Now Online: 30-plus years of Sri Lankan activism

A new Digital Princeton University Library (DPUL) collection,“Dissidents and Activists in Sri Lanka, 1960s to 1990s,” documents decades of activism in the South Asian country as advocates for change worked to escape the claims of rival ethno-nationalisms and build alternative political and development projects.

Ethnic conflict resolution (Interplay of violence and non violence in ethnic relations in Sri Lanka) by Father Tissa Balasuriya

Ethnic conflict resolution (Interplay of violence and non violence in ethnic relations in Sri Lanka) by Father Tissa Balasuriya - “We must develop means by which our people can meet across the barriers of Ethnicity and discuss these issues in depth, meditatively and with profound respect for one another. There has to be a healing, reconciling process among us.”

A collaborative effort between the Library, the American Institute for Lankan Studies (AILS), the University of Edinburgh, and the South Asia Open Archives (SAOA), PUL’s involvement in the collection was led by South Asian Studies Librarian Ellen Ambrosone. In 2019, SAOA approached Ambrosone about having PUL digitally host the materials and it has become the inaugural resource in the South Asian Ephemera collection.

 “At the invitation of AILS, I traveled to Sri Lanka in January of 2020 to host a workshop on digital resources for the study of South Asia and to meet with the main curator for the collection, Crystal Baines,” Ambrosone said. “Princeton supported the project over several months by providing digitization and technical expertise, collaborating on metadata issues and concerns, and fashioning a DPUL site to usefully display items in South Asian languages. Once Princeton received the images and metadata from AILS, I worked closely with Kimberly Leaman [Library IT Project Manager], Cliff Wulfman, [Periodicals Digitization Manager], and Roel Muñoz [Library Digital imaging Manager], who were absolutely essential to the success of the project.”

 Spanning more than four decades, the Sri Lanka collection amplifies the voices of those concerned with social justice. “The pamphlets, booklets, and serials in the collection are exactly the print genres that frequently capture dissenting voices during political crises,” Ambrosone explained. These items vividly capture movements and moments in Sri Lankan history through text and color imagery, and speak directly to the political challenges of the day.

Ambrosone is particularly excited to see the collection include the newsletter Pravahini (Messenger of Progress). As part of the Women's Education and Research Centre (WERC) sub-collection, the newsletter documents late 20th-century women’s movements in Tamil, Sinhala, and English, which speaks to WERC's desire for the publication to have its broadest possible reach.

Pravahini is the official newsletter of the Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC). In addition to promoting seminars and

Pravahini is the official newsletter of the Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC). In addition to promoting seminars and workshops, the newsletter features short articles on gender-related issues and provides news of recent publications and additions to the WERC library.

One of the project’s greatest challenges was determining a way to ingest the South Asian language data and catalog it in a meaningful way. AILS categorized the material according to a controlled vocabulary list and also populated a more elastic keyword field. “I offered them more agency in describing their material through the keyword field,” Ambrosone said. “This field allowed them to add terms as they deemed appropriate and to provide more intuitive Romanization of names/terms in Sinhala and Tamil, which will facilitate discovery for users who may not be familiar with the Romanization tables.”

Leaman added, “Thanks to the coordinated efforts of Ellen Ambrosone and our AILS collaborators for this project, we have been able to develop and complete a sustainable alternative workflow for bulk ingestion of metadata and images for ephemera provided by international external collaborators who are unable to work directly in our digital repository for various reasons.”

She continued, “Moreover, providing DPUL curatorial access to our external collaborators enables communities and holding institutions to curate their own collections that we host. We are proud of the workflow advancements that have been made to make this project possible and ensured the work that was done would enable us to provide services for future collaborators, wherever they may be, and to further support the Library’s Vision and North Star statements.”

In addition to improved searchability, the collection is also entirely open access. Anyone with an internet connection can rifle through the digital archives, whether they are affiliated with a research institution or not.

“The resources contained in the collection are a conduit to discussions related to ethno-nationalism, language politics, workers’ rights, religion, and social justice in South Asia,” Ambrosone said. “Whether it is a junior paper, research for a book, or an anchor for class discussion and presentations, ‘Dissidents and Activists in Sri Lanka, 1960s to 1990s’ is full of rich material that is otherwise unavailable in digital form.”

To view “Dissidents and Activists in Sri Lanka, 1960s to 1990s," click here.

Published on May 11, 2021

Written by: Brandon Johnson, Communications Specialist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications