India’s Troubled Archives and Libraries

India's history is literally rotting away in libraries and archives across the country.

The New York TimesIndia Ink has just recently published four pieces that I have written on the state of libraries and archives in India:

I: In India, History Literally Rots Away

II: Repairing the Damage at India’s National Archives

III: How Did Things Get This Bad?

IV: The Parsis, Once India’s Curators, Now Shrug as History Rots

For a country that is legitimately proud of its rich civilization, India can be remarkably callous about how it treats its history. Archives and libraries are, of course, only one aspect of what is in danger: one only has to visit other historical and archaeological sites in India to see how much heritage is being lost or is at perilous risk. It is hardly an understatement to say that, unless the Indian government gets serious about properly funding and staffing public archives and libraries, vast records of Indian history will literally turn to dust in the next few decades.

The problems associated with Indian archives are old. In the 1860s, the British Indian government became disturbed by the fact that Company records were rotting away and set up a special records commission. Allan Octavian Hume, who later went on to found the Indian National Congress, participated in committee proceedings. In 1871, he noted that, “Year by year the records are decaying; and unless some measures be adopted, it will, before very long, be found that, like the defunct Commission, the subjects of their investigations have dissolved themselves.” He urged the immediate publication of as much material as possible. Over 140 years later, as the historian S.R. Mehrotra remarked with disappointment, we face the same imperative: if conditions in Indian archives and libraries do not improve, then the only way to save important records will be to publish, photograph, or scan  them. A much cheaper and efficient method would be, of course, to improve the conditions at libraries and archives.

The idea for this series grew out of conversations I have had with other scholars, both Indian and non-Indian, while researching at the National Archives of India in Delhi during the past year. Over lunches and teas, we would trade stories of our experiences in various libraries and archives across the country. As I have mentioned in my article series, the sorry state of many of these institutions, and the destruction that is going on within them, is an open secret amongst scholars. However, due to the very real fear of institutional or staff retribution, we scholars mostly stay quiet and keep our complaints and observations to ourselves.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

In order for Indian archives and libraries to change, this attitude has to change as well. As scholars, we have a responsibility not only to craft history out of our sources, but also to make sure that those sources survive to be used by future generations. If we only go to archives and libraries to fetch out information for our own personal use—and shut out the egregious practices that are going on around us—then we fail in this responsibility. There is still a real risk in speaking out, but, over the past year, I have heard many admirable stories about scholars who have protested against bad practices and bad policies. In many cases, they have succeeded in getting change instituted—something that benefits all of us. In the Maharashtra State Archives, one Indian Ph.D. candidate from a British university alerted the director that staff were retrieving bound 19th century newspaper volumes by flinging them off 15 foot-high shelves. In the West Bengal State Archives, a British Ph.D. candidate helped reverse the institution’s policy against using laptops (see more below).

It is my earnest hope that this series prompts some discussion, both amongst scholars and within the Indian government, about why so many archives and libraries are in terrible condition, and what can be done to change this sad state of affairs. Below are just a few suggestions on what needs to change:

  • Climate control: It is high time that 21st century India move beyond having libraries and archives that are open to the elements. Many British-era institutions remain in structures that have been hardly modernized or improved since they were built. Enclosed, climate-controlled structures will greatly cut down on weather, insect, and animal damage, leave alone providing more comfortable working conditions for scholars and staff.
  • Reevaluation of preservation policies: Methods of preservation in Indian archives, especially those involving the process of lamination, have often been disastrous. I have seen whole series of records at the National Archives, Maharashtra State Archives, and elsewhere that are now barely legible due to lamination. Lamination not only cuts down significantly on readability; the material also warps, discolors, and becomes brittle over time. The R.C. Dutt Papers at the National Archives are a travesty: on top of being laminated, these papers were bound into volumes (and occasionally bound out of order). I have been disturbed to hear staff in the National Archives talk about the same methods of preservation for the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers and have submitted a memo to the director strongly cautioning against this.
  • Staff training: Archives and libraries continue to function largely on the backs of “peons” or “boys.” These individuals, while doing vital work such as retrieving files and cleaning premises (in addition to making tea and doing countless other errands for staff), are given shockingly little training by their superiors. Steven Wilkinson, a professor of political science at Yale, observes that, “Not much of an effort is made to educate the lower-ranking staff on the importance of the documents and their careful handling.” I have seen this first hand: Dadabhai Naoroji’s letters scattered on a dirty floor so that a “peon” could find the specific files I requested. Superior officers need to be held accountable for training and monitoring the staff under them. As Wilkinson continues, it is very nice to be served namkeen and chai at your desk, but this “demonstrates something about the archival culture.” The bottom halves of staff hierarchies need to become invested in the mission of the archives.
  • A meritocratic culture: A professor at the University of Mumbai recounted how the university’s Kalina library benefited from a diligent assistant librarian who was keen on digitizing and better preserving some of the institution’s oldest holdings. She took the initiative to purchase equipment and develop long-term plans for the library. What was the reward for her initiative? The University of Mumbai’s head librarian demoted this assistant librarian to a third-rate college in the suburbs: her diligence and motivation were upsetting work patterns and was considered a nuisance. Such stories are not uncommon. In both public and private institutions, initiative and hard work need to be rewarded: these should be the factors for promotion rather than age or personal grudges.
  • Recruitment of qualified staff members: It is a miracle that, in spite of abysmally low pay scales and maddening bureaucracy, state-run archives and libraries retain so many qualified and dedicated staff members. There needs to be more of them, especially at the top. This requires a degree of bureaucratic reform and autonomy which the government is probably unprepared to allow. Hiring at government institutions is a centralized bureaucratic affair, oftentimes with an unhealthy dose of political interference. A deputy director at the National Archives recently informed me that it can take up to a year for a prospective employee’s file to make its way back to his desk from the central public services authorities. India produces no shortage of highly qualified historians, archivists, and curators. It is no mystery why so many of these individuals flee abroad to institutions that are better run, more meritocratic, properly funded, and not beholden to a sclerotic government bureaucracy.

