The Archive and the Indian Historian

If we could eavesdrop on informal conversations between historians on their use of state-owned archives outside of metropolitan centres, we would probably chance upon a rich trove of stories. Many of these would have to do with the tragi-comic experience of accessing, finding and handling precious material that is sure not to survive the conditions in which it is stored. The uppermost thought and feeling when working in a small archive in India therefore, is usually an anxiety about the mortality of the document.

Yet, the conditions of preservation are scarcely the only concern when we approach the question of the archive here. In fact, without embedding the archive in the many questions surrounding it, it is unlikely that issues of preservation can be broached fruitfully. The issues listed below try to approach that initial question – what is to be done – and the possible answers to it.

Of late, a proliferation of questions and concern around contemporary archives has foregrounded some of the assumptions underpinning print archives.* These could be seen as a development on the perspectives that have disrupted the sanctity of the historical document in itself. The place of the archive has been assailed from many quarters, whether from the Foucauldian suspicion of the logic of the archive, or the critiques of history that point to the divide between history and memory, public and private, or, from the subaltern perspective, between history and other ways of experiencing time.

One strand of this critique that emphasizes the constructed nature of the archive against viewing it as a precious and accidental trace also emphasises the variety of users and uses that open archives enable.** Archives of the contemporary that allows users to catalogue, edit, comment and add their own data pose some challenging questions to a conventional approach to the archives.

If we could typify a ‘conventional’ approach, it would be one that sees manuscript and paper archives solely as a source for researchers alone, or as a pedagogic appendage, or as a national legacy, held permanently in safekeeping away from those whose psyche it is supposed to buttress. For the historian-researcher, the view of the archive as a precious and irreplaceable trace from the past is an instinctive reaction to handling an ‘original’ document. It is that instinct that makes the question of whether or not the state can and should be a repository of the archive a tortuous one. If we revisit the print archive with questions emerging from contemporary archivists, it is still difficult to detach oneself from the compelling fragility of the document. Its potential transience in fact reinforces the idea of its accidental survival from a ‘different’ time and space, and the need to restrict its handling to a careful few. The historical document in an age of mechanical reproduction threatens to remove the experience of handling the original from the grasp of the historian.

Yet most historians would probably agree that as a generality, taking an average archive into consideration, the state’s role in preservation until recently, could be summed up as exercising tight control on disappearing documents.

Most of the conceptual questions that are implicit in the critique posed by contemporary archivists are not new to historians. However, efforts to extend this to the material existence of the archive have not had the same success, and this is where there seems to be a gap between what contemporary and non-contemporary archivists are able to do. A very different picture is conjured up by the contemporary archive with the potential access it offers to non-specialist users. The uses and needs that emerge from non-specialists cannot be imagined in the context of the state archive. Often, though this is not usually made explicit, the imagination of the contemporary archive, dislodged from the sanctity of the national, pedagogic or academic ideal, implies a digital format and the increasing possibility for the user to recategorise and signpost different aspects of a collection.

While archives of the contemporary are not necessarily celebratory, and often indicate the differential access and rights of digital publics, they nonetheless do not address those areas that the conventional historian is most familiar with.*** All of these skirt around the relatively unreachable government archives, or privately held collections. The transition from print to digital format does not ensure that issues of state ownership, access and generating potential different users for archives will be addressed. In fact the Indian historian who is the bridge between the University and the state archive can only too easily imagine continuity across the transition to another technology.

On another note, the transition to digital technology and private ownership has actually presented the historian in India with a further quandary. The digital archive in a well-funded private university setting such as can be found in the US, or in a state institution as in the UK enables holding organizations to use digital technology to ‘complete’ their archival collections, drawing in private collections from countries that cannot afford preservation and enhancing their own closed holdings. While such institutions cannot have access to Indian state archives, it is an indication that technology alone does not resolve questions that require another sort of intervention.

