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Libraries in the global village

Print edition : Aug 17, 2002

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NO library - not even the best, having the widest range of material in their areas of specialisation - can claim to have a "complete" collection. The growing multi-disciplinary nature of research also poses serious problems for researchers in search of material.

There is a renewed interest among Western scholars about South Asia. The earlier colonial mindset, which resulted in valuable books, periodicals and other material being carried away to the West, has given way to a more enlightened approach. The Centre for South Asian Libraries (CSAL) works on the principle that material need not be carried away physically; indeed, it advocates that even in the region, libraries need not try to assemble all the material in one place. Rather, the idea is to generate a library service that gives researchers across the world access to material. The idea of sharing resources rather than appropriating them has thus caught on. The opportunities that information technology offers in this task are considerable.

James Nye, director of the South Asia Language and Area Centre at the University of Chicago, points out that scholars face two fundamental problems: identifying material and accessing them. The CSAL's collaborative framework with the participation of institutions in the U.S. and in the subcontinent, attempts to address these problems. Scattered and unconnected libraries, often with valuable collections, remain inaccessible to researchers, says Nye and refers to the case of Urdu. He says: "Although the total number of book titles published in Urdu almost certainly exceeds 200,000, the number of Urdu books one may locate through the on-line catalogues of libraries around the world is less than 40,000. Even if one takes into account the fact that most libraries in South Asia with significant holdings of Urdu have no on-line catalogues, it is certain that many of the titles important for Urdu studies are not available at any major research collection in the world."

Nye also refers to the case of the India Office Library, which only subscribed to a handful of periodicals in the regional languages of South Asia, "contrary to the false impression of many scholars from India that the India Office collected a copy of every publication produced in India during the British Raj". Nye says that as a result of this "highly selective coverage", it turns out that the Telugu and Urdu collections at the SVK have extremely rare material.

The first step in the task of bringing libraries together is the establishment of detailed catalogues so that researchers know where the material they want is available. The problem of converting local South Asian scripts into computer-recognisable formats has been rendered easier by the development of the Unicode.

"Digitisation," says Nye, "encompasses electronic finding aids, images of pages, conversion of texts to machine-readable files, and other techniques." Different methods have to be adopted for different kinds of material. For instance, dictionaries would need to be "searchable"; mere images of pages would be too cumbersome for users. The first step in a venture such as the one being made by CSAL is to create indexes for periodicals and on-line catalogues of library holdings. Once this is done, material can be shared among institutions and, through them, researchers.

The CSAL has not been carried away by the euphoria over the Internet and the Web. In fact, Nye and others such as James Magier, president of CSAL and founder of SARAI (South Asia Resource Access on the Internet), which is recognised as the most comprehensive portal on scholarship on South Asia, has asserted repeatedly that online content accounts for barely one per cent of the material that is published physically.

Nye told Frontline that Urdu had been an important language for South Asian research at U.S. universities since the 1950s. Although Telugu has held less importance, he says: "Following the events of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has devoted considerably more money to support language training for South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian languages. We are expecting to see more universities offering language instruction in Urdu and Telugu, as examples. Given these changes, it is more important than ever that library resources such as those at the SVK be available in those languages to support advanced scholarship."

The cataloguing of Telugu books at the SVK forms an important part of an international project linking libraries across the world. The preparation of catalogues for the Telugu collection has been easier because of the relative ease with which the script can be converted to the Roman script. Anwar Moazzam, honorary director of the SVK's Urdu Research Centre (URC), told Frontline that the "Romanisation" of Urdu text has been far more problematic because it is not amenable to easy conversion. He explains that the diacritical marks in Urdu, in particular, posed serious problems. The SVK has now engaged a Hyderabad-based software company to solve this problem. When this is done, it will be possible to enter the data in Urdu and get it converted to the Roman script directly.

Anwar Moazzam says: "There are libraries with books but there is no library service for readers and researchers. There are no indexes and bibliographies for the Indian languages. The government is also not aware of the importance of using research data or of making them available to the people. There is no separate head or grant for libraries in budgets. The SVK is trying to fill this gap." He points to the fact that newspapers and periodicals as source material for research have been under-utilised by researchers. He hopes to computerise the research data at the URC in two years.

The URC is also developing ties with other major libraries with Urdu collections - the Aligarh Muslim University, the Khuda Baksh Library in Patna, the National Library at Kolkata, and other collections in Delhi and Rampur.

Magier has argued that the concept of a library has changed in the last century, turning into a "warehouse of materials" for use by researchers. In order to perform this function libraries need to communicate and share resources with each other. Cooperation is thus the key word. Libraries that reach out to similar institutions will be better positioned to serve their users.

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