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History rots, history preserved June 26, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Nelson, Barbara, South Asia - General , trackback

Barbara Nelson

A recent series of articles on the India Ink site of the New York Times highlights the woeful state of many Indian archives and libraries, but also points to some positive developments. The situation in India contrasts with the picture painted by Kevin Greenbank of the film and oral history collections of the Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge. (Reel Histories: The Film and Oral History Collections of the Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge). In both cases, digitisation is an important tool for preserving and making archive collections available.

India’s archives and library collections suffer from decades of neglect and mismanagement. Dinyar Patel outlines a complex of reasons – historical, bureaucratic, climatic – that have led to the current situation. Archives and libraries are responsible for collecting, storing, preserving, organising and providing access to materials. In the past, Indian government departments were reluctant to release their records to the archives. Those records collected were poorly housed leading to problems such as attack by insects and moulds, damage by heat, humidity and water, and theft. In some cases, poor preservation techniques led to further damage. Lack of interest by government led to lack of funds and adequately qualified staff not being appointed.

The good news is that since Mushiral Hasan was appointed director of the National Archives of India in 2010, positive steps have been taken to collect, preserve and improve access for scholars.  Hasan has managed to prise material from government ministries and has hired more than a hundred staff to repair documents. Patel reports that Hasan “has presided over a major effort to scan and microfilm some of the National Archives’ oldest holdings. So far, more than 225,000 pages have been digitised – including Persian and Arabic manuscripts, early East India Company correspondence, and rare maps.”

The appointment of historian Mahesh Rangarajan as the new director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has also been welcomed as a positive move.  In addition, some libraries such as the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna, and the Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur, “have maintained excellent traditions of preserving pre-British era books and manuscripts.” (Patel) Recently the Meherjirana Library, a Parsi institution in Gujarat, gained support from Unesco and the National Archives to restore and fireproof the library’s building, to repair books and manuscripts, and to microfilm collections.

The Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge, was established in 1964 when Zohra Sehgal, who recently turned 100, appeared in the first series of Doctor Who. The Centre set about not only collecting but also actively creating archival material. The first director, Ben Farmer, appointed an archivist, Mary Thatcher, to collect papers from ordinary Britons who had lived in India. They then felt that the Indian side of the story should be told also and began to record oral histories of major Indian figures in the Indian independence movement. They later moved on to recording British oral histories, and collecting photographs and film. The oral history tapes were not played for years due to the fear that they would be damaged, so they were transcribed. Now both transcriptions and original recordings are available from the Centre’s website. The website also gives access to the Centre’s photographic database, which has details of about 30,000 of their archive of 100,000 images. The film collection is now completely digitised – most of the collection is available online and is freely available for use in the classroom. According to Kevin Greenbank, meeting the enormous cost of the digitisation project was helped by selling footage to the BBC.

The South Asia Archive & Library Group, representatives of libraries and archives in the United Kingdom with South Asia-related collections, runs a blog which includes news of current and completed digitisation projects. The blog page also lists links to the webpages of South Asia research organisations and digitised research collections.


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