Extending the Shelf


 Post-1947, what was once considered India is spread across at least three South Asian modern nation-states. Not only does this make trans-national access to archives a necessity, it opens up the possibility of recategorising regional and national archives according to the perspective of the researcher.


Following on this idea, we would like to create a consortium of institutions structured around the following possibilities:


We want researchers to identify groups, institutions, private collections or focus areas that would benefit if databases of different collections were linked. So for instance, if you could write back and suggest libraries across Bihar, Assam and Bengal that should ideally have a catalogue-sharing system at least, it would help us identify an archiving ‘region’. Or, identifying private or public collections across Assam, Burma and Bangladesh, however undoable this may seem right now, still helps us put in place a plan for the future.


A consortium would try to approach a group of such institutions and ask them if they would be interested in embarking on a catalogue-sharing programme, which would hopefully also lead to other interventions.


You are invited to write in with ideas for different libraries or archiving regions that can be formed. These need not even be restricted to immediate neighbours, but could be intra-state, or across continents, if mutually agreeable programmes can be drawn up.



2 thoughts on “Extending the Shelf

  1. Dear Aparna, Rochelle and Abhijit,

    Your thought provoking note of this summer underscores the urgent need to integrate conceptual understandings of archival systems and publicity, and the everyday practices (and challenges) of running and maintaining archives and information retrieval systems in India. As suggested, the most important issue at hand today concerns the growing power exercised by metropolitan knowledge networks over private library and archival collections in India, and the creation of virtual “real estate,” for the lack of a better term.
    In recent years, metropolitan institutions have greatly encouraged and enhanced digital information retrieval and transmission systems; they have also aggressively expanded their holdings, acquiring rare print collections from all over the world, including India. Undoubtedly, such acquisitions and their digitization have preserved precious collections from disintegration and dispersal while making them more easily available for scholarly research. At the same time, the process of acquisition and preservation has determined the circulation of these texts, endowing the digital artifact with a potent value, making it more than a digital copy. Digitization thus has meant speedier and more efficient circulation but digital information management, restricts access to members of acquiring institutions. It follows that digitization is now increasingly in the hands of companies who digitize a range of materials (archival and professional articles) and sell their collections to metropolitan universities—galenet, project muse, Athens, for example. We might say that metropolitan knowledge institutions (and this includes private companies and consortiums) have become the arbitrators of digital access, both agents of open access and digital enclosure, with long term and serious consequences for resource poor intellectual communities. And so the idea of creating a library consortium based in India is a timely one because it could enable Indian institutions secure more equitable forms of digital access. It is an effort that scholars who use archives and library systems in the subcontinent must support wholeheartedly especially because consortium building on the ground will be slow and will require sustained effort and resources.
    Several things come to mind here. First as scholars, we need to be more aware of the market structures that determine the distribution of texts and think about how we can help generate conversation around the issue of equitable digital access as an important component of preservation. It is a difficult task. In India, many institutions are poorly networked to the world-wide-web, and also lack basic resources to preserve their collections. The digital market seems far removed from the urgent issues at hand. On the other hand, resource rich institutions, often engaged with preservation and acquisition and who are big consumers in the digital market don’t necessarily think in terms of the implications of restricting general digital access. Despite or perhaps because of these difficulties, shifting the discussion to questions of access rather than merely the issue of digital preservation is important. The digital divide is truly vast—it affects research institutions based in the South. It also affects colleges in North America that primarily cater to students from non-privileged backgrounds serving to entrench the already overwhelming division of labor between “teaching” institutions and research institutions, gate-keeping who gets heard, what gets circulated and ultimately, what gets studied. This is not to say at all that digitization has only made a terrible problem worse: a spurt of digital archive projects, collaborations between archivists, curators and scholars, has successfully brought documents into the public domain (see for example, http://chnm.gmu.edu/collecting-and-exhibiting and http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv). Recent efforts have brought Jstor to some research institutions in India. But in fact, it is precisely the contestation over the digital landscape—the simultaneously expanding domains of enclosure and access—that serve to make the issue of circulation especially urgent. Two aspects seem striking. The first concerns the role of subscription based models of access. I would be curious to know more about the management of these subscriptions—for example, are they a dominant form of digital access? Are there varied subscription models or a single type that spans across a range of digital texts (professional articles, archival documents or manuscript texts)? Are there successful non-subscription based models? Are we seeing subscription based models for collections from the third world or eighteenth century texts but more open access initiatives for US local archives? It would also be interesting to know more about the Digital Library of India project: how would a consortium like yours work with existing projects like the Digital library, funded by Carnegie Mellon and the “million books project”?
    A second set of issues relates to textual form. Does digitization make texts uni-form—texts that in non-digital form would be accessed differently depending on whether they were located in an archival series, a library of printed books or a manuscript collection? Does digitization erase differences between archival and library retrieval systems? What does it mean to retrieve data through key word search and hypertext? There are also tangled issues of copyright at stake here such as the implications of prohibitive “reproduction” fees on texts not covered by copyright. It would appear that charging “reproduction” fees is a rather unsubtle policy to generate revenue, thereby drastically restricting circulation. But the fallibility of manuscript records and texts also need some thought–what are the implications of free digital circulation for current practices of assessing the authenticity of scribal documents, and hence, for the practice of history? Again here, I would be interested in knowing more about open access digital archives.
    Finally, it strikes me that both the idea of a library/ archives consortium and issues of digital access would need to be placed in the current context of mass digitization. Recent initiatives underway both by corporate organizations like Google and Yahoo, and networks like Open Content Alliance have produced a range of reactions in the United States. For an introduction see, http://www.dlib.org/dlib/march06/crane/03crane.html and Antony Grafton’s erudite, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/11/05/071105fa_fact_grafton . These are useful counterpoints to the digital utopians, but the absence of a geo-political analysis of the digital divide in both essays, suggests that the task is clear. There is much to be done.


  2. Bhavani, thanks for the response. I thought your questions about whether the digital image is seen as an equalizing and homogenising technology were very pertinent. The initial post does mention – unless we took it out – that it is the Indian historian’s physical contact with the decaying document that reinforces our or my compulsion to preserve, or to see this as fragile public, historical and cultural legacy, and therefore be invested in ensuring that its circulation is restricted to ‘people like me’ who have the ‘correct’ attitude towards the document. I thought actually, that the digitized document does break this link. It reduces the mystique of the original by potentially allowing access to the image and content of the document.

    I don’t think it is possible to address the range of experiences and questions involved in reading, writing or accessing the archives, but i do think that widening access to what are finally public documents even to journalists, will force a shift in proprietary attitudes towards documents whether on the part of historians or the state.

    Regarding the kind of caché that historians still enjoy having ‘found’ a ‘source’, I wonder if some would be willing to put their digitized findings online, since we now have a space for it.


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