The last few steps will contribute to perhaps the biggest required change in Indian archives and libraries: a change in mentality toward facilitating free research. As one Ph.D. candidate from the University of Chicago noted, neither institutions nor the government of India encourage an atmosphere of open inquiry for researchers. Foreign scholars must have their projects vetted by bureaucrats before they travel to India on research visas. All too often, institutes go out of their way to deny scholars, whether they are Indian or non-Indian, access to materials. Many librarians and staff members treat their institutions as personal fiefdoms and act as gatekeepers and regulators of information. This is a long distance from the model practiced elsewhere: that of librarians and administrators encouraging and facilitating free research. The Right to Information Act is changing the way things are working in Indian institutions. Let us hope that this also changes the way that many librarians and archivists understand their job responsibilities.

A volume of the Times of India from the 1870s, now reduced to shreds.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

In the course of my research for this article series, I have visited and heard about several excellent institutions, as well as several disastrous ones. Here is some information about libraries of which India should be proud:

  • Forbes Gujarati Sabha: This small library in Juhu in Bombay contains a treasure-trove of Gujarati books and periodicals. Forbes is actively taking steps to preserve its material: aside from constructing a special chamber to mitigate the high acid content of Indian paper used in books from the 19th and early 20th centuries, they have digitized a large number of books and journals. One of Forbes’ trustees is Deepak Mehta, who had several decades’ experience in the Library of Congress’ India operations. Murali Ranganathan, a Mumbai-based independent researcher, is correct to describe Forbes as “easily the most excellent collection of Gujarati 19th century periodical material and books in Mumbai. The new air-conditioned premises, he adds, “are a cut apart from the library atmosphere of Mumbai.”
  • Institut de Chandernagor: This library, located in the former French possession of Chandernagore just north of Calcutta, has around 18,000 volumes, including rare French works. The institute includes Chandernagore-Pondicherry correspondence, which sheds light on French Indian trade in the 18th century. This correspondence has now been digitized and copies are available to scholars for a fee. Its director, Rila Mukherjee, is also a professor of history at the University of Hyderabad. “While I agree with you about the sad state of affairs in Indian libraries and archives,” Mukherjee recently wrote to me, “I should also point out that the small libraries and archives are already making the change.”
  • Sabarmati Ashram Library: As I mentioned in my article series, this library in Ahmedabad, the primary repository of Mahatma Gandhi’s papers, has kept its holdings in a sealed, temperature-controlled environment. They have also digitized their collection, which includes letters to Gandhi (not included in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi series). Scholars can use a comprehensive computer index of the holdings, access the scans, as well as purchase copies for a nominal fee, inside the library. I have used the library twice and have found staff members to be exceedingly helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable.

There are many other excellent institutions across India. Sadly, most of the feedback I received was regarding libraries and archives that are in terrible condition. Three of the most egregious cases of neglect and destruction are outlined below:

  • Patiala State Archives:  In January 2003, The Tribune of Chandigarh reported (here and here) how the government of Punjab took all of the archival records out of its premises—including material from the Khalsa durbar; eight princely states including Patiala, Kapurthala, and Faridkot; Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU); and around 35,000 books—packed them into tractor trailers, and dumped them into buildings at the Punjabi University. As a result, countless documents were damaged and a meticulously organized collection was literally scattered to the wind. Papers slipped out of their files and material was exposed to moist weather and possibly termites. Apparently, the task of organizing just the princely state papers had taken 33 years—in the span of two weeks, this multi-decade effort was completely undone. “The labour of years in cataloguing the records has thus gone [to] waste due to the criminal negligence of a few officials,” The Tribune noted. This hasty move prompted condemnation from the Indian Council of Historical Research. The motive behind the move was to vacate the archives’ premises—Rajindra Kothi, a heritage structure—for an art exhibit. However, the Punjab government subsequently decided to convert Rajindra Kothi into a heritage hotel. Shilpi Rajpal, a doctoral candidate at the University of Delhi, visited the archives in 2011 and reported that they are now located in a government building. The files were still—eight years after their hasty transfer—unorganized. One helpful staff member, Rajpal notes, did help her sift through the bundles in order to find the files she wanted to consult.
  • Tamil Nadu State Archives:  Getting access appears to be a particular headache at this institution. Foreign scholars are required to present proof that they have been permitted to access records at the National Archives of India in the last six months; otherwise, they must present a “certificate of proof,” indicating that the government of India has approved their research project. A legal historian from the United States reported waiting two weeks for permission to consult 18th century manuscript records; ultimately, he was only given permission to access printed materials.  One scholar from the United Kingdom reported that conditions in the archives have deteriorated in the past five years, with many files having gone missing. One of his colleagues had to hand out small bribes in order to get files. Monsoons present another hazard. One Ph.D. candidate from the United States reported having visited the archives in October-November 2005 while completing his M.Phil from Delhi: he found the compound “routinely flooded during the monsoon season. Sometimes, this meant that the archives were closed entirely, and sometimes open for a more limited period during the day.” After one particularly rainy day, he noticed staff members hanging a clothesline on the archives’ verandah in order to dry out soaked archival documents.
  •  West Bengal State Archives: There was not enough room in my article series to highlight all of the shocking stories about this institution. This is particularly saddening: one scholar from a Southeast Asian nation argued that the WBSA is one of the most important archives for the study of India and the Straits Settlements. “The materials are gold!” he remarked. “There must be a global effort to preserve or at least digitize these materials swiftly as a fire would destroy one of the greatest repositories of 18th-19th century historical materials in the world.” For the moment, conditions are dismal. As one Ph.D. candidate from the United States expressed it, “you can literally see the silver worms crawling through [the documents].” Faridah Zaman, a Ph.D. candidate from Cambridge, notes that the indexes list whether documents have sustained damage by water, rats, or white ants, and that sometimes all three categories have been ticked off. Zaman visited the Writers Building branch, which houses 20th century documents, and noted that it took a week-and-a-half to just get permission to use the archives since the director was sick and only he could affix his signature. While waiting for her permission to come through, Zaman took out her laptop, immediately causing panic among the staff since laptops were not allowed on the premises. She stood her ground and, after some communication amongst staff members, was told that the director (presumably from his sickbed?) had now allowed the use of laptops, though only when consulting pre-1947 material. So here is one small victory: scholars no longer have to write out everything in hand. When Zaman visited the Shakespeare Sarani unit of the WBSA, however, an assistant director told her that she could still not use her laptop here.

So much for archival institutions. Many of our colleagues face an even greater challenge: working in non-traditional archival collections such as those in small temples, government offices, and medical institutions. The problems here can be legion. In the 1990s, Steven Wilkinson saw documents from the Uttar Pradesh Secretariat (Sachivalaya) library in Lucknow that had been dumped and burned outside. The library included rare books, gazettes, settlement reports, and other printed materials that Wilkinson had been unable to locate elsewhere. In 2008, Shilpi Rajpal became the first scholar in eight years to get access to this library. She found the remainder of the library’s holdings packed up in bundles, waiting for disposal. Rajpal, who is writing a dissertation on mental asylums in northern India, also had great difficulty convincing administrators in these institutions to let her consult their records.

DISSEMINATING INFORMATION ONLINE

With some rare exceptions, Indian libraries and archives have placed very little information online about their holdings, policies, or even contact details. India is a long, long way away from having something like the United Kingdom’s Access to Archives, a comprehensive website that lists specific holdings of many institutions in the country. But concerned scholars have been filling in the gap. A team of Indian academics have started Archive and Access, which features articles on specific archives as well particular challenges, such as the difficulty of accessing post-independence material. SAGAR, a South Asian graduate student journal run from the University of Texas, Austin, features helpful “archive reviews” on its website. The University of Chicago’s Digital South Asian Library operates the Libraries and Archives in South Asia Wiki, which has a comprehensive list of most institutions of interest to scholars. Recently, the American Historical Association started a similar wiki for India; the AHA has been encouraging historians to contribute.

I will be contributing my bit to this online presence. In upcoming weeks, I will be adding to this website some guides to institutions with which I am familiar, such as the National Archives of India, Maharashtra State Archives, and smaller institutions such as Mumbai’s K.R. Cama Oriental Institute and the library of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. These guides will be kept open access and can be incorporated into wikis. I encourage other scholars to message me with further information about particular institutions: I will be happy to post your observations and insights.

Stay tuned.