The question at hand:

It may be well to set aside a nationalist perspective here, for it can be argued that those forbidden by the Indian government from accessing pertinent archives are well served by the fact that these exist elsewhere. The issue here is that while currently the archives continue to be housed and controlled by national institutions, we probably cannot retain a nationalist perspective to address the question of archives anymore. Aside from being positioned between two approaches: a rapid acquisition policy with respect to private holdings and a relatively inaccessible state policy, we could also be seen as the (illegitimate?) repository of other national holdings. For instance, the Central Library in Goa at one point in time was the holding library for Portuguese empire in the ‘East’ or the Estado da Índia. It therefore has a large collection of official government publications from Africa. Communities disaffected from the nation see their archival holdings as illegitimately if safely housed in dominant regional libraries. Each area could possibly produce varying positions vis-à-vis the nationalist perspective and not just about illegitimacy of ownership. These will be rendered untenable if one sustains a singularly nationalist perspective on the archive.

What is at issue is that we currently have a restricted number of print archive models at hand. The most dominant are the stateist and the knowledge economy model. The knowledge economy model seeks to make a single repository such as a well-funded University library the single largest holding of historical material; an asset into which other Universities can buy. As an instance, we could cite the South Asia projects of the University of Chicago, which, while it makes funds available to rescue private collections from disappearance, also has a centralizing vision that converts archival collections into a private asset.**** How do we, as historians of India (and perhaps necessarily Indian historians) situate ourselves with respect to these two models?

Quite simply, we, as an assorted group of users, don’t have the resources to buy private archives, and would be opposed to (in any case impossible) state control over these. As a first move, there is a need to shift from seeing ourselves in relation to the state archives alone, or as a relatively silent entity positioned between the state and the knowledge economy, dependent on individual research grants for a few to access overseas archives.

We could instead consider the possibilities that technology holds out to enhance control, centralization and exclusivity, or to dissipate it. We could focus on questions of access; on who potential users are; on mutually recognized open access policies between institutions, and on finding interest groups and archive-related projects and other contexts for use of the archives.

A discussion on state and private collections may have to consider different approaches and collate different kinds of information to be able to intervene in defining the possibilities of archiving. Most fundamentally, these approaches would stem from considering who the current owners – economic, ethical, political – of these archives are, and whom they could possibly be, what form could archives take and what routes of dissemination could they have?

A conceptualization of a notion of commons, or public good may be a beginning point to envisage who owns the archives, who cares for them, who uses them, and how. This space is intended as a beginning point, in the hope that as historians we can form some kind of entity that will have a public voice. If you have suggestions for what kind of entity we could be and ways in which to begin thinking of a public domain and repository other than the state for archives, reply to this post, or to the more specific questions and posts below.

*By contemporary archives we refer to those housed by SARAI in Delhi or the recently launched (Public Access Digital Media Archive), an open access video archive that allows users to catalogue, edit, comment and add their own data.

**See for instance, Arjun Appadurai’s ‘Archive and Aspiration’

***See Lawrence Liang, ‘Global Commons, Public Space And Contemporary Ipr’

**** See the proposed Urdu Research Library Consortium into which members can buy shares, at


7 thoughts on “The Archive and the Indian Historian

  1. Dear Friends,

    I would like to draw attention to a few issues that are not directly related to State archives but are nevertheless related to the points you raised in your posting.

    1. North American university funding has been a lifeline for a number of libraries. While it is true that the efforts at preservation is aimed at recreating the archive in the US, there is the local copy (the microfilm, the digital copy) which can, at least in theory, become public. Of late there has been some discussion on how this might happen and the need for networks of Indian libraries and sharing of catalogues, etc. This is one of the areas in which I would like to Public Archives to take the initiative. I am sure RMRL, Chennai and Sundarayya Vignana Kendram, Hyderabad, to name just two major libraries, would be willing to be a part of the initiative.

    2. Private ownership of materials that are valuable for certain kinds of research is perhaps going to be inevitable in the years to come. Indeed the creation of private collections might be one of the ways by which such material is preserved. At least in part this is a direct consequence of the refusal of the official archives and public libraries to preserve certain kinds of materials. I have in mind for example, the standard sources for research on popular cinema: let alone state archives, most libraries do not preserve back issues of film magazines. RMRL has a better collection of material on Tamil cinema than the National Film Archive of India. RMRL, as legend has it, began as one individual’s collection. The private collections of the future will in all likelihood be very different. Osian’s comes to mind as a possible model for the 21st century private collection. I am told that the Osian’s collection will become available to researchers in the years to come. But most other collections of its kind are unlikely to have any public interface. Not unless we can make a case for why a private archive, which is guided by economics, should let us have access to its collection. Or Osian’s makes it for us.


