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Digitising our past-IV

Archives are often very hard to access in Pakistan because people working in archives have no training in how to organise, preserve and manage the archive

Digitising our past-IV

The management and digitisation of archives is a specialised field, an unheard of discipline in Pakistan. Almost no one working in archives in Pakistan has any specialised training, with library science and history being the closest subjects studied. Most archivists learn ‘on the job’ so to speak, or, worse still, never learn. That is why archives are often very hard to access in Pakistan. People working in archives have no training in how to organise, preserve and manage the archive, and hence they largely become complacent. As a result, they mostly focus their attention on thwarting access to the archives rather than facilitating it.

As soon as the project started our main task was to equip the small team we had created with the best tools to preserve, manage and digitise the archives. This was certainly a daunting task as nothing even resembling formal training for archives had ever been undertaken in Pakistan. Therefore we began our quest to establish the first ‘Certificate in Archival Studies’ in Pakistan in collaboration with the Information Technology University (ITU). ITU had very quickly become the pioneer institution in digital solutions in Pakistan, and since I was affiliated with it, it was the best place where such a new and innovative certificate could be launched.

We developed the curriculum of the course keeping in mind the best course designs around the world. We first examined the recommendations of the International Council on Archives for such training as well as the best practices of the British Library. In terms of academic depth we consulted the courses in archives and record management taught at University College London, University of Liverpool and the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom. Studying the materials of the postgraduate level courses of these three universities we were able to develop a unique and comprehensive course for our staff, which we hoped would then be offered to others interested in the career, as well as staff of other archival repositories in Pakistan.

The seven-week course then covered a wide range to topics, and was both theoretical and practical. It aimed to deliver education in the theory and practice of archives management; an in-depth knowledge of the management of archives and the ability to apply this knowledge in a range of sectors; a historical background of the significance of archives and their digitisation; a comprehensive training in the creation and management of current and semi-current records; an awareness of the legal and ethical issues relating to archives management; an understanding of recordkeeping practices and traditions, and transferable skills such as advocacy, management and communication skills.

The goal was that at the end of the course our staff would be well versed in the principles and practices of archival management, standards of digital recordkeeping, and issues relating to preservation, organisation and access. Each week was divided into several classes with readings assigned for each class, so that the practical is complemented with the theoretical, and classroom learning is combined with hands on training.

We conducted the seven-week course in a collaborative manner and included scholars from a wide variety of disciplines. In addition of our in house team of historians, computer scientists and quality assurance officers, we involved the experienced staff of the Punjab Archives Department itself, faculty from LUMS, Forman Christian College and Punjab University, and even some guest lectures by visiting foreign professors.

After our staff had been trained we embarked upon two important organisational tasks. The first was the process of sorting and preservation. Despite not being ideal for the purpose, Anarkali’s Tomb’s high ceilings and good ventilation did manage to temper the deterioration process of the paper. The fact that a number of the cupboards had not been opened for a long time also led to a certain degree of preservation.

During the training a strong emphases was also laid on the ethical issues relating to digitisation and preservation, since upon the archivist there is a great burden of ensuring that historical record is not lost or tampered with and that all of it is preserved and digitised, and also made accessible. Hiding information, or destroying it, is very easy for an archivist, but it is extreme academic and ethical dishonesty. It not only adversely affects how we see our past but also creates an illusionary past, which, in fact, exhibits one of the highest levels of betrayals of a country one can imagine. Our aim through the course was not only to empower our staff with the latest techniques of digitization and preservation, but also instil in them ethical values relating to this important task, something which is often ignored, and not even considered important, in Pakistan.

This course also helped us in further understanding the process, with the keen realisation that what we were going to undertake was not just a scanning and uploading of documents. The digitisation process was a much larger initiative, and also the responsibility as much greater—we were, for the first time, going to open a window towards understanding our past over the last two hundred years, something which had been hidden for a long time. Perhaps it was fate that the Punjab Archives were situated in Anarkali’s tomb, as certainly this endeavour was also a labour of love—we just hoped that it would not be unrequited in this case!

Also read: Digitising our past-V

After our staff had been trained we embarked upon two important organisational tasks. The first was the process of sorting and preservation. Despite not being ideal for the purpose, Anarkali’s Tomb’s high ceilings and good ventilation did manage to temper the deterioration process of the paper. The fact that a number of the cupboards had not been opened for a long time also led to a certain degree of preservation. Nevertheless, this was a long and arduous task, and our chemist, who was doing her PhD in Chemistry and had already had extensive experience of preservation of paper and old documents, immediately set upon her task.

We started with 1857—the year of the Great Revolt in India against the British where the Punjab had largely supported the East India Company. Barring a few local revolts, the newly annexed territory of the Punjab proved to be the bastion of support for the British and played a critical role in the recapture of Delhi. Our aim was to first focus on the file from 1857 to 1869, a twenty-two year period since this was the period for which there was a catalogue press list.

The preservation process consisted of cleaning and sorting the files, restoring torn or damaged pages and ensuring reasonable storage. It was a pity that we could not obtain proper storage boxes for these files, which are an essential part of such a process, and are critical in ensuring the long life of these documents. (I hope this will be done in the next phase however). After preservation the team of bibliographers compared the files in each bundle with the press list and noted those which were present. This was a rather painful process as we often found that a number of files had gone missing over the years. The press list was made over a hundred years ago, and at that time all the record was present. Either it was the ravages of the partition of 1947, or the neglect to of yesteryears, invaluable record of our past had been lost. While we could no longer retrieve it, our aim now to ensure that what was left was preserved, digitised, and made accessible.

 

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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