Libraries in the hi-tech age

Published : Jan 17, 2003 00:00 IST



Interview with James Nye.

The concept of a library as a repository of knowledge is undergoing a profound change. Libraries can no longer afford to remain isolated from others specialising in their fields of expertise. Developments in the realm of information technology offer opportunities for libraries to share resources and disseminate them to a global audience of researchers as never before (Frontline, August 30, 2002).

The Centre for South Asian Libraries (CSAL), founded by the Columbia University, the University of Chicago and the Centre for Research Libraries (CRL) - a consortium of North American universities and research institutions - has initiated a major exercise in South Asia aimed at assembling, documenting and preserving the source material available for historians in the region. In recent years, it has initiated collaborative ventures with institutions in South Asia in order to assemble and preserve valuable historical source material available in the subcontinent.

James H. Nye, Chief Bibliographer for South Asia, University of Chicago Libraries, who has played a crucial role in the establishment of the CSAL, was recently in Chennai. He is also the Director, South Asia Language and Area Centre at the University of Chicago. Nye, a specialist in Sanskrit, particularly the medieval Indian texts, the puranas and the upapuranas, spoke to V. Sridhar. He recalls that his interest in libraries was sparked by the spell of "community service" that he was forced to do by serving in legal aid libraries because of his being a "conscientious objector" during the Vietnam War, in the early 1970s. He speaks about the CSAL, its activities and the need to preserve the legacies of the subcontinent. He advocates caution in using digital techniques in libraries for the task of preservation. Excerpts from the interview:

What is the CSAL and how did it emerge?

The Centre for South Asia Libraries (CSAL) has a long history. Its antecedents can be traced back to many other smaller, focussed projects. The South Asia Microfilm Project (SAMP) was started in 1962 by scholars in the United States to begin collecting rare material. Several historians, among them Robert Frykenberg, Gerald Barrier and Kenneth Jones, decided to start on a path of action instead of crying over the lack of resources. They began copying books from the British Library, the National Archives in India and various other sources. That programme is still on, based at the CRL. The CRL is one of the three legs of the CSAL.

Over time, we have come to recognise that there are major gaps. The British Library and many of the South Asian libraries have been strong in their historical collections. But there is an irony in this. Quite often, we would have an English translation of a major author - somebody like `Periyar' [E.V. Ramaswamy] for instance - but we would not have Periyar's original work. This motivated us to start some special projects or extend others which had previously concentrated on English works. We have made microfilm copies of literally all 19th century books in Hindi and most Urdu works of the same period available in the British Library. That project was going on reasonably well but it was inordinately expensive because of the costs of working in London.

We were also experimenting with other modes of activity, and working with colleagues in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. We realised that it would be wise to start with one selective bibliography, which was the National Bibliography of Indian Literature. We set ourselves the target of microfilming all the 55,000 books in the Bibliography. We were very successful. We got a large grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities of the U.S. government. This project, "Microfilming of Indian Publications", was started in 1990 and ended in 2000 (Nye indicates that he would rather not talk about why and how it ended). We were making good progress and along the way we realised that much more filming and preserving needed to be done. We also realised the need to build human infrastructure in India. We accomplished the task of microfilming about 25,000 titles in the Bibliography before we had to end it.

At some point you would have realised that there were other diverse material, outside those in the collections (such as those at the British Library), which had not been brought to the notice of historians. Did the CSAL and libraries in the U.S., realise at some point the need to access these source materials in South Asia? These collections are possibly more difficult to assemble because they are dispersed widely in the region.

It is an important point that you are making. You know, scholarship is changing all the time. If you were to look back at the British Library and the way it built its collection, you would see that it had a very canonical perspective of what was important to collect and what was not. It did not collect what a lot of people would now consider valuable. What kinds of folk tales were being published back then, in the 19th century? What kind of popular literature was being published? These are publications, sometimes in journals, that are often available quite easily in libraries in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But these are impossible to find outside. This means that preservation efforts also have to focus on the region. All these factors made us establish the CSAL and incorporate the regional institutions in the arrangement.

How did the CSAL come into being?