  2. Dear Srinivas,
    Thank you for the first post on the blog.
    Being one of the authors, I must admit contribution of some of the US University libraries for rescuing several important documents and enable access, at least to physical copies within India besides making them accessible in US for scholars working on South Asia (and personally I have no prejudice against such a policy). I am almost sure if University of Chicago did not respond to the appeal of Sundarayia Vigyana Kendram following the flood and consequent damage of thousands of Telugu and Urdu books that washed out, would have been lost for ever. Also I doubt, exactly at which point any Government agency of the state or centre of the Government of India would respond to their appeal. Also, if University of Chicago ignored the collection of Mutthiah and transfers those to a newly formed library, RMRL, way back in 1994, then, we, those are familiar with the collection and the responsible staff members of the RMRL, know that very well that the family members of R. Mutthiah would have been thrown away the entire collection. Not only that, a digital library, primarily denotes, access to cataloguing records through well distributed open access system. As an organ in South Asia of the University of Chicago, RMRL, start computing cataloguing records electronically right from the beginning and that is now accessible as public access. The highest body of knowledge bank of the Government of India, The National Library in Calcutta, that emerged from the good old Imperial Library of the colonial government, even after pouring too much of money and effort out of public exchequer over last ten years, yet to able give any public access to their cataloguing records only. On the other hand, besides cataloguing their own collection RMRL is also providing technical support and training to other libraries, whenever approached, in electronic cataloguing and public access system. Also no one can blame RMRL for any close-door policy; rather their door is wide open. Even if the documents are not available as electronic image from any portal, but if a scholar, from any part of the world, took that much of trouble of reaching Chennai and just knock the door of RMRL, then everyone will enjoy a warm welcome, the credit mainly goes to the able leadership of Baskaran, the former Director and present trust member of RMRLT, Sundar, the present Director of RMRL and his nice colleagues and not for any external power.
    Now the questions in hand are: why we are so much dependent on US initiatives? Just one instance, following the Vernacular Press Registration Act of 1867, all presidencies, as part of monitoring mechanism began publishing quarterly list of printed literature published form the presidency. After too much of effort, we, at the CSSSC managed to microfilm almost complete set of Bengal Library Catalogue of Books, but we have accessed the only set lying at the office of the Registrar of Publications, West Bengal and most of them were beyond any state of recovery as on date of access. Interestingly, The British Library, where those documents supposed to move have only few sporadic volumes, and now for a collaborative project with University of Chicago, we have to depend on the microfiche copies of the document preserved at the University of Chicago Library, for all missing or damaged pages of the document. Also, when we attempted to retrieve several print catalogues of Bengali, Assamese, Oriya and Urdu books published in between 1880s and 1920s, we failed to get a single copy anywhere in India, and finally after approaching University of Chicago Library, they sent a ten kilogram packet of print-copy of those published print catalogues. So you are right in saying that US funding is lifeline for several smaller archives, I would also like to add, Indian academicians, if well connected with US Universities then can enjoy access to South Asian resources much better than resources available in India.
    But again come to the old question by keeping aside the history and politics of development of such a resourceful collection in the US only over last fifty years, why again we are so much dependent on US “lifeline”, isn’t it a failure of Indian institutional policy and of the Government? The only successful project, in terms of archiving beyond typical state archives of government records and documents, is of course, the National Manuscript Mission. Again, contrary to our vision of access to archive, the documents are not available through any online public access portal, and while attempting to search their database, the page keep displaying the same phrase for last two years that they are working on the database. Only, personally we know they have retrieved several important manuscripts from different sources, so, one can presumably access the copies at IGNCA, and after clearing too much formality compared to RMRL.
    Again the question in hand is, is their any possibility of creation of preferred access for Indian language and visual documents by Indian institutions? If yes, then why we can not create a working platform of existing archives only rich with resources from each corner of India? We have posted this little to initiate a productive argument aiming at such project. A successful consortium of institutions with good access policy can help us if not coming out, then, at least reduced dependence of overseas archives and their uncertain patronization. We, working with South Asian documents, say the community of historians, sociologists or archivists, both in South Asia and in developed nations, how reach the local resources are, the only problem is still most of them are hidden, and this is high time to make them visible.
    (some of the views in the mail are personal and may not reflect views of my two other colleagues, but we can continue debating for better health of the proposed consortium)

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful note, and the questions that you have posed, which are timely and require urgent attention and responses.

