History of the National Library & Archives of Bhutan
NLB Kawajangtsa, c. 1998
The National Library of Bhutan was established in 1967 under
the patronage of HM Queen Ashi Phuntso Choden (1911-2003) , with a small
collection of precious texts. The library was initially housed
within some rooms of the central tower (utse) of Tashichodzong
Later, due to its growing collection, it had to move to a building
in the Changgangkha area of Thimphu.
Realizing the need for a permanent and suitable building
to hold the sacred religious texts in the collection the then
Home Minister, Lyonpo Tamzhing Jagar, initiated the construction
of the present four-storeyed eight-cornered traditional building
designed in the form reminiscent of the central tower temple
of a Bhutanese Dzong.
This building, which now houses the collection of traditional
texts, was consecrated as a lhakhang or temple in order to
provide a spiritually appropriate environment for these religious
books which form the bulk of the collection. The inauguration
and consecration ceremony of the new National Library building
was held on November 23, 1984. H.E. Lyonpo Sangye Penjor, then
Minister for Communications and Tourism, inaugurated the building,
and the consecration ceremony was performed by H.H. Dilgo Khyentse
The cost of the construction of this building - some Nu.3
million - was borne entirely by the Royal Government of Bhutan
(i.e. without any foreign aid).
After completion of the building, the library finally moved to its permanent
home at the end of 1984 under the auspices of the then Special
Commission for Cultural Affairs.
Lopen Geshe Tshewang, a highly regarded scholar-monk, was appointed as the library’s founding director to oversee the collection and safekeeping of religious works acquired for the newly established National Library. A native of Bumthang, Geshe Tshewang received his monastic education at Tharpaling Gonpa (monastery) under Geshe Tenpa Rinchen, who had founded a monastic institution there for studying the thirteen fundamental treatises on Buddhist philosophy. He later studied at Drepung Monastery, one of the “great three” (along with Ganden and Sera) Gelugpa universities of Tibet. At the time of his appointment, Geshe Tshewang had just completed his term as Central Monk Body representative on the Royal Advisory Council.
When in 1968 the third king established a new department to oversee preservation of Bhutan’s cultural heritage, he appointed Geshe Tshewang as its head, placing both the National Museum in Paro and the National Library in Thimphu under his administrative control. Subsequently the government invited a young scholar-monk, Mynak R. Trulku, to come and help establish the library as its assistant director, so that Geshe Tshewang could concentrate his attention on the museum. In 1973 Geshe Tshewang retired and resumed the religious life in Paro. Mynak R. Trulku was then appointed director of the National Museum.
In mid-1973 Pema Tshewang, a scholar-monk popularly known as Lopen Pemala, was appointed as the library’s new director. Born in Zungai village, Chumey in 1926, he began his monastic education in Trongsa at the age of eight, studying there for a year. His parents subsequently admitted him to the newly established Nyimalung shedra (monastic school) in Chumey, where he studied under Nyimalung’s first abbot, Doring Trulku (the reincarnation of Do Khentse Yeshey Dorji, the mind embodiment of Jigme Lingpa) who returned to his native Tibet in 1940. Lopen Pemala had been deeply influenced by the training he received from his spiritual master in those few years, and later travelled to Tibet to study further with him. After returning to Bhutan he was for some years engaged primarily in tutoring, lecturing, writing and research. In 1961 Lopen Pemala was appointed as a teacher at the newly established Rigshung Institute at Semtokha in Thimphu. In 1967 he was assigned to the textbook division of the Education Department, where he played a major role in the development of the national language, Dzongkha, which hitherto had lacked a written form, to enable its adoption as a written language.
Released from the Education Department in 1971, he was called back into government service in 1973, to take charge of the National Library and build up its collection. On being transferred to the National Library, he authored the book “Khordey Lamsum” (Guidelines for Ethical Living in the Mundane World) a classic on moral science, religion and traditional beliefs. He further received instructions from His Majesty’s Representative, HRH Ashi Sonam Choden Wangchuck to write a well-researched history of Bhutan. In response, he brought out “Druk Selwe Doenme” (History of Bhutan: The Luminous Mirror to the Land of the Dragon), which to this day is a classic in its own right. (An English translation of the work by Dr. Jagar Dorji was released by KMT Press in 2013.)
When Lopen Pemala joined the library in 1973, there was no set of the Buddhist Canon in the collection. In 1975, the library acquired its first set of the Buddhist Canon, the Narthang edition of the Kanjur, an old block-printed set which had been purchased locally, and over the years Lopen Pemala acquired various other sets, both old editions and new reprints, from various sources by purchase, gift or exchange. In 1980 he established a printing section on the ground floor of the library premises, equipping it with a hand-operated letterpress. Also in 1980, he opened a small bookshop on the main street to sell religious texts printed and published by the National Library. In January, 1981 Yoshiro Imaeda, a Tibetologist working as a researcher in Paris, was invited to join the library as its adviser. During his nearly ten years
in Bhutan the library adviser set up systems to document and organise the library collections, and also translated a significant amount of work by Lopen Pemala.
