James Nye: An open book

The bibliographer and Indophile on the challenges of digitizing history


A 19th century postcard from India. Photo: Courtesy Graham Shaw Collection/Digital South Asia Library
A 19th century postcard from India. Photo: Courtesy Graham Shaw Collection/Digital South Asia Library

The Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI’s) latest efforts to digitize its negative glass- plate collection of images are somewhat like a tree falling silently in the forest—if no one can view it online, is it really digitally accessible?

For most of us who cannot visit the second floor of the National Archives Annexe on Janpath in New Delhi, to browse through the ASI’s 100,000-strong collection of books, journals and plates, an online library would be a boon.

Prof. James Nye would know. Tenured at the University of Chicago, he is the bibliographer for Southern Asia at his university and director of the Digital South Asia Library (DSAL), a programme of the University of Chicago Library. His engagement with this region dates back to his student days and he has been involved in several archival projects, including the microfilming of thousands of publications listed in the National Bibliography Of Indian Literature.

More recently, Prof. Nye and his team have been involved in digitizing more collections for open-access websites DSAL and the newly formed South Asia Open Archives initiative. This includes postcards from India and neighbouring countries dating back to the 19th century, women’s journals in Gujarati from the early 20th century and Radio Ceylon’s gramophone collection. The focus, says Prof. Nye, will be on colonial-era material that offers a new voice to the already existing discourse of that period.

Mint Lounge spoke to the professor about the challenges that digitizing a region’s history entails. Edited excerpts:

How has the online space changed the landscape of archiving?

Quite interestingly, (archiving) started with microfilming. It was still the best way to do preservation at that time, but over the (past) 16-17 years, everything has shifted. Of course, it is easier for people to read digital copies, they don’t have to worry about going to a microfilm reader. There is also easier propagation of resources.

It’s our belief that open access is the best way to make these resources available in an even and equitable way. That means that if people, let’s say, in remote parts of India may not have much money, they couldn’t possibly afford the cost of a commercial service. But it’s our belief that returning the resources to the people, whether they are scholars or whether they are people who just have an interest in reading what their parents may have read in their childhood, those are valuable parts of a society’s understanding of its roots and we want to support that.

You have, in the past, raised concern about the reluctance to share collections.

It’s still a huge problem. I don’t mean for this to be a criticism of the Indian government. The bureaucracy at all levels, whether district, state or national level—not just in India, but anywhere in the South Asian region—imposes such a severe restriction that often the kinds of resources that researchers want to get to become inaccessible.

I’ll give you an example. I know that the Archaeological Survey of India has been doing an amazing job of digital copying from their glass-plate negatives going back to the 19th and 20th centuries. But because of restrictions by the government, they are not able to put these on the Web for people to see. Private collectors also have the same problem. Some behave as though they are a dragon protecting their lair. They think that by keeping exclusive control over what they have, they will somehow control knowledge. So whenever I talk with people—private collectors, government officials—I talk to them about the value of opening access. With private individuals, it is a harder case to make.

You are working on digitizing a gramophone collection?

We are working in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, which has some of the most amazing collections of gramophone records. Radio Ceylon (as it was called earlier) would broadcast throughout the region in Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil and Urdu. We have started an (archiving) programme, which will go on for the next few years. We’re working on a new principle, that instead of having everything in one place—one gigantic silo—we’re developing a way of doing federated searches across collections that might be in London or Chicago or Tokyo or Delhi or Mumbai. People can retrieve the information through searches that are keyword-driven.

So, for example, the EMI archives just outside London have some of the best collections of recordings. We’re thinking of ways to bring together the audio recording with the songbook and other images in creative ways that will allow people to see text, image and other resources and use them together. Computers will do the exploring—take the audio files, do an analysis of the sound patterns and wave signals, help to determine new things about the audio and, hopefully, in the future, form a one-to-one connection.

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