Sun, 07 Sep 2003

Read on - Jassin center offers literary treasure trove

Lie Hua, Contributor, Jakarta

A pack of junior high school students swarmed into the narrow reading hall. With beaming faces, some of them grabbed the magazines on display, took a seat and were quickly absorbed in the stories, taking them a world away from noise-filled Central Jakarta.

Others wandered over to a large picture of Chairil Anwar, staring up at the hard lines in the face of the pioneer in Indonesian modern poetry.

Tucked behind shrubs in a corner of the Taman Marzuki Arts Center at Jl. Cikini Raya 73, the HB Jassin Literary Documentation Center is like a cave offering up a treasure trove brimming over with delights, the likes of which are usually found in a Stevenson adventure story or Chinese martial arts potboiler.

The center is named after HB Jassin, who, upon his death in 2000 at the age of 83, had earned the title of the "pope" of Indonesian literature for his dedication to the documentation of Indonesian literary works.

His four-volume Indonesian Literature in Criticism and Essays confirmed his position as the most ardent -- and still unparalleled -- critic of modern Indonesian literature. In his lifetime, budding writers knew they needed the acknowledgement of this towering literary figure; if he chose to write something favorable about a new writer's work, the latter was destined to get a place in Indonesia's literary arena.

He was also renowned for his nearly complete documentation of Indonesian literary works, including handwritten manuscripts of a great number of famous literary works and clippings of everything connected with Indonesian literature.

Realizing the need to preserve the documentation for generations to come, Jassin donated his collection to an institution named the HB Jassin Literary Documentation Foundation, set up on June 28, 1976.

The collection is grouped into six categories: criticism and essays, prose and poetry, drama, translation works, biographies of writers and special subjects. The collection is made up of 16,816 titles of fiction works, 11,990 titles of non-fiction books, 457 titles of reference works, 772 titles of drama books/scripts, 720 files of writers' biographies, 15,552 files of clippings from the mass media, 571 titles of papers, 630 titles of theses and dissertations, as well as a great number of audio and video recordings.

An officer of the center, Isnain, told The Jakarta Post that mostly school and university students from home and abroad visited the center. Foreign researchers often do their library research at the center for months at a time, finding it an invaluable resource.

Despite its copious holdings, it's a small facility, located on the second floor of the building with only one long reading desk and about 10 chairs. However, Isnain said it has undergone improvements in recent years, mostly thanks to corporate donations; the ceiling has been replaced and the room is air- conditioned.

In an interview with Tempo Interaktif early this year, the center's current chairman, Endo Senggono, said that the center was currently scanning its books and other documents.

In the first stage, only old and rare collections would be scanned, with completion scheduled for 2004.

Funding remains a problem. Senggono said the center received Rp 70 million from the Jakarta administration annually, a sum far from adequate for optimal operations. For example, the air conditioning cannot be turned on 24 hours a day -- despite the dangers to old books in a tropical climate -- and the center has to wait for the "kindness" of writers and publishers to donate their new books.

He added that Rp 2 billion would be needed as perpetual funding for the upkeep of the center.

To make up the shortfall, the center organizes regular literary and arts programs to raise funds. In addition some prominent community figures who love literature have set up a partnership circle for the center.

It collects Rp 200,000 annually from its members and publishes a newsletter about the activities of the center. This association also organizes fund-raising activities and seeks donations from individuals and companies.

In his address on the first-year commemoration of Jassin's death, noted Indonesian poet and critic, Prof. Sapardi Djoko Damono, stressed that efforts to introduce literacy -- including cultural literacy -- must be coupled with the establishment of libraries and literary documentation centers, or else a newly literate people will soon again sink into illiteracy.

As the world marks International Literary Day on Sunday, it's time to reflect once again on Jassin's lasting legacy, reflected in the faces of those young students so hungry to get a chance to read.