The National Library’s brief also included collection of carved printing blocks for the reproduction of religious texts. At the time of the move into permanent accommodation in 1984, there were 4,000 wood-blocks in the collection, mostly comprising works transferred from different monasteries for better preservation. A microfilming project started in 1987, and at his discretion, the director also arranged for new printing blocks to be prepared from some important works called in for microfilming for the collection. When the carving work had been completed the National Library would print the work and sell copies through its bookshop. Several thousand blocks were carved from 1987 to 1992.
No account of the development of the library under Lopen Pemala would be complete without acknowledging the major role played by Gene Smith, first as a consultant at the Library of Congress New Delhi field office and then (1980–1985) as its director. Through his interest and efforts the New Delhi field office acquisitions program was extended to include the reprinting of texts from all five lineages of Tibetan Buddhism which refugees had brought with them to the Indian subcontinent. The National Library bought a small proportion of the Indian reprints, and Gene Smith himself donated to the collection over 800 volumes of current Indian reprints of Buddhist literature in Choekey. Bhutan was also included in the Library of Congress South Asia acquisitions program and the assured sales made economical the reprinting (in Delhi) of old and important works. The National Library’s own collection benefited greatly under this program.
During Lopen Pemala’s tenure, a large collection of literary treasures was amassed, and the principal works in the collection were microfilmed. Lopen Pemala had been able to identify and then secure many privately held old and rare manuscript editions of religious works for the collection and to obtain microfilmed copies of other works held outside, primarily through his standing as a highly respected scholar monk. Lopen Pemala retired from his distinguished career in May, 1993 and was subsequently appointed as Lam (Abbot) of Nyimalung, where he had begun his religious life so long ago. In recognition of his services, he was awarded the “Druk Thugsey” (Heart-son of Bhutan) medal in 1999, on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee celebration of the Fourth King’s reign. Lam Pemala continued teaching students and monks at Nyimalung until he passed away in March, 2009.
Library Development Project initiated under Gyonpo Tshering, 1993
When Lopen Pemala retired in May, 1993 deputy director Gyonpo Tshering was appointed officiating director of the library. He held the post until September, when a new director was appointed. In these few months Gyonpo Tshering and library research officer, Khenpo Phuntsok Tashi initiated the library development project later to be known as the Danida Project. In its five-year plan for 1993–1998, Danida (Danish international development assistance) an area of activity under Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had already named Bhutan as one of the main recipients of Danish aid. A team was soon despatched to Bhutan to assess the library development proposal. Returning to Denmark, the team presented a provisional proposal. A more detailed proposal followed later, after an autumn 1994 field trip by a research specialist in Tibetology. The groundwork had now been laid for development of a long-term, Danida-funded twinning project to assist the National Library, subsequently launched in 1996.
In September, 1993 Sangay Wangchug, formerly Under Secretary of the Central Monastic Body, was transferred to the National Library as Acting Director. Sangay Wangchug brought to his new post wide-ranging experience. Hailing from Punakha, he underwent monastic training in Nepal then studied Pali and graduated in Buddhist Studies from Sri Lanka. Later, he spent a considerable time in the USA before returning to Bhutan and joining government service. During his tenure, Sangay Wangchug introduced measures to encourage use of the collections. He widened the scope of the publications program to include English translations of important Choekey works, and also publication of original works on more general aspects of Bhutan’s culture, in English or Dzongkha.
Undoubtedly the most significant event of Sangay Wangchug’s tenure was the January, 1996 signing of a bilateral agreement launching a long-term twinning project between the National Library of Bhutan and the Royal Library, Denmark. The project was funded by Danida (Danish international development assistance) an area of activity under Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The aims of this project were to establish a modern national library and to identify and preserve the national written heritage. The project would be carried out in three phases and was expected to take many years to complete. Under the first phase, a database of the Choekey literature would be compiled. Further phases would involve classification of the literature and the setting up of a library network for online searching of the database. A countrywide scripture documentation project would also be undertaken.
After the first phase concluded in April, 1999, a further three-year agreement to cover the second phase was signed that same month. A Legal Deposit Act would be presented to the National Assembly when it met mid-year, and plans for a separate but linked Archives Project were already well-advanced. Fairly early in his time at the library, Sangay Wangchug had also been appointed to the post of Secretary, National Commission for Cultural Affairs, and on July 1, 1999 he handed over the charge of the National Library to Ven. Mynak R. Trulku
Mynak R. Tulku
In May, 1999 Mynak R. Trulku, presiding incarnate of Rikhu, the leading Sakya monastery in the Mynak region of eastern Kham and director of the National Museum in Paro for the past 25 years, was appointed director of the National Library, formally taking over on July 1, 1999.
