Digitisation and Private Records–The Case of the Regional Archive

One of the less known functions of state archives in India is the periodic acquisition of records from the general public at regular intervals. These are in the form of voluntary contributions that are solicited through advertisements for particular kinds of private collections, depending on the nature of the archive and what its administrators think is a useful and appropriate addition to it. On our visit to the Delhi Archives we were explicitly informed that this was a place for collections or documents pertinent to the interests of the Delhi Archives, but the Delhi Archives were emphatically not interested in what was of ‘national significance’. Materials of the latter kind, we were told, were to be given to the National Archives of India. Unfortunately since the person in charge of the acquisition of manuscripts was away, we were not be able to obtain more information about how contributions are determined to be of importance to the Delhi archive or not and the process by which they are obtained, or see a list of what in fact had been obtained in this way over the years.

The Delhi Archives appear to function quite autonomously as far as the acquisition of records of this kind is concerned; the TNA on the other hand works through one of the Regional Committees for the Survey of Historical Records. These Committees, whose members include the Assistant Commissioners and Collectors of District Record Offices in different parts of the country, are the decision makers as far as private records are concerned; a registry of these records is maintained at the National Archives. According to the Citizen’s Charter of the TNA, the Committee’s aim is to ‘to survey and collect the rare records of historical administrative, legal and fiscal value in the hands of private persons to strengthen the history of India and to bring to light such records… to preserve them for posterity’. These records have to specifically pertain to the period before 1947; examples of contributions that would be welcome include ‘palm leaves, copper plates, letters of high dignitaries, deeds, correspondence volumes, books, journals, etc., relating to the freedom movement, photos, any assignment of lands to the East India Company, or the British, religious customs, endowment of property to any charitable purpose, deed of Zamins, Polygars, Newabs, Samasthanams, Rajas, any notable events in the British Rule, etc’.

The acquisition of materials of this kind at the TNA ceased at least twenty years ago. The TNA does keep a list of these materials, and after some pleading, I was able to take a look at it (although the names of many of the contributors are now missing).  They include for instance, the Pudukottai Residency records; various zamindari records including for instance, Sengampatti and Ramnad; Portuguese documents (Regimento Auditorio; Ecclesiastico de Archbispado Primacial de Goa Eda Sua Relocao Anno 1810); a collection of papers relating to the late Chief Minister and film actor MG Ramachandran (MGR); autographs and photos of nationalist leaders as well as sundry Hindi and Persian documents. The person in charge of these records explained that the criterion for accepting contributions was above all, their age. He mentioned the fact that many a contributor was turned away when they had collections pertaining to the post Independence period (the MGR papers being, of course, an exception to this rule). The issue of regional relevance that was emphasised in the Delhi Archives was not brought up here at all. It is interesting that after the linguistic re-organisation of South India, there was an attempt, following an assumed political and linguistic logic, to separate and distribute the holdings of the TNA to Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. This logic does not extend to the private holdings which are required to be of national rather than regional significance.

One problem that clearly surfaced in the course of my looking at the acquisition of private records by the TNA is the lack of any sort of formal legal arrangement between the families that possess collections and the institutions who wish to acquire them. This is particularly important because these collections often possess sentimental or other kinds of value for the families, which have to be acknowledged and respected even as they become part of public repository. The issue of digitisation also throws up various points. At a very basic level is the issue of conservation. While the TNA is digitising its holdings, private records are left untouched. It is unclear why this is the case; in all likelihood, it is because they are not considered a part of the TNA’s holdings. The archive is merely their guardian (this for instance is also true of land records which do not fall under the digitisation scheme because the TNA is merely “housing” these documents for the government). Given the eclectic nature and often geographically and linguistically diverse range of the private records at the TNA (and other regional archives), there is no doubt that users of archives would benefit greatly from online catalogues of these collections. And finally, while the official British themselves occupy little space in the public imagination of Madras, the range of private records the TNA possesses might well attract new users, both scholarly and lay, to the colonial archive.

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