65th IFLA Council and General
August 20 - August 28, 1999
Code Number: 104-130-E
Division Number: V
Professional Group: Rare Books and Manuscripts
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 130
Simultaneous Interpretation: No
Memorial Books As A Means of Information Distribution
National Library of Thailand
It is a common practice for the Thais, particularly the well-to-do group to present gifts to their guests in a life ceremony. The kind and value of gifts vary with the expense account of the hosts. Usually beautiful ceramics, garlands, bouquets, are for well-wishers in a wedding party, but the suitable kind for all occasions, and the most popular one for attendants of a cremation ceremony is a memorial book.
The first memorial book appeared in B.E. 2419 (1876) was a short excerpt from the Ramayana Epic. This book was published and distributed as the token of appreciation from Prince Bodinphaisalsophon, the director of the Royal Printing Press at that time to the attendants of his promotion celebration party. Afterwards, King Chulalongkorn published and distributed a play which was translated from The Arabian Nights by himself as the gift to royal family members who attended the New Year Party in B.E. 2422 (1879).
The first memorial book for cremation ceremony or cremation memorial book was also published by King Chulalongkorn for the cremation ceremony of Queen Sunantha Kumariratana and their daughter, Princess Karnabhorn Bejaratana in B.E. 2423 (1880). The content of the book was a collection of prayers, revised from palm leave manuscripts, and 10,000 copies of this first edition were distributed to 2 target groups:
- The attendants of cremation ceremony as a way of making merit and transfering the merit to the disceased according to a religious belief that disseminating the Dhamma or giving knowledge to other people was praised by the Lord Buddha as the superior form of donation.
- The monasteries all over Thailand as the reference book for Buddhist monks in prayer chanting. This objective is in fact a means of information distribution.
Since then, the practice of presenting memorial book to the attendants of a cremation ceremony has become common for Thai society.
Other remarkable memorial book of the same period were Buddhist teaching Phra Ratanatrai, distributed in the celebration of the 70th Birthday anniversary of a chancellor in B.E. 2431 (1889), and the autobiography of a famous Thai educator, Praya Srisunthornwoharn which was published for the cremation ceremony of the author himself in B.E. 2438 (1895).
When the Buddhasasanasangaha Library was found in B.E. 2443 (1900) by King Chulalongkorn with the purpose of bringing together various collections of Buddhist scriptures and books on Buddhism in different languages, Prince Somot Amarabandhu, the director of the library promoted the idea of information distribution from this resource by editing and publishing Buddhist scriptures at the expense of the person who made request. For each printing, the library received 20% of copies for donating to Buddhist monasteries and other libraries. In case of a cremation memorial book, Prince Somot Amarabandhu also wrote the introduction part of each title, including a short biography of the deceased. The first book published for this purpose was a prayer book, published for distribution in the cremation ceremony of Queen Sukhumalayamarasri's mother in B.E. 2443 (1900).
In B.E. 2448 (1905), the Buddhasasanasangaha Library was amalgamated with other 2 royal libraries: The Mondhira Dhamma Library and the Vajiranana Library to be the Vajiranana National Library, and afterwards became the National Library of Thailand under the Department of Fine Arts, Ministry of Education in B.E. 2476 (1933). As a resource of Pali, Cambodian, and Thai manuscripts for different areas of research about Thailand and neighbouring countries, the activity of information distribution through memorial books was continued by Prince Somot Amarabandhu who also became the director of the National Library during B.E. 2454-2458 (1911-1915).
Because the idea of information distribution through memorial books derived from a religious belief, most of memorial books published in the beginning period were prayer books or sermons which were not the principal attraction for reading and this creative idea seemed to be futile. At this stage, Prince Dumrong Rajanubhab, another director of the National Library during B.E. 2458-2469 (1911-1926) contributed to the editorialship of this publication by switching the contents to other topics that met the need of reading for pleasure such as the Jatakas, the stories of Buddha's former lives before the incarnation as Prince Siddharta, and afterwards completely changed from Buddhism to other subjects in which the prince himself was an important researcher. His contribution resulted in 3 valuable series of reference sources for Thai Studies: The Collected Chronicles, Various Customs, and Ancient Inscriptions.
