. "Every morning I will be doing prostration to the computer," one famed lama said as the huge digitization project began to bear fruit.
The story of how the texts were almost lost (copy after copy was burned during political turmoil in the 1950s) then recovered (a U.S. scholar went all-out to find surviving volumes) is told wonderfully in Digital Dharma, a documentary at New York's Rubin Museum of Art. The story of what is happening to the texts is evident atwww.TBRC.org, run by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center.
Unlike most e-books, the volumes on the Website aren't just handy alternatives to paper copies; they're the main event, the go-to source on their subject, a repository for an entire culture. Some 5,000 people from 66 countries visit the site each day.
It wasn't easy to build. The nonprofit research center has been scanning rare, often brittle pages for more than 10 years. At the same time, it helped develop the software needed for computers to understand Tibetan, a prerequisite for creating a search engine.
Monks have gotten up to speed quickly—many now read the texts with iPads. When you tip an iPad on its side, which opens the landscape view, the device becomes a perfect match for the horizontal design of Tibetan pages. Is there any path in life that doesn't lead to Apple?