Endangered Archives

EAP188: Rescuing text: retrieval and documentation of printed books and periodicals published prior to 1950 from public institutions in Eastern India

Mr Abhijit Bhattacharya, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta
2008 award - Pilot project
£10,009 for 12 months

Project Overview

This pilot project will prepare an index of books from eastern India, available in public libraries in West Bengal and Assam but which are lacking basic preservation facilities.

The history of printing in Eastern India dates back to 1778, with the establishment of public libraries in Calcutta and neighbouring districts from the 1850s. These public institutions played a crucial role in the formation of civil society under colonial surveillance. They were not only hubs of intellectualism but also created a depository for documents emerging from within and outside the modern European disciplinary approach. Many contain unique books and monographs on subjects such as caste, religion, regional history and and social practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal.

The majority of public institutional libraries in eastern India are not adequately funded, with most of them running on voluntary services and very little in the way of funding from the provincial governments. This lack of funding is leading to a crisis for the documents in their custody, from damage due to lack of maintenance to pilering. Just the one example of Chaitanya Library shows that more than 5,000 of pre-1930 publications have disappeared since the production of the catalogue in 1936. Paper documents in the libraries are often laminated with cheap lamination papers that will lead to the total destruction of the document. Hence, the fragile nature of paper documents produced in colonial India and the lack of conservation measures make these documents endangered.

A survey will be conducted of approximately fifteen public libraries in these regions to identify unique books and periodicals published prior to 1950 - those titles that are already held elsewhere as shown by cataloguing records will be eliminated. Approximately 5,000 titles will then be prioritised for microfilming and digitisation as part of a future major digitisation project. The prioritisation will be based both on the nature of endangerment and the subject specific interest of the documents.

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Project Outcome

A survey was conducted of 18 libraries in the state of West Bengal and two libraries in the state of Assam. Most of the libraries had been established either in the19th century or early 20th century and were mostly based in remote areas and without any regular source of revenue. Information was gathered of all the available books in the libraries published prior to 1950 and a consolidated database of 26,579 books in Assamese, Bengali, English, French, Hindi and Sanskrit languages have been prepared in the form of English short title catalogue with minimum description and minimum attempt for classification and assigning subject heads. Obvious duplicate records have been removed.

After preparation of the database of 26,579 bibliographic records all combinations of titles and authors were checked on OCLC Worldcat and British Library Cataloguing data. This left 22,475 books as being unique and thus endangered as they are stored in a poor physical condition and in places with bare minimum infrastructure where the books are exposed to adverse condition. These books will be prioritised for digitisation in a future major project.

Survey report (PDF document 266KB)

Survey database (PDF document 2900KB)