‘From the Stacks: Highlights of the National Library’ Exhibition: Part I

`From the Stacks’ showcases significant materials from the National Library’s Rare Collection. From now until 28th August 2016, over one hundred artefacts comprising books, periodicals, manuscripts, maps, photographs and documents from 1701 to 1960 will be exhibited at the National Library Building.

The three curators of the exhibition spent over a year uncovering the stories and significance behind each item, and have put together a three-part series on their picks from the exhibition.

A Dictionary of the Malayan Language, in two parts, Malayan and English and English and Malayan

William Marsden

London: Cox and Baylis, 1812

Picked by Tan Huism, Deputy Director, Exhibitions, Curation and Rare Collections

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A close-up of Marsden’s Malay dictionary showing annotations by an unknown writer

Of Deputy Director Tan Huism’s many favourites in the From the Stacks exhibition, one of the most fascinating is the National Library’s copy of William Marsden’s (1754-1836) Malay-English dictionary published in 1812.

For centuries, Malay functioned as a language of trade and diplomacy in the cosmopolitan trading centres of maritime Southeast Asia. The ability to communicate with the indigenous population would have been crucial for any trading activity, so it is not surprising to find early word-lists and bilingual dictionaries to aid in the learning of Malay. While Marsden’s dictionary is not the first English-Malay bidirectional dictionary, it is the first academic study of the Malay language in English. His dictionary was also considered the dictionary of choice by British administrators in Malaya up until the early 20th century.

Marsden first arrived in Bengkulu, Sumatra at age 16. There, he developed an interest in the Malay language and the history of the island. He returned to England in 1779 after living in Sumatra for eight years. Marsden then joined scholarly circles, and in 1783 published History of Sumatra, cementing his recognition as a scholar. Publishing a dictionary was one of Marsden’s priorities; however, he only managed to do so in early 1812.

What is so unusual about the National Library’s copy of Marsden’s dictionary is that the entire dictionary has been rebound with an extra sheet of paper in between every leaf. These additional pages contain handwritten notes for certain entries – even the dictionary proper has numerous annotations. At the end of the book, there is a note dated Macao (Macau) 1825, which mentions that the person has ‘finished transcribing the manuscript part of the dictionary for Mr Marsden’. The identity of the writer and the purpose of the notes he transcribed remain a mystery. Marsden did intend to publish a second edition of his dictionary, but never did.

Apart from the curators’ favourites, there are many other ‘treasures’ waiting to be discovered, each one able to reveal fascinating stories about Singapore’s history, culture and society. Catch this not-to-be-missed exhibition soon!

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View of the exhibition section featuring the earliest publications in the library


From the Stacks is ongoing until 28 August 2016 at the National Library Gallery, Level 10, National Library Building, from Monday to Sunday, 10am – 9pm. Closed on public holidays. Free admission.

Updated on 21st July: The exhibition dates have been extended to 25 September 2016. Don’t miss your chance to see it for yourself!