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Having worn many different volunteer hats over the years (including that of member of Pariyatti's original Board of Directors), Bill Hamilton has had a peek behind the scenes of several aspects of the organization. One of the projects Bill worked on was the digitization of the The Light of the Dhamma (LotD), a magazine published in Burma in the mid-1950s.
Bill’s first connection with Pariyatti was when it was still run out of Hayfork, where Linda Warren had set it up as a service for meditators. Rick Crutcher, who later took over Pariyatti, was editing the International Vipassana Newsletter out of VMC (Dhamma Dharā) at the time.
“There would be mailing parties at VMC of a dozen or so meditators. I was just one of these people,” Bill said.
Bill explained the newsletters would come from the printer in boxes. “We had to fold them, assemble any inserts and staple them. Among these inserts were half page lists of titles from Pariyatti. We also had to put mailing labels on the newsletters—usually the peel-off type; the sheets cut into groups according to zip-code.”
Each volunteer took a selected group of labels, stuck them on the newsletters and bound those together with an elastic band. “The Post Office would give a reduced rate for this pre-sorting. Some of the packages would go on to other countries or to foreign language editors for translation,” said Bill.
Together with his wife, Virginia, Bill later took on the editing of the VNL himself (a role he stayed in for about twelve years), and the mailing parties stopped. “We found that our printer could do all the above at the shop and mail them as well.”
By the time the mailing list had reached a 20,000 subscribers, the Vipassana course schedules and contact information were being posted online, and the editors decided it was time for the VNL to go digital (and for them to pass on the job to someone else).
So, when did Bill come up with the idea of digitizing The Light of the Dhamma (LotD)? “I found a stash of LotDs in the tape room at VMC. The old house that was the beginning of the center had a closet next to the AT room. All the course tapes were kept in there. High up on a shelf were a bunch of booklets and about twenty or thirty issues of The Light of the Dhamma. What a treasure trove! I don't know how they came to be there, but they had to have been brought from Burma. They were all in pretty good condition, although the later ones were turning blue, which must have had something to do with the available paper and ink after the military coup. They are still there on that shelf; last winter I got an email from Bill Crecelius (author of A Meditator’s Handbook) about his discovery of them.”
Bill (Hamilton) said he first asked permission from VMC to use the center’s copy machine to make photocopies of all the articles that could not be easily found elsewhere. “I decided to leave out the ones that had been republished in book form: The Manuals of Dhamma by Ledi Sayadaw, The Dhammapada Commentary Vol 1, (there was never a Vol 2), and The Five Nikayas (Translations by the Union Buddha Sasana Council).”
Bill said it had been a lot of work at first, as the technology was still quite primitive back then. “But I knew the value of these journals, so it seemed like something that needed to happen.”
The collection discovered at the VMC was not entirely complete, and it was more or less by accident that Bill managed to fill in the missing issues in what eventually became the Pariyatti collection. “Virginia and I went to the UK with the intention of looking for texts for another purpose. There was no Internet Archive then, and we had decided to do a bookstore crawl. Well, there was not so much available in the stores and the British Library did not let you rummage through their stacks. But the SOAS library allowed anyone full access to everything; all one needed was a day pass. That was where I found the entire series of LotDs.” Bill could even use their photocopier… Costs: a penny a page!
Back at home Bill scanned the photocopies. The scanner Bill used at the time had Visioneer software with an early version of OCR (Optical Character Recognition): which turned the photocopy scans into editable text format. “I would paste that into MS Word and proof it. This set up was about 5% of the work. The other 95% was reading the new document and fixing the typos and formatting. Of course, I wanted to correct any existing errors, and the OCR process created numerous errors that were not in the original,” said Bill, adding that he had found the proof reading actually a lot of fun. “I got to read interesting articles and contribute something valuable at the same time. Editing Dhamma material over the years has brought me into contact with a lot of valuable Dhamma thought and things to help my practice of Vipassana.”
“Just like with the articles re-published in book form, that I mentioned before, I chose to leave out things that were redundant. But I also chose to leave in other things even though they were truly dated (like ads for things that no longer exist), simply to keep the flavor of the old journals.”
Modestly, Bill mentioned that he found he didn’t do as well as he’d hoped at times. “I used one of my old efforts recently for research and found a few errors I could have fixed, had I been more diligent. My present scanner can generate PDF-files and I now use Acrobat Pro to do the OCR directly from the PDFs. The accuracy of the text is generally better now. With the Internet Archives, I can download a whole book as a PDF, and if it is not locked, I can turn any part of it into text.”
The OCR software did not recognize diacritical marks and Bill said it had had taken some doing to make sure that all the Pāli words were incorporated correctly.
“I needed a fast way to deal with them, so I figured out how to best use the ‘insert symbol’ function in MS Word to set up key combos. For instance, I used ‘CTL+ALT+a’ to get the ‘ā’. I set up each Pāli letter in that way and had it at a key stroke whenever I needed it.”
In the formatting department, Bill said he tried to make the edited result look like the original (if it was attractive enough to begin with). “I would use the same fonts, indents, etc., paste in any pictures; and save the final form in a PDF. I used Pagemaker for layout until it became obsolete; and later MS Word.”
All in all, Bill said the whole project took him a few years—working on it in his spare time. He said he had preferred working on it by himself, in order to make sure great care was taken with the editorial part. “I always tried to create a product that was as close to identical with the original as possible. I liked doing it so it was never a chore for me.”