Under the fourth director the Danida Project gathered momentum. An extensive building and site renovation program was undertaken to enhance and refurbish the appearance of the National Library complex, and a separate Danida-funded project was launched to support construction of an Archives Building and the training of an archivist. The international profile of the library was raised in April, 2002 with the launching of its website, designed by the computer consultant then working with the Danida Project. Phase three of the Danida Project began in April, 2002 when a further three-year agreement was signed (this third phase was later extended twice, taking it through to October, 2007). Creation of records for books in the Choekey Collection was completed in mid-2003, by which time the Choekey Collection had been rearranged and grouped by school of Buddhism.
In July, 2004, the director arranged for new wooden cabinets with lockable, glass-fronted sliding panels to be made for the Choekey Collection, to replace the open shelving on which the books had hitherto been accommodated. When the work was completed, it could readily be appreciated that Bhutan’s religious literature was now appropriately housed in a secure and dust-free environment, and that the general appearance of the Choekey Collection had been much enhanced by the director’s initiative in the final phase of his tenure.
The library’s fifth director, Dorjee Tshering, took up his position in January, 2005, following the retirement of Mynak R. Trulku. Hailing from Trongsa, he completed his secondary and tertiary level studies mainly in the hill stations of West Bengal. An educationist by profession, Dorjee Tshering taught and lectured at teacher training institutions in Samtse and Paro for some years before moving into educational administration. Most recently principal of Sherubtse College, Bhutan’s premier degree college, Dorjee Tshering came to his new post with many years of service in managerial positions in the education sector. As a career educationist, the new director was keenly focused on promoting the library and its services. However, the main priorities during his tenure focused on building works, setting up of the Archives, and Danida Project activities in this very much IT-related phase of the Project.
For most of his time at the National Library Dorjee Tshering had dual responsibilities, as from late 2005 he was heavily involved with the Department of Culture’s forward planning for presentation of Bhutanese culture and traditions at the 42nd annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and to a lesser extent in preparations for the mounting of an exhibition in Honolulu, both events held in 2008. Dorjee Tshering’s emphasis all along had been on functioning as a team, and with good teamwork much was nevertheless achieved to publicise, internationalise and enhance the standing of the National Library during his directorship, in spite of the many commitments on his time.
An international conference and two conservation workshops were mounted as part of Danida Project activities. The library catalogue records were successfully migrated to an online database which could be browsed within the library itself via the local area network. A complete website re-write was initiated and after it was uploaded there would be full internet access to the library database via a link from the website. A new Administration Building was constructed to house staff offices, the National Library Bookshop, the Microfilming Section and the Foreign Books Collection. Conference facilities and seminar rooms were also provided for in the building. With the June, 2005 commissioning and consecration of the Archives Building, the National Library became the National Library & Archives of Bhutan.
In September, 2007 Dorjee Tshering was transferred to the post of Director, Department of Culture, Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs (Home Ministry), taking up his new position with immediate effect.
Gyonpo Tshering, chief research officer of the library’s Research Division, was formally appointed as acting director — the National Library’s sixth director — on July 1, 2008. Gyonpo Tshering had already been looking after the NLAB as its officiating director since Dorjee Tshering’s transfer to the Department of Culture the previous September. A native of Bumthang, he completed his higher education in Thimphu at the Semtokha Rigshung Institute. After graduating with a B.A. degree in Buddhist Philosophy, Gyonpo Tshering joined government service. He was transferred to the National Library as deputy director in 1989 and acted as officiating director from May to September, 1993 in the period between Lopen Pemala’s retirement and Sangay Wangchug’s appointment. The Danida Project was initiated under his leadership at that time. With his wealth of experience and detailed knowledge of the library’s evolution over the years, the new director was eminently qualified to shepherd the National Library through this final phase of the library development project which he himself had helped initiate fifteen years previously.
An Information Technology (IT) unit was established in January, 2008 when an IT officer was appointed to keep the network running smoothly and maintain the newly bilingual website, re-launched in February.
The move to the new Administration Building began in early 2008 and was completed in August when the Foreign Books Section took up residence on the ground floor. A major reorganization of the Choekey Collection in the Main Building took place after this and was completed within 2010. Major renovation of the Main Building began during 2010, when the premises were rewired and better lighting was installed. Concomitantly, it was agreed that the traditional lighting of a butter lamp on each altar on special days each month was a safety issue and should be discontinued. Electric candles were installed to provide illumination on the special days.
In December, 2008 Core of Culture, a Chicago-based organisation devoted to dance heritage preservation, presented to the Royal Government of Bhutan a video archive on chham (Buddhist ritual dances), filming for which had been done as part of a cultural exchange program between the government and the Honolulu Academy of Arts. A copy of this valuable record of Bhutan’s traditional dance culture was deposited in the National Archives.
