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Tobunken – Sainsbury Institute Research Collections Database Project

This month marks seven years of our first-ever collaborative database project with the esteemed Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (also known as Tobunken), for which an agreement was signed on 24 July 2013 at the Sainsbury Institute in Norwich.

For the last couple of decades, online databases for academic research have developed rapidly as the internet has become widely available. Only in the last decade, or even a half of it, a vast number of databases in Humanities have been created as technological advances have made it possible, yet it is unknown how many of them are already disused or have even been abandoned. Online databases have established themselves as indispensable resources, not only for academia but also for general use, and it is no doubt that this unanticipated lockdown has accelerated the demand on online resources even more. However, creating databases is time-consuming and cannot respond to the surge of need quickly enough.

Tobunken, the heart of academic research activities on Japanese arts and cultures since it was founded in 1930, started data collection on art-related information as early as 1936. It is certainly one of very few research institutions that have pursued their commitment to collecting art-related information and they have carried on the activities continuously, expanding on their initial mission more than ever. Recently, their several digitisation projects have made their vast collection, such as Mizue magazine and old exhibition catalogues, available online. Furthermore, Tobunken has developed the Tobunken Research Collections’ single search system,  which is comprehensive and cross-searchable, bringing together pre-existing, but independently developed databases by several departments at Tobunken, under one single system. It is now available online and open access to the public. Yet, their content had been limited to information on exhibitions that took place in Japan and publications in Japanese.

The Tobunken – Sainsbury Institute Database Project began to remedy this limitation with the Sainsbury Institute collecting information distributed in English on Japan-related art exhibitions and film festivals that took place outside of Japan, as well as publications in English. As demands on the database grew globally, recording information only available in English manifested its own limitations. It now includes all information regardless of language, except for Japanese. Recently, we have taken a further step to expand the project with other research organisations, gathering further information in the world. The first step was with the Japan Art History Forum.

What makes databases accessible and useful in the long-term always needs careful consideration. In the online world, nothing is permanent. Information is continuously created and can disappear equally quickly. The Tobunken Research Collections database has tried to follow the Zeitgeist and is still expanding by developing new functions and including additional information. Information on exhibitions and film festivals retain their original weblinks in their records. Keywords are replete, covering a wide range of possible search criteria, especially names of contemporary Japanese artists who actively work outside of Japan, as the distinction between inside and outside of Japan is fading apace. While DOI links (permanent identifier of online publications) are applied to academic publications, they are now being added to our existing records in order to accommodate an academic online environment. Recently, kanji variants have become searchable from the English page. Tobunken is currently developing a linking system within the search results to link other records without returning to the original search results, which is already available in the Obituary database. Much more has been planned to improve and upgrade the system, to correspond to a rapidly changing online environment, for the next couple of years.

Notwithstanding that only a small amount of information is searchable in English in relation to Tobunken’s extensive databases as well as their digitised archives, the numbers of accesses to the database from outside of Japan have remarkably soared 440% over the past six years, whereas the overall numbers of accesses have increased 340% during the same period. Significantly, last year over a quarter of the total number of accesses were made from outside of Japan.

Databases require continual updates and maintenance. Stability is the key to making them reliable sources for academic research. Tobunken has been able to fulfil such requirements for over nearly a century and we believe that they will continue to do so in the future. The Sainsbury Institute, for which research is a core component of our mission statement, will pursue working closely with Tobunken on our database project and contribute to research activities in Japanese art and archaeology.

Please visit the Tobunken – Sainsbury Research Collections Database Project on our newly developed website and discover the breadth and depth of Japanese art and archaeology.

Miwako Hayashi Bitmead
Japanese Arts Database Officer

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