Digital Innovations and Archival Materials
Digitisation and digital platforms offer transformational potential for the ways in which archival materials are disseminated. This blogpost will describe a recent digital heritage project – safarnama – an app that allows smartphone users to explore three curated collections of archival material relating to urban heritage in Delhi and Karachi.
It will consider the relationship between digital web and app platforms that incorporate digitised materials from existing archival repositories and explore the implications of curating and displaying archival materials in this way. What are the challenges associated with access, curation and sustainability?
Safarnama Heritage Project: using geolocational technology to displace the archive
The Safarnama app (available from the Google Play Store) is a freely downloadable app for android-platform smartphones. The app allows users to download three digital heritage experiences, themed collections of material that app users can explore on their phones. All content is downloaded onto the users phone and each contains between 50 and 70 geolocated ‘points of interest’ with which media are associated (see image 1).
‘Partition City, Delhi’, (created in collaboration with INTACH (Delhi), the Centre for Community Knowledge (AUD) and 1947 Partition Archive), maps materials relating to Delhi’s transformation between 1947 and the end of the 1950s, when the refugees were evicted from the settlement in Purana Qila.
‘Partition City, Karachi’ was created in collaboration with Pakistan Chowk Community Centre, Karachi, maps materials from the PCCC’s rich archive from 1947 until the end of the 1950s.
‘Gadhr se Azaadi’ was a collaboration with Seechange that contains media relating to the history of Delhi from the great revolt of 1847 to independence in 1947.
If app users are near a point of interest in Delhi or Karachi, they receive a push notification on their phone, alerting them to a nearby point of interest and digital content (see images 2 & 3). In this way, smart phone users can encounter ‘ambient’ heritage in small bursts, and in several languages, as they travel across these cities. The archival materials incorporated into the experiences are brief, based on the assumption that users will give information about the history of their location no more than a couple of minutes of their time before their phone offers them something more inviting.
The content of each experience consists of a range of archival materials in a variety of digital formats (text files, jpeg, pdfs, mp3, mp4). All materials incorporated are either in the public realm or were made available under a private licensing agreement.
Materials in the public realm included materials from: National Archives of India, Delhi State Archives, 1947 archive (text files), Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Getty’s Open Content Programme, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Families in British India Society, Wikipedia, the internet archive, Library of Congress (Prints and Photographs), the Rijksmuseum, Hindustan Times and the Times of India.
Special permission was sought and licenses obtained for materials from Life Magazine, Centre for Community Knowledge (AUD), 1947 Archive (audio recordings), the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting (Photograph Division) and the All India Congress Committee papers (Nehru Memorial Library and Archive).
The safarnama project demonstrates the potential of digitally mapped heritage to ‘decentre’ heritage conventions and to map new narratives of the past that depart from familiar and linear. The safarnama project is an attempt to use handheld devices and geolocational technologies to put digitised archival ‘back’ into living landscapes.
Instead of being sequestered within archives and arranged according to institutional conventions of archival arrangement, safarnama uses a google map layer and push notifications to allow app users to encounter archival materials on their phones as they move around Delhi or Karachi. Geolocational technology allows place to become the key index of the past, bringing archival materials out of repositories and placing them into conversation with the landscapes to which they relate.
Digital platform formats also present unprecedented opportunities to combine archival materials in new ways. Safarnama points of interest combine archival materials to bring together a range of disparate materials out of archives: photographs, paintings, maps, textual materials, literary accounts and oral testimonies.
This unique ability allows app users to explore a variety of iterations, and even alternate and contentious, accounts of a place’s past. Conversely, materials brought out from these repositories and placed into urban landscapes can potentially serve as digital ‘breadcrumbs’ that can make app users aware of the collections held by nearby, but underused, repositories.
Historians as a species
The safarnama project raised a number of unexpected and significant questions about the role of academics and curators in identifying, editing and assembling information for these platforms. We are accustomed to quietly exercising our disciplinary expertise in archival research and then publishing articles and books which synthesise archival materials as evidence for our arguments.
However, safarnama presented materials in a fairly raw form with clear acknowledgement of provenance and only minimal, or no, interpretative text. During the safarnama project, invitations to historians to contribute materials tended to be met with enormous, initial enthusiasm followed by discrete backtracking.
The project has tended to confirm that historians tend to implicitly regard the archival materials we collect perhaps not as our own property, then certainly the produce of significant energy. We retrieve materials from archives in order to create, and evidence, presentable and publishable outputs.
As a species, we tend to be reluctant to share archival information in which we have invested significant time and energy; instead we prefer to hold our materials as private archives from which we draw to publish our own narratives and arguments. Before and beyond publication, we tend to be circumspect about sharing our raw materials or details of their archival provenance.
Digitised Archival Materials
Safarnama allows us to compile and share archival materials in a new way to new audiences but the format also changes the terms of our archival and authorial pre-eminence.
This project is one of several digital heritage initiatives that have innovated in collecting ad curating native digital content.Augtraveller, India Lost and Found with Amit Pasricha, Sahapedia’s Cultural Mapping projects at Fort Kochi and in Pune are among several projects that, like safarnama, use digital platforms to assemble and disseminate historic information. Some of the data used by these platforms is archival, some is crowd sourced and others commissioned. These initiatives raise a host of questions about the relationship between public and proprietorial materials. Each of these projects raises important questions about the proprietary rights and commercial uses, of archival mateirals. The potential commercialisation of crowd-sourced digital materials or materials taken from archival collections raises a host of important questions for how the transformations effected by digitisation should be shaped by Historians.
The creation of Safarnama was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK, and Lancaster University. Being publicly-funded, it has an a priori commitment to being free of charge. The software used is open access, the provenance of all archival materials is acknowledged and neither its materials nor the platform will be commercialised.
Digitisation and digital archives are a sphere of entrepreneurial activity. Indeed, the creation of proprietary data, whether derived from the migration of material from archival digitisation projects or through the creation of native digital content, is defended as the only sustainable model for digital initiatives that exist outside state-funded archival digitisation projects. These projects require content to be placed behind a paywall in order to fund software development, marketing and database maintenance. Digitisation brings democratisation of access only if the planning and placement of materials is placed at the forefront of project design.
Archival historians must be vigilant of the transformations effected by digitisation and digital platforms as previously public (if not particularly accessible) archival collections are transformed into proprietary and commercial collections.
Image 1: ‘Pictorial tour around India…’, John Murdoch, 1894, Christian Literature Society, Courtesy, British Library on Flickr
Image 2: “A Gazetteer of the Province of Sindh, etc” 1876, Hughes, A. W., Courtesy British Library on Flickr
Deborah Sutton is Senior Lecturer in Modern South Asian History, at the University of Lancaster, where she teaches courses on, Histories of Violence: How Imperialism Made the Modern World, and ‘These Beastly Obscenities’: Monuments, Images and Antiquities in Imperial India. Her publications include, Gordon Sanderson’s ‘Grand Programme’: Architecture, Bureaucracy and Race in the Making of New Delhi, 1910-1915, in South Asian Studies, ‘So called caste’: S. N. Balagangadhara, the Ghent School and the Politics of grievance, in Contemporary South Asia, and Other Landscapes: Colonialism and the Predicament of Authority in Nineteenth-Century South India, 2009.