Jan 04, 2021 Illuminating history through the library lens
ShawnaKim Lowey-Ball is a historian of Southeast Asia, focusing particularly on Indonesia and the Malay world. Much of her work looks at transnational trade and intercultural relationships in the period from the 1400s to the turn of the 19th century. She also writes on art and religion in the region. “Southeast Asia is an interesting place to study,” she says, “because much of its early history is still unwritten. In places like America, Britain, or China, historians mostly know what happened and we spend most of our effort interpreting and reinterpreting those pasts. But in Indonesia and Malaysia, it is still possible to discover whole wars that nobody has yet written about, whole dynastic histories that we previously knew from only a single name or date. It’s an exciting field to work in for that reason.”
ShawnaKim’s forthcoming book concentrates on the great 15th-century port of Melaka, home to Malays, Javanese, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and Portuguese, among others. Her next project will be a book of object histories that seeks to tell the story of Java through the physical objects found there. Her writing has won several awards.
“Libraries are THE crucial tool for my particular scholarly activities,“ ShawnaKim says. “In normal times I find that browsing the stacks is one of the most productive ways to think about a subject. It’s easy to stumble upon thought-provoking works when you can see them arrayed before you in hard-copy, and often an unexpected find will move my research in new directions.”
In her research work, ShawnaKim uses the library extensively. “Libraries are THE crucial tool for my particular scholarly activities,“ ShawnaKim says. “In normal times I find that browsing the stacks is one of the most productive ways to think about a subject. It’s easy to stumble upon thought-provoking works when you can see them arrayed before you in hard-copy, and often an unexpected find will move my research in new directions.” In research seminars and in a recent publication, ShawnaKim encourages students and colleagues to browse in just this way. (The publication is “History By Text and Thing” in Perspectives on History. Vol. 58(3).)
ShawnaKim also makes “copious use of JSTOR,” as well as a number of library databases that contain digitized primary source documents. “We have access to several collections of British Empire documents, for example, and these can be useful to me,” she says. But much of her work is with documents that haven’t been digitized and with books that are out-of-print. “For me, the hard-copy books – particularly monographs published forty years ago or more – these are the most crucial and the hardest to get access to without a university library,” she says. “A lot of my work relies on older books, for example scholarly translations undertaken nearly 100 years ago. Without a research library containing such works, I doubt it would be possible to do my work at all.”