Lao collection at the British Library now fully catalogued

(24 February 2015) The British Library holds a small but significant collection of Lao material, consisting of manuscripts, rare printed books, periodicals and post cards, mainly acquired after 1973. However, the oldest items in Lao language date back to the 19th century. The earliest book about Laos is in Italian and was published in 1663.

The collection of printed material in Lao language contains over 300 monographs, most of them dating from 1950 onwards. The highlights of the collection, however, are three of the first books printed in the Lao language: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in Tham (Dhamma) script, printed in 1896 by the Chiang Mai Presbyterian Mission Press (ORB.30/5145); the Évangile selon Saint Jean en laocien (Khampasœ̄t tām lư̄ang hǣng Yōhan)  in Lāo buhān script, printed in Paris in 1906 (11103.b.19); and the Évangile de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ selon Matthieu en laotien (Nangsư̄ khlittikhun pasœ̄t khǭng phra Yēsū Khlit tām thān Matthāi) in Lāo buhān script, printed in Song Khône, Laos, in 1916 (Siam.251). The latter appears to be the first book printed in Lao language in Laos. Book printing was introduced in Laos – at the time part of the Indochinese Union – through the efforts of missionaries with the Swiss Mission Evangélique in Song Khône, southern Laos. Together with a Buddhist monk Gabriel Contesse translated parts of the New Testament into Lao, of which the first part was printed in Lāo buhān script at a printing house in Paris in 1906. The second part was printed only after Contesse’s death in 1909 at the same printer. Finally, a press started printing material in Lāo buhān typeface at the mission in Song Khône thanks to the efforts of missionaries Fritz Audétat and Fritz Widmer.

The heart of the Lao book collection is formed by publications of Maha Sila Viravong’s transliterations of literary, linguistic, Buddhist and historical texts from palm leaf manuscripts, for example rare first editions of Nangsư̄ thēt rư̄ang Vētsandon Sādok (Vessantara Jātaka, 1961, YP.2006.b.518), Phongsāwadān Lāo (Lao chronicles, 1957, YP.2005.a.6082), and Nithān Nāng Tantai (Lao version of the Panchatantra, 1957-66, 14304.b.23).

The splendidly illustrated announcement  by Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian is here.