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Suber and Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center Collaborate to Provide Open Access to Tibetan Literature

Peter Suber and the Harvard Open Access Project strive to make thousands of Tibetan texts free and accessible to all.

Tibetan Texts

August 20, 2013—Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project (HOAP) and recently appointed director of the Harvard Library’s Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC), in conjunction with the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC)—headquartered in Harvard Square—has been working  to provide global access to more than 17,000 volumes of Tibetan literature. Founded in 1999, the TBRC specializes in seeking rare Tibetan texts, and then digitally preserving, cataloging and disseminating the literature online.

The TBRC provides free access to the texts to Tibetan religious leaders and their translators and provides subscription programs for university researchers. “But our overall goal is to provide free and open access to these works. Our only sticking point is funding,” said Greg Beier, TBRC’s director of sustainability. Suber, who defines open access as “literature that is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions,” noted, “There’s a pressing need to provide open access to works that are already in the public domain. The appeal of this project is that the original works are objects of care and devotion, they’re rare and fragile and they’re all in the public domain. The Tibetan language and culture are endangered, and this project will preserve and share them.”

Beier and Jeff Wallman, TBRC’s executive director and director of technology, are currently working on fundraising projects to raise money for an endowment to support open access to their materials, including a crowdsourced campaign.

While one roadblock to providing open access to the Tibetan texts is financial, there is another. “There is a fundamental problem with making Buddhist religious texts open to all. It is not a copyright issue—copyright law didn’t exist in the 17th century. The issue we face is religious law. This literature is sacred,” Wallman said.

However, Wallman stands proudly behind the project. “I believe we are entering a new space in digitization and open access. Open access is the founding mission of TBRC, but the dialogue around putting this kind of material online needs to grow beyond the legal definitions of copyright and public domain into the ethical dimensions of use.”