Under the editorialship of Prince Dumrong Rajanubhab, The Collected Chronicles comprises 80 parts. The contents in each part are different versions of chronicles of Thailand, stories and legends of some provinces and places, including history of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. The 26 parts of another series Various Customs contains information on royal activities and court laws, Thai customs and traditions, including way of life of some ethnic groups, while the 4 parts of Ancient Inscriptions are transcribed texts from stone inscriptions in Thai, Mons, Cambodian, Pali characters, etc. with explanation or translation. At present, the first edition copy of these 3 series in complete set are very rare, as well as of high price in the antiquarian book trade. The value of them are not only for rarity, but also for the introductions or comments on Thai heritage by Prince Dumrong Rajanubhab which are omitted in some later editions. As memorial books, they are published on different occasions; birthday anniversary, promotion celebration, as well as cremation ceremony. These introductions also reveal that Prince Dumrong Rajanubhab was so careful in matching the topics in the books with backgrounds of the sponsors to show their role in an activity or a profession, as well as designing a readable format with appropriate portrait and illustrations. Afterwards, when the publication of memorial books were in great request compared with time spent for manuscript editing or inscription transcribing, Prince Dumrong Rajanubhab wrote some books himself. A well known title among them is Legends and Tales, first published for the author's cremation ceremony in B.E. 2487 (1944). The bibliography of these books are in "List of Books Published Under the Copyright of the National Library, B.E. 2444-2470 (1901-1927)" and "List of Books Published by Fine Arts Department, B.E. 2471-2510 (1928-1967)," and afterwards "The National Bibliography."
From these lists, the top ten subjects of the contents of memorial books are
- Thai Literature
- Social Life and Customs
- Thai traditional Medicine / Medical Science
- Thai Cuisine
- Collected Articles / Generalities
- Geography and Travel
The custom of information distribution through memorial books has been practiced for over a century. A birthday anniversary and a cremation ceremony are the opportunity for an interesting book that might be ignored by a publisher. In the aspect of rare book studies, three major factors contributed to the significance of memorial books are: identity , rarity , and value.
Identity: Memorial books especially cremation memorial books are considered as a sign of national identity since Thailand is the only country which observes the tradition of presenting books to attendants of a ceremony.
Rarity: According to rare book categorization, memorial books belong to the limited edition category because it is published only for one occasion in a person's life, and the number of copies for each printing is very limited compared with the publication for commercial purpose.
Value: Memorial books are regarded as primary source in some fields such as Archaeology, Genealogy, and Social History that cannot be found in other documents. Particularly in cremation memorial books, the life story of a person, highlighted by impressive reminiscences of family members and friends always reflects the social condition and related important events of his time that cannot be found in other books, and thus enable readers to have better understanding of Thai society of a certain period. They are also information source for Thai novelists about their plots and character casting.
Important collections of memorial books
The important collections of memorial books in Bangkok are the National Library of Thailand and "The Memorial Book Library" in a monastery named Wat Bovorn Nives Vihara where search tools for an easy access to the information are provided, while public libraries of the Bangkok Metropolis have a memorial book corner, and either research or readers' services in academic libraries. In many countries, institutions that offer Southeast Asian Studies are also good resources of memorial books from Thailand. The increasing number of memorial book collections is really a good sign for this custom of information distribution.
Amporn Tikhara. "The National library" Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Vol. 43 Supplement 8. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1988.
Cave, Roderick. Rare Book Librarianship. 2d. ed. London: Clive Bingley, 1982.
Chaveelak Boonyakanchana. "Two Thai Books Used as Primary Reference Sources" Library and Information Sources in Thailand : Essays in Honor of Professor Suthilak Ambhanwong. Bangkok: Department of Library Science, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, 1997.
Conference Papers on National Library of Thailand. Bangkok: National Library, 1992.