    Speaking for myself, needless to say, most of my work over the last 20 years has been with state archives, and many official collections. This said, I have felt the customary resentment of those from not-Delhi about the location of a vast amount of material pertaining to contemporary Indian questions, in the form of private paper collections, and party collections, which are unavailable to scholars from other metros and provincial universities at NMML. One would imagine that the new forms of data sharing that carry the promise of democracy, would actually be used to decentralise this valuable resource. As far as I am aware, no such move is afoot, and that makes the “trip to Delhi” mandatory for those working on contemporary India. From this perspective, I am certainly supportive of any measures that will enable scholars across India to be able to access materials from elsewhere.

    This said, I have no degree of familiarity with recent developments in the interface between Indian collections and US/other advanced capitalist universities or funding agencies and their control of materials in exchange for the resources to preserve. However, there is a structural problem, as far as I can see.

    There is a wide gap between those who conceive, plan and run these institutions that are keen on preservation/access etc., and those who perform similar tasks in a subcontinent like India. Given the shared historical experience of colonialism, Indian officials who conceive/run archives have usually been the kind who take the term conservation quite literally, and do everything to prevent scholars from accessing the materials. The situation has been exacerbated by the Right to Information Act: Karnataka State Archives which was notoriously lax in its policies of lending files, provided you convinced them of your sincerity, is now citing RTI as a reason for tightening up and making the limited time available even shorter!! So as long as archives are peopled and run by those who may not necessarily be end users, and usually are government servants, as in the case of Karnataka, this problem of access will persist, even in relatively well preserved collections like Karnataka’s. (Incidentally, as I mentioned in person, there are three noteworthy things about the KSA. One it has an excellent collection of Private Papers, and two, it has done an interesting job of publishing archival material under various heads, thereby undermining the very “scarcity value” that archives are supposed to promote by definition. THe third is that all catalogues have been digitised)

    In order to level the state-private/university collections hierarchies, (one which enjoys monopoly of official materials, another that commands resources which may ultimately only exacerbate divisions between privileged and not so privileged scholars) there would have to be a greater fit between their goals. This is not going to happen in the near future, except through the most powerless link, the researcher/user. On the basis of what power can such users intervene? I am not sure of the modalities of such intervention.

    To my knowledge, there are no academics on the boards of the archives (In Karnataka they come under the Kannada and Culture Department: Karnataka State archives is one of the few that has migrated from being headed by an academic to being headed by a state government official).

    Re: archives that can be brought into some kind of dialogue, I would like ask whether it is possible to have sets of newspapers such as Vishwakarnataka (which is scattered across various collections) to be made digitally accessible. This might be a feasible option that could include State archives, private collections, etc. and a serve as a starting point for a dialdgue that is mutually beneficial.

    Hope these scattered and very spontaneous thoughts are useful.

    Janaki Nair
    Professor of History
    Centre for Studies in Social Sciences,
    Kolkata 700 068

  4. Dear Janaki,

    Thank you very much for your comments. In the coming weeks, we hope to talk further about the possibilities — and problems — associated with digitization. We will also discuss the various models in terms of the acquisition and dissemination of archival material, focusing in particular on the relationship between Indian institutions and collections and universities based in the United States ( in particular, the University of Chicago).

    As far as academics on the boards of archives are concerned, we have just learnt that Prof Neeladri Bhattacharya is on the committee of the National Archives this year, which is good news. But I think you are right, by and large these boards tend to consist of government officials and bureaucrats.


