Malay Manuscripts

Among Peace Corps Volunteers, many were faced with challenges for which we had no experience and, perhaps, for which we were not qualified in the United States.

In our group (Malaya IV) we had a few challenges:

  • Nurses in the rural areas (ulu) delivered babies.
  • Nurses prescribing drugs.
  • One English teacher taught javelin throwing (relying on “how to” from a friend in the U.S.)
  • One introduced a new (and better) breed of chickens.
  • Many were challenged by teaching in English to non-English speakers.
  • Librarians had to deal with little or no budget.

For me, I undertook two major challenges in addition to other responsibilities.

  • Learning, transcribing, making arrangements for choirs, making copies of the scores by hand, of many unpublished Malay/Indonesian folk songs. Teaching them offered little problem and the wonderful response made it fun. Recently, after almost 50 years, I published them, with an introduction explaining the challenges, on my website, under “Malaysian/Indonesian Folk Songs.
  • Creating Malay Manuscripts which is described below.

I’m not sure of the exact time line anymore but it goes something like this:

  • At the University Library, I was assigned to be head of public services.
  • Donald Wijasuria returned from England with his degree in library science and became my assistant. Donald was very good and I eventually recommended to Beda Lim, Director of the University Library, that Donald should take over. In this way it would make room for the promotion of a local. Donald eventually became Director of the National Library.
  • My 6-month tour of teaching music at the Malayan Teacher’s College had come to an end.
  • Not wanting to lose me, Beda proposed that I could take over and catalog the Special Collections. This collection consisted of a few original Malay manuscripts and many microfilm/microfiche copies of Malay manuscripts.
  • I also wanted to stay with the Library where I had made many friends. I agreed.

Alexander Pope, in his An Essay on Criticism, said “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” If Pope were alive today he would have said to me “Joe Howard, you are a fool.”

Everything was in Bahasa Melayu (Malay language). This alone would have been a challenge; however, by using Echols’ Indonesian/English Dictionary, I could probably could have muddled through.

However, nearly all were written in Arabic script (Jawi) It would probably take a lifetime for me to learn Arabic script. Undaunted, I asked Beda for help. He provided a part-time person who knew not only Bahasa Melayu but also Jawi! He helped me Romanize from the Arabic script (Jawi which is at the bottom of the sign) into the Latin script (Rumi which is at the top of the sign.) He was also helpful to me about the meaning. We were making slow progress when we had to stop.

Driving a motor bike, that I had use of every other day, a bus hit me, knocked me off. My shoulder was broken.

I had only gotten out of hospital, when I learned that my father was in a car accident on his way from Olustee, OK to Dallas OK. Peace Corps paid my way to Dallas to be with my father – and mother – who was also in the same hospital.

The Peace Corps office in Washington DC called, telling me that they were contacting Peace Corps Malaysia about whether or not I should stay in the States, terminating my contract 6 months early. Oh my! I had not finished my project in Kuala Lumpur (KL). Washington called me later saying I could return to Malaysia based on Peace Corps KL’s statement “If he can walk, we want him back.”

Back in KL, work continued. I had expanded the scope to include manuscripts available in various libraries throughout the world. [1]

Working at my flat in the evenings, I had the help of an old typewriter (very much like the one pictured here.) It was loaned by Ruth Daroesman, a dear friend who had also helped me greatly with my Malay/Indonesian folk songs. While I am a good typist, I was slowed down, not only by typing in a foreign language – even if it were in the Latin script – but also by the strength it took to use this typewriter..

I don’t know why but I remember typing the manuscript three times.

I turned it over to the Librarian, Beda Lim, shortly before completing my Peace Corps term and returning home to the United States.

Beda Lim, Librarian, wrote a letter to the Peace Corps Representative in Kuala Lumpur. It is so faded that it is almost impossible to read. Here is the important selected text:.

On behalf of the University of Malaya, we should like to thank the United States Government for providing us with the services of Mr. Joseph Harvey Howard, Peace Corps Volunteer.

Mr. Howard served in the Library from 12th June, 1963 to 28 February 1965. During this period, he assisted in the re-organization of the Reader Services Division, the reclassification of the Library collection, and the catalog of our extensive microfilm collection. He also compiled a bibliography of Malay manuscripts which will be published by the Library.

Mr. Howard proved an excellent ambassador of his country, for his willingness to study and understand culture than his own enabled him to associate with Malaysians on terms of greatest friendliness. Always charming, courteous and polite, he was very popular with his colleagues in the Library. He also showed himself willing to adapt his working methods to the needs arising from the special problems faced in a setting to which he was not accustomed, and this is indeed a credit to one who comes from a society which has more highly developed techniques than are available to us. He brought with him many useful ideas which have improved the work in this Library.

We hope that this letter of appreciation and thanks will, in some way, help to repay Mr. Howard for his invaluable services.

Yours sincerely,

Beda Lim


I heard nothing more about it until, in 1966, I got 50 copies of the published version in the mail.

The first part of this bibliography is a catalogue of manuscripts and microtext copies of manuscripts available in the University of Malaya Library as at the end of 1964 … The second part is a numerical list of manuscripts available in various libraries throughout the world..










  1. These included:

    Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich; Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Bodleian Library, Oxford University; British Museum; Cambridge University Library; Indian Office Library; Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, the Hague; Perpustakann Lembaga Kebudajaan Indonesia; Preussische Staatsbibliothek; Rijksuniversiteit te Leiden. Bibliotheek; Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, Ireland, London; Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden; School of Oriental and African Studies Library, London University; Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg.

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