It came into being because we had opportunities for support in various ways from the federal government. We needed an incorporated body to receive the money into a large pot. We also needed a mechanism to distribute that pot of cash in the region. As David S. Magier (Librarian, South and South-East Asian Studies, and Director of Area Studies at the University of Columbia) said, after September 11, the U.S. government has opened the bank vaults for South Asian studies. We wanted to make good use of the resources and one of the ways for it was the establishment of the CSAL. It is still in its early stages; it was incorporated in January 2000.

The Council of South Asia Library Centres was established in 2002. The CSAL is a member of the Council. The Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL, in Chennai), the Sundarayya Vignana Kendram and the Urdu Research Centre (both in Hyderabad), among others, are all members of the Council. We are planning to add the Asiatic Society in Dhaka, and some from Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to the membership. We believe that one library per language or area of research for the various regional languages ought to take responsibility as the nodal institution in its area of expertise. Each of them would represent the cause and needs of the libraries in their respective fields.

What is the underlying philosophy the move to gather and preserve source material from South Asia? Indians would look at much of the material in London, for instance, as having been pillaged from the country by colonial rulers. How have things changed, and what is the new way of looking at historic source material in the West?

I think it may be too soon to say that there is a broad-based and new way of looking at this issue. But we are committed not to removing collections from the locations where they are available. This is a basic principle that we have taken as a given. This was first enunciated by A.K. Ramanujam, while he was teaching at the University of Chicago in 1992-93, just before his death. He played an extremely important part in the formation of the RMRL. He enunciated the principle that the material should never be allowed to leave the place where they are located. He said, quite convincingly, that there would always be more Tamil scholars in India than would ever be in the U.S. We followed the same approach when we acquired the Urdu collection in Hyderabad and we intend to do the same whenever we acquire other collections.

Once you have the body of material preserved, what is the next step? How is the information in a remote library disseminated to a global audience?

The starting point is the documentation of what is in the collection. Very few libraries in India have a good catalogue, let alone a catalogue on the Web. The exceptions are, of course, in the sciences. But if you look at the humanities and the social sciences, which libraries can you claim to have a strong presence in terms of documentation and making it available on the Web? Cataloguing is therefore the starting point. Scholars can then know what is available where and get some idea about how copies of it can be accessed for research. Preservation of the collections follows immediately after that.

We are planning to contribute all our data to these libraries in India so that they can build their database. To give you some idea, we have built a database on the Urdu collections in the region. We have gathered 35,000 cataloguing records in Urdu from various sources - the British Library, the Library of Congress in Washington, and from Pakistan and India. It is likely that the National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language will be joining in, to help us with the larger documentation programme. We have started with the collection at the Aligarh Muslim University and the Kashmir University. My guess is that within a year we may have more than one lakh bibliographic entries, but my estimate is that we may be able to generate three lakh entries of books published in Urdu.

Would you say that this is the most significant project in terms of size and scale?

It is hard to say. One of the things we have to cope with is the lack of detailed knowledge about how much has been published. We do not even know how much is being published now, let alone how much was published in 1940! For us it has been a significantly large project. But if you look at it in terms of the gravity of dollars (laughs), it has to be the RMRL. It has raised, from various funding sources, far more dollars than any other. A U.S.-based consortium consisting of nine libraries funds the Urdu project. But we have not had much cash flowing into the Urdu Research Centre. I hope that will improve.

David Magier has said that since September 11 funds for language studies in South Asia are more easily available...

The U.S. Congress has said very clearly that more resources need to be allocated to research on South Asia, West Asia and Central Asia. It has also put in a great amount of money to push this. There is more money for language studies, for building collections, and for hiring faculty to teach languages in U.S. universities. There has been a significant increase in the level of support for these activities. I believe that over $20 million was added for area studies at the university level last year.

What is the role of the library in the age of the Internet?

For social sciences in India, there has not been much change compared to what one might have expected. By contrast, if you were to look at the sciences, in Europe and the U.S., there has been a phenomenal change. Almost every single journal published in the sciences is available in electronic form. They are, of course, very expensive. The publishers have realised that they can set almost any price for the electronic editions. The libraries are being held to ransom. The economics of the digital environment would be an interesting issue to study.

There are no economies of scale that one would associate with printing, for instance?

No, not all. How does a free market work in circumstances like this? It is a very rapidly changing environment too. Libraries are also becoming more sophisticated in their negotiating skills with publishers. At the same time, publishers are also becoming more sophisticated in the way they package the publications. I am not an expert on this, but I have watched how the environment has changed. The proportion of budgets of research libraries going towards electronic acquisitions has increased tremendously in recent years. In many cases, the paper versions of journals are being dropped altogether. Libraries have had to make a decision on whether they will have dual subscriptions - for the electronic and print versions. They are finding that they cannot afford both.

