The Book in Tibet

U.Va. has long been a world leader in advancing our understanding of the Western book through bibliographical scholarship. Happily, U.Va.’s considerable bibliographical expertise is now being applied more broadly, as scholars take an increasing interest in adapting the techniques of descriptive and analytical bibliography to the Islamic and Asian book.

A page from an 18th-century manuscript copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The text is written in alternating gold and silver ink. The blue-black lacquered paper was created by applying a lacquer made of yak-skin glue, animal brains, and soot, which was then burnished to create an appropriate writing surface.   (MSS 14259)

A page from an 18th-century manuscript copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The text is written in alternating gold and silver ink. The blue-black lacquered paper was created by applying a lacquer made of yak-skin glue, animal brains, and soot, which was then burnished to create an appropriate writing surface. (MSS 14259)

That interest is particularly intense right now than in the field of Tibetan studies. On November 6-8, U.Va. hosted an international Symposium on the Tibetan Book, at which many of the world’s leading scholars explored the benefits of applying bibliographical methods to the study of Tibetan books and manuscripts. Organized by doctoral students in U.Va.’s Department of Religious Studies, with financial support from the Jefferson Trust and the Buckner W. Clay Endowment, the symposium also attracted speakers and participants from several other academic departments, Rare Book School, and the U.Va. Library.

Symposium papers ranged from an analysis of scripts in the 9th– and 10th-century manuscripts found at Dunhuang to the archiving of Tibetan websites. Despite the considerable hurdles scholars face in accessing Tibetan books and manuscripts, there was a palpable feeling of excitement among symposium attendees, as the time now seems right for making major advances in the field.

A page from a xylographic printing of The Wish-Fulfilling King of Power, a work by the Fifth Dalai Lama published at the government printing house in Lhasa in the late 7th century.

A page from a xylographic printing of The Wish-Fulfilling King of Power, a work by the Fifth Dalai Lama published at the government printing house in Lhasa in the late 17th century.

Of particular value was a workshop, led by Jim Canary, conservator at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, in which participants made Tibetan paper literally from scratch: boiling the raw ingredients (the inner bark of a woody plant ubiquitous in Tibet), pounding the fibers into mush, constructing a simple paper mold, forming the sheets, and then drying them; following which participants printed in the Tibetan manner: inking woodblocks, applying paper, and transferring the image by rubbing.

In conjunction with the Symposium on the Tibetan Book, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library is pleased to host an exhibition, “The Book in Tibet,” featuring Tibetan books and manuscripts from the U.Va. Library’s extensive holdings. Curated by Ben Nourse, with assistance from Natasha Mikles and Christie Kilby, “The Book in Tibet” surveys four centuries of Tibetan book production through examples of Tibetan manuscripts, woodblock-printed books, and modern imprints. “The Book in Tibet” will remain on view in our first floor exhibition space through December 2014.

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