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Digitising our past-III

Understanding the role of archives in the production of knowledge

Digitising our past-III

An archive is just not a repository of the past: it is a lens into the reality of the present and the formation of the future. Hence the manner in which an archive is organised, accessed and utilised is critical not just for academic study but also the development of society.

An archive also cannot just be seen as just one document after another, and is also not simply an ‘official’ narrative. Oral history, visual history, public lived history, etc, are all part of the archive we hold. Therefore, we must not see the official archive — which was what we are modernising in this case — as separated from the larger and more holistic archive around us. Forging such a vision, which saw the Punjab Archives in its context, was thus an essential element of our endeavour.

As we were thinking about how to shape the Punjab Archives, I met Dr Manan Ahmed, Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. Dr Ahmed had been leading a very exciting programme at Columbia called ‘Columbia University’s Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities.’ Embedded in the new ‘digital humanities’ framework, it investigated how modern technology could be used in the humanities so that we could develop better mechanisms to understand our past and present. Several conversations with Dr Ahmed and his collaborator in the group, Dr Durba Mitra from Harvard, led us to agree to do a seminar around the theme of knowledge production and dissemination in Lahore as part of the opening of the Digitisation Project.

As explained by Dr Ahmed, the main task of the ‘Knowledge Architectures and Archives Seminar,’ was to understand the role of archives in the production of knowledge. Issues surrounding accessibility, mass digitisation, physical locations, and the interface between scholars and activists, were some of the main themes of the seminar. The aim was to empower communities to construct and re-think archival practices in frameworks true to their ethical and political selves, and thus re-think, re-mix and re-use cultural heritage.

The seminar on March 12-13, 2018, then brought together a wide range of international and national scholars ranging from archivists, historians, political scientists, librarians, computer scientists, activists, artists, and various other scholars and practitioners for two full days of deep thought, understanding and action.

On the first day Omer Rasul, the then Additional Chief Secretary Punjab, and Dr Umar Saif, Chairman PITB, opened the proceedings setting their aim and vision for the seminar and the project. It was really the push of these two people that the project even saw the light of day. Where Dr Saif was steadfast in getting the PC-1 formalised and approved, Omer Rasul was instrumental in getting it off the ground. Rasul had to overcome a number of naysayers, doubters and simply saboteurs, to push this project through. I recall once getting call from him at 730am, asking me to come meet him immediately in the Civil Secretariat as he took his daily rounds, and help him to transform the place into a welcoming and living place.

An archive cannot just be seen as just one document after another, and is also not simply an ‘official’ narrative. Oral history, visual history, public lived history, etc, are all part of the archive. Therefore, we must not see the official archive as separated from the larger and more holistic archive around us.

Mr Rasul was very keen that the Civil Secretariat — the place from where this large province of the Punjab was administered, should not give a forbidding look, but draw people to not only get their work done, but also marvel at its history, architecture and the annals of time it has experienced. It was due to him for the first time, at least in a generation, the gallery of the Archives in Anarkali’s Tomb was opened up for people. Before Mr Rasul’s intervention, no one was allowed to go to the gallery and access was severely restricted. It was his personal attention which got the padlocks opened, the way cleared, and access given. It was as if the gallery was breathing for the first time!

Interested to know what lay beneath the thick layer of plaster which had been put on the walls of Anarkali’s Tomb since the 1860’s, Rasul also led the move to remove parts of it, which revealed the beautiful Mughal decorative work underneath which had been hidden for over a hundred and fifty years! It was as if the archive and its main building — Anarkali’s Tomb — were coming back to life together — all the stars seem to be aligning.

The tone of the seminar was set by plenary talks by Dr Manan Ahmed and Dr Dennis Tenen, both from Columbia, and Dr Durba Mitra from Harvard, who explained the approaches towards digitisation of archives, and issues relating to accessibility and engaging. They also emphasised questions regarding interpretation, the pitfalls of using only official archives, and how modern techniques could be used to make these archives accessible at a mass level.

Hira Nabi, Zehra Nawab and Marvi Mazhar then continued the discussion and examined the role of ‘Urban Archives.’ Using the urban space around as a living archives, these practitioners spoke of their personal interventions in the field and how it interplayed with the archives. For example, Marvi Mazhar spoke about her work in heritage preservation in Karachi with Yasmin Lari’s Heritage Foundation. She also talked about the setting up of the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre and how that has given the people of Karachi a new way to interact with their city, with talks, heritage walks, and other activities.

On the second day Abbas Chughtai, Director Punjab Archives, started off the proceedings with an overview of the holdings of the Punjab Archives. The range and extent of the holdings of the archives simply dazzled the nearly hundred people assembled in the historic Committee Room of the Punjab Chief Secretary, which had been especially opened for the seminar by Omer Rasul.

Chugtai explained that while the bulk of the material was of the British period, the Archives held some manuscripts from the Mughal period dating to the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan and his heirs. He also underscored its rich holdings of the Sikh Era, and the highlights of the British period, including documents related to the poet Mirza Ghalib and Muslim leader and reformer Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

I followed Mr Chughtai and explained the digitisation process which we were aiming to undertake. I emphasised that unless the government opened up the archive to the people and allowed access, there would be no point to our endeavours. We cannot understand our past if we keep hiding it. Rather than being afraid of finding unpleasant things from the past, we should be open and engaging with our history and heritage and use the experience to improve ourselves in the present, I noted. I then showed slides which outlined the digitisation process, from the initial preservation process, through to the foliation, scanning, quality control, bibliographical annotation and tagging, and final upload to the online portal server.

This process, I explained, had been developed in conversation with the British Library where they had been undertaking a similar task in collaboration with the Qatar Foundation. In all my trips to the United Kingdom for conferences or personal reasons, I would always find time to visit the British Library and learn from their processes and best practices, so that we could develop the best and most suited mechanism for preservation, digitisation, and access.

After my talk the seminar turned to how other archives are being created and envisioned in Pakistan. Iqbal Qaiser, a noted Punjabi scholar, then spoke and outlined his work in ‘Khoj Ghar’ which is a repository of work in Punjabi, both oral and written. He also explained his work with Sikh and Jain monuments in Pakistan. Dr Kanwal Khaild then further spoke about the importance of oral history and public history in a developing archive and how the official archive must engage with it to achieve a synthesis.

Also read: Digitising our past-IV

The seminar then rounded off with a roundtable with representatives from major archives in Pakistan — the National Documentation Centre Islamabad, Sindh Archives in Karachi, KPK Archives in Peshawar, and the Forman Christian College Archives in Lahore. All these invited speakers shared their experience of modernising their collections and how they were envisioning the future of their repositories.

The seminar then ended with a visit to the Quaid-e-Azam Library in Lawrence Gardens and the Fakir Khana Museum and Archive in the Walled City of Lahore.

Thus, in two days, with scholars and practitioners from all around the world, the Punjab Archives Digitisation project set itself a large and ambitious agenda of not only preserving and digitising its collections, but also making them accessible and that too in conjunction with the larger notion of archives around us. This seminar therefore created a larger debate around knowledge production, its scope, access and usability, and the centrality of interdisciplinary approaches in tackling these issues.

 

To be continued…

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

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