Is that better or worse?

I do not want to make a value judgment on the issue. But I am concerned. For instance, if Chemical Abstracts goes bankrupt and if its data were not well maintained, what happens to those libraries that have relied exclusively on electronic versions of the journal? I think there are fundamental questions that have to be addressed. There are now enough paper copies that people can turn to. But we have gone through significant change. People have, sometimes too quickly, abandoned paper in favour of the electronic version. I say that partly based on prejudice, because when I read an article on the Net, I most often have it printed out. I have little patience to sit in front of a computer screen to read an entire scholarly article. I think that is true of many people who come to libraries. They would expect different resources for different purposes. Certainly there is value in being able to pick up the electronic version of the Journal of Asian Studies and doing a keyword search through the entire text of the articles in the journal. It enables us to find things that we may have otherwise missed. At the same time, to sit down and engage in sustained reading and reflection, we may always require physical paper material in front of our eyes. It is a major change, not unlike the arrival of the printing press, but we are still in early days to say how this process will unfold for libraries.

The electronic medium has also enabled the sharing of resources with libraries across the world. How has this impacted on libraries and what are the possibilities?

I think there are positive as well as negative features in the trend. Let me talk about the positive aspect first. The Internet has been a very powerful democratising force. People can share their material with others without having to undergo screening or censorship by other agencies. However, on the reverse side, there is no way of monitoring the quality of much of what is on the Web. Much of it is junk. One hesitates to ask students to refer to these resources because they have absolutely no credibility. The editing is sloppy and there is often very little attention paid to detail. I think we are still working out the details of how one can publish on the Web in a scholarly way.

But each library cannot possibly have all the works in a field. Libraries need to exchange information and share resources. The tools are there, but is it happening?

There is no question about the fact that IT has the potential to enable sharing. Whether sharing is actually taking place is another matter. Hoarding resources, rather than sharing, is what libraries most often tend to do. I do not know how one overcomes that. For instance, what are the inducements that can be given by RMRL to make it worthwhile for people to share resources with it? Film News Anandan's is an important collection, but it has been made available to the public only now because of its nationalisation by the Tamil Nadu government.

Maybe you will say I am a little pessimistic about human nature, but even though the Web has the potential it is not going to be easy to achieve the objective of sharing resources. There seems to be a resistance to sharing - sometimes at the level of the individual and sometimes at the institutional or national level. In the 1970s the government closed down access to scholars from overseas, claiming that Indian scholars should have the first right of access to manuscripts. I always fear that something like that will arise again, that the good work by institutions and people can be undone by government action. I guess I also have to be optimistic because of my working relationships with people. Some people - not everybody - are willing to join in and want to share these resources with other researchers.

How important is technology in the matter of preservation of books?

Maybe the fundamental thing is that it is the content that counts. Who cares about how it is delivered as long as it is available for scholarship. It does not matter whether one has to fumble with uncomfortable technology such as microfilm readers. Content is going to be the driving force. As a librarian, I would say that we need to be conservative. We need to be cautious and this often pushes us to choose microfilm. I know it is not a medium that people like to use, but it has a track record. We know that good microfilm will last 500 years. Digital images, anything electronic, who knows how long they will last? Even if the plastic platters of CDs (compact disks) are around 50 years from now, will we be able to find a reader (device) that will enable us to read them then? Fortunately, if you have a conservative medium like microfilm - or the most conservative, paper itself - you can always go back and reproduce again, using the latest technology. I believe that the strength of the digital realm is in the matter of delivery and distribution, rather than in preservation and conservation.

Why do you say that?

It is easy to make many, many copies of anything in digital form. It can be delivered anywhere. But, given the uncertainty about how long it will last, I would not want to stake my reputation on it. You can always re-scan microfilm to meet new digital standards, as they evolve. But being conservative, I would rather preserve the books in paper form first and where necessary, make film copies of them. There are people who specialise in the study of watermarks on paper. How would they be able to study them if they are only available in the digital form? And, there are people who study the role of binding in the production of books. How can they rely on digital or even microfilm versions?


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