During 2009 the Archives team surveyed the stock in the Main Building and transferred to the Archives all old and/or rare works still located in the Choekey Collection. Selective digitisation of works was also carried out. Outreach activities were introduced to promote and heighten public awareness of the Archives, and several major restoration and digitization projects were launched.
The NLAB is responsible for upkeep of Kuenga Rabten Palace, which in 1968 the third king had bestowed to the National Library for its eastern branch. Comprehensive renovation had been proposed under Bhutan’s 10th five-year plan (2008–2013) and in December, 2008 the director made a site visit to Kuenga Rabten, taking with him an engineer to assess renovation needs and also fire risk. All the recommended re-wiring, electrification and plumbing work was completed during 2009. The Kuenga Rabten branch library is well-positioned to become an important resource in a region now undergoing considerable development, and in 2010 the director widened the scope of the collection to include modern books written in English.
Members of staff were fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in a number of workshops, study tours and training programs, both at home and abroad, during this final phase of the Danida Project. Some activities were made possible through Project funding, whereas other opportunities for skills enrichment came down through official government channels, or as the result of direct invitation. Research and translation activities continued apace and several new and important books were brought out. Literary survey work continued, mainly during the winter months.
The twinning project between the National Library and the Royal Library, Denmark was formally closed on 11th October, 2010 in a simple ceremony held at the National Library to mark the occasion. The Danida Project had provided the necessary funding, impetus and also a carefully structured training program to shape development in the years ahead. The twinning project between the Royal Library, Denmark and the National Library and Archives of Bhutan had been a resounding success.
Harka B. Gurung
Harka B. Gurung
During the 14 years of the Danida Project the institutional capability of the National Library had been very much enhanced. The small library of earlier times had evolved into the National Library & Archives of Bhutan with three separate sections. Whereas in the past the responsibilities of director and chief librarian had been handled by one person, now the staffing structure was realigned to follow modern trends in library management. The directorship would be an administrative position, while the heads of the Archives, Library and Research Divisions would concentrate on their specialist roles. Chief librarian, Gyonpo Tshering would remain in post, while relinquishing the administrative burdens of office.
In November, 2010 Harka B. Gurung, formerly chief administrative officer of the National Environment Commission Secretariat, was appointed director of the NLAB. Originally from Samtse district, he completed his secondary education in Thimphu, then studied at Punjab University, India, graduating B.A. (Hons.) in English. Back in Thimphu, he joined government service, later undertaking postgraduate studies in Development Administration in the UK. Returning home, he continued to serve in the Home Ministry as a civil administrator until 2004, when he was transferred to the National Environment Commission in Thimphu. An experienced administrator, the new director was well-equipped to carry the NLAB forward as it entered a new and more challenging period of development now that the twinning project had finally come to an end.
Under the leadership of its first director for the post-Project era, the NLAB has continued implementation of programs that were still ongoing when the Project ended, and is also initiating new programs. At the initiative of the director and geared towards professionalising the library services, in mid-2011 two qualified librarians were recruited to the NLAB and posted to the Library Division.
The major renovation of the interior of the Main Building was completed during 2011, when a complete interior repaint took place and the floors were lacquered and polished. The painting work included the application of traditional decorative friezes on walls, supporting columns and crossbeams, and the crossbeams of the upper floors were further embellished with mantras written in the decorative Lantsa script.
In autumn, 2011 a Danish freelance professional filmmaker visited Bhutan to make a documentary about the NLAB. The director deputed a library research officer to coordinate activities for the team during their stay, also providing a vehicle and driver as required. The educational film concept The Legacy of Bhutan comprises a 24-minute documentary film about the NLAB and the Danida Project focusing on cultural preservation activities, and six short films each of 5 to 10 minutes’ duration, on different facets of daily life in Bhutan. The film package was very well received by Denmark’s Ministry of Children and Education and has been uploaded to EMU, the country’s education portal and the entrance to teaching and learning online. The films can be viewed on YouTube, and also at the Digital Himalaya website.
In 2011, the Research and Media Division acquired funds from the International Information and Networking Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region under the auspices of UNESCO (ICHCAP) in South Korea to conduct a survey of Bhutan’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Under this programme, NLAB staff of all divisions (and including the director) have been visiting communities of the various dzongkhags to make a brief documentary record of ICH practices in Bhutan. After conclusion of the project during 2014, the NLAB will bring out publications in Dzongkha & English on ICH in Bhutan.
NOTE: The following book, available at the NLAB bookshop, gives a full account of the history and activities of the NLAB since 1967:
Conserving our Heritage: Evolution of the National Library of Bhutan, by Felicity Shaw. 183 p. Illustrated with many full colour pictures. Thimphu: NLAB, 2013 (ISBN 978-99936-17-16-7)