Access to Asian Archives

Marco Roling is project manager at the Centre for Global Heritage and Development. His work focuses on creating accessibility and promoting the use of the VOC archives in Indonesia, together with the Institute for History of Leiden University.

VOC archive Anri


The National Archives of Indonesia (ANRI) takes care of many Indonesian archives, including that of the former Dutch East India Company (VOC). With more than two kilometers, this UNESCO memory of the world archive is larger than its counterpart in The Hague. Five years ago The Corts Foundation (a Dutch NGO) started a project from scratch with ANRI to digitize and publish parts of this archive that has an estimated ten million pages. Personally I was involved in this collaboration project from the very start, focusing on long term digital preservation and the design and development of a publication process and  Indonesian website. My growing interest and fascination for this old archive encouraged me to think furthermore about how to get real access to the textual contents. This led to many initiatives to facilitate scholars and the general public by providing articles, book publications, digital inventories and index databases. Results are published in the Indonesian and English language on the website of

For a long time the VOC archive was regarded as the legacy of the colonial period and not intensively studied in Indonesia because of its historical sensitivity. However, today a new generation of scholars in Indonesia has a growing interest in the archive. It contains so many fascinating stories and events about the early modern history of Indonesia being an important hub in the Asian trade system. So this old Dutch archive can actually be regarded an Asian archive and studying it supports the continuing development of the national identity of Indonesia with her thousands of islands and a diversity of cultures. However without the proper support and education less and less people in Indonesia are able to read and understand the 17th and 18th century Dutch language. It is imperative that these archives are made more accessible, readable, interpretable and usable for anyone who wants to be involved in uncovering the common past. Fortunately, for many years Leiden University Institute for History facilitates research and education programs for Asian students to enable them to learn paleography, understand archival principals and study asian history (see: ). In this way a young generation of scholars is encouraged to use Dutch-language primary sources.

The Corts Foundation and ANRI meanwhile work on scanning and online publishing of the VOC archive in Indonesia, and creating index databases and visualizations that support access to archival series like the Daily Journals, Resolutions and Diplomatic letters. This work is done in close collaboration with archivists, historians and history students. In June 2017 four history students of Leiden University will work as interns on the project to complete person and location indexes on the so called ‘Marginalia op de Daghregisters van het Casteel van Batavia’. They will also complete a set of document descriptions of the archive series of ‘Bijlagen bij de Resolutieboeken’. Another challenging activity in the project is the start of an Asian glossary. It involves terms that were used in the Dutch-language sources and important to understand when interpreting texts. Some of these terms are actually Javanese or Malay and need to be translated and explained.

Another big challenge lies in the application of innovative techniques for providing access to the contents of handwritten archival sources. Last year the Centre for Global Heritage and Development, together with the Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (RCE), signed a Memorandum of Understanding to join the READ project. This European project aims to develop machine learning tools to support Handwriting Text Recognition (HTR). Some archive scans show damaged pages with paper coloring, ink corrosion and text bleeding, thus the optical legibility can be poor and may be unsuitable for HTR. The th[INK]back initiative tries to make a contribution by providing test sets to the international community of the READ project, by inviting scientists to participate in multi-disciplinary research and hopes to develop and promote new image processing tools to enhance the results of archive mass digitization. Currently one PhD student is working at Delft University to further analyse image computation techniques.