  5. Abhijit, Aparna and Rochelle, these are very thought-provoking posts on something that we all love to complain and share anecdotes about – you have started a very urgent discussion on archival practices in India. It is refreshing to see the politics and conceptual questions surrounding preservation made an integral part of the conversation about the urgency of the process itself.

    Some of the comments have already addressed major relevant issues about differential access in the new digitized knowledge economy, the disparity between metropolitan and local archives (within India too) and the question of non-specialists and access to archives. I just wanted to make two points about thinking further about different kinds of users.

    When thinking of specialist and non-specialist users, don’t we need to think about the variety within this binary as well? Our colleges and universities, depending on location, resources and nature of degree offered, produce a startling variety even among specialist users, whose engagement with these documents is equally varied. This is not to judge the quality of engagement, but to simply say that the value of an “original” print document versus its mechanical reproducibility, or its hallowed location in a state archive versus in a private archive is likely to not be uniform, and already determined, over the last century or more, through rather diverse archival and scholarly practices.

    Speaking for Maharashtra, mechanical reproduction of “original” documents through vast numbers of printed volumes, the transcription from Modi to Nagari script necessitating their alteration in the process, has been an integral part of historical research over the last century. This has produced paradoxical responses to the idea of an ‘original’ – enhancing its idealized value while literally doing away with it. But in physical terms, it has also blurred the boundaries between libraries and archives, with the result that many professional users too may not always need to go to the hallowed state archive for their specialist research.

    This raises some questions that might perhaps be useful when thinking about greater democratized access in the years to come – How have these existing practices already impacted the notion of access? Has the reproduction of materials outside the physical archive enabled greater access? How might print reproduction and digital reproduction differ in their promises of demystification and democratization?

    One grey area between specialist and non-specialist users are perhaps students – critical to any discussion about the nature of archive use in coming decades. A trip to the archive is like a rite of passage right now, for fairly senior masters’ and doctoral students, the idea being that they already have the conceptual and practical skills to tackle it by then. But can archives be made part of the pedagogy of history even earlier? One of the biggest lacunae in our education system is the lack of critical source criticism in school and college curricula. Can digitization, with the question of wider access at its core, enable demystification just by making these documents part of the regular conversation about history in school classrooms? Actually, even as I type this, am not sure if it should be the converse – will integrating critical approaches towards the archive and primary sources in classrooms enable a more fruitful discussion on democratized access? I guess what I’m trying to say is within the world of specialist users, pedagogy too should perhaps figure in this conversation about the nature of use.

    After reading your posts from the summer onwards, my anecdotal observation of the Pune Archives suggests that visits by regular citizenry for copies of land records, especially from an important 19th century commission’s records, is one of the most important, if not the primary, forms of traffic to the archive, specialist or non-specialist. It it worth examining empirically, archive by archive, the extent to which funds from fees of land record copies are critical to state archives across India? Wonder what the the actual mapping of such non-specialist traffic will yield about the importance/marginality of professional scholars to such institutions.

    Anyway, have already rambled on enough. Thanks once again for a very interesting and stimulating set of posts, and I look forward to carrying on the conversation.

  6. Hi Prachi,

    thanks for the post. Am actually contemplating embarking on a study of users of land documents in the Goa archives as well, because it seems to be the singular point of access where all kinds of users in fact are allowed entry to the archives which otherwise are off limits. Am wondering if an argument can be made about making at least those accessible through other technologies since they are being viewed on a daily basis anyway. Perhaps retaining a mechanism by which the government can continue to earn some revenue. We now have an idea of how this works in Tamil Nadu, Goa and, with your post, Maharashtra.

    There are actually innumerable pedagogical uses for archival material. Would be fun for instance to dig up documents that have been discredited in later disputes for being fake, or ‘misrepresentations’ etc. also the sheer bulk of trivia that can be dug out holds immense possibilities for demystification.

  7. Dear Rochelle, Aparna, Abhijit,
    Just wanted to congratulate you all on raising these important questions about access to archival materials. I’m impressed by the way you have formulated the problems, and by the way you are letting us glimpse the sites (eg the Goa museum) where the issues are being played out.
    Hope to contribute more substantially to this conversation someday! If you need help identifying and making contact with archives across Karnataka I would be more than willing to be of assistance.

    All best,

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