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Animating the Archive – A Survey of Printed Digitized Materials in Bengali and their Use in Higher Education

Posted by Sneha PP at Apr 14, 2014 07:12 AM |
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With the advent of digital technologies and the internet, archival practice has seen much change in its imagination and function, such as to extend its scope beyond preservation to a collaborative, open source model which facilitates new modes of knowledge production. In this blog post, Saidul Haque reflects upon his research project on a survey of digitized materials in Bengali, and some of the impediments to their use in higher education and research.

At present a large collection of printed Bengali materials in the form of books, journals, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, etc., is scattered in various public libraries, institutions, and private collections in India and abroad.These endangered and hidden cultural resources in vernacular languages need to be digitized and shared to a networked community using an online platform not only for the sake of preservation but also for wider dissemination. A comprehensive survey of printed digitized materials in the field of Arts and Culture, Education, Politics/Economy was executed as part of a collaborative project with HEIRA-CSCS, Bangalore. The survey was carried out at School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University and Centre for the Study of Social Sciences (CSSS), Kolkata. These are the pioneering institutions in Bengal to introduce digital preservation of cultural materials and they have ongoing digitization initiatives. Online archives/ digital repositories available in the public domain [like West Bengal Public Library Network, Society for Natural Language Technology Research (SNLTR), Digital Library of India, E-Gyankosh of Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU), Rare Bengali Book section in Internet Archive, Digital South Asia Library, various public blogs] also came under this survey. Observations were gathered through interviews with resource persons involved in digitization. Discussion with students, researchers and faculty members concentrated on the use of Bengali digitized materials in higher education.

School of Cultural Texts and Records(SCTR) has digitized popular street literature and a wide collection of rare and unique texts on Bengali drama of 19th century .The revolutionary Bichitra Project of the School provides a complete online resource of Rabindranath Tagore’s works in both English and Bengali. (http://bichitra.jdvu.ac.in/index.php). Centre for Studies in Social Science, on the other hand started preserving rare documents in microfilm format from 1993 but later shifted to digitization mode. In 2008 the CSSSC and Savifa (University of Heidelberg) through a collaborative programme made available the collection of CSSSC (the early printed literature in Bengali from 1800-1950) online. The centre has also retrieved two major and endangered Bengali newspapers: Jugantar and Amrita Bazar Patrika from colonial and post–colonial Bengal. Amrita bazaar patrika is available online through the World Newspaper Archive Collection.

Online repositories like West Bengal Public Library Network and Digital Library of India also holds a large number of Bengali books but in most cases Indian language full-text contents are available in TIFF image format only.

The issue of using digitized Bengali materials in higher education sheds light on various problems related to  free access, copyright issue, technological adversity, and metadata. Most of the materials available in digital domain are popular story books and hence scarcity of scholarly materials in Bengali for higher education is evident. Most of the students do not know where to search and how to search and they prefer to visit libraries. There are almost 17,000 entries in the domain of Bengali Wikipedia. But either students are unaware of their existence or don’t rely on these materials as these are not updated. Most of them are even unaware of the fact that they can edit these pages.  Recently a few scholars started uploading essays in Bengali on Academia.edu. But teachers are doubtful about the quality of these materials as anyone can upload papers here. E-thesis depository spaces like Shodhganga and Vidyanidhi contain materials in English and a few in regional languages like Hindi but not in Bengali. In the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), there are only two bi-lingual journals ( Barnolipi and Pratidhwani) which publish articles in Bengali. Teachers are unanimous in the belief that online publication of Bengali research articles will bring more research citations and also decrease the rate of duplicity of same research topic. But scarcity of open access Bengali materials (digitized and born digital) online is a great hindrance in doing research in Bengali.

Researchers in Bengali language and literature may also come forward to participate actively in digitizing rare materials. Of course funding and technical equipment are great hindrance but institutions like SCTR, Jadavpur University are eager to provide scanners and other support to those who want to digitize important cultural resources. Presently the concept of online Bengali bookshops has emerged. The numbers of online e-magazines and e-newspapers in Bengali is growing day by day. What we need is to make people aware of the existence of these resources. It is a positive step on the part of people who are using social networking sites in Bengali and often bringing out creative magazines online to reach a greater audience.

Metadata of Bengali digitized materials is mostly in transliterated form and not in Bengali. Hence searching in Bengali fonts often brings no result. People engaged in digitization should be experts in handling Bengali standard key board like Avro. It would also be good if people engaged in digitization of Indic languages join in workshops and build a common standard of Metadata. Rather than following Western forms like Dublin code it may be thought of an indigenous code of metadata in Bengali. Issue of Free Access and the question of copyright go hand in hand. A large bulk of digitized Bengali materials is available in the archive room of SCTR and CSSS. These cannot be uploaded online for free access due to copyright issues or the unwillingness of the contributors of original materials. Most donors are not willing to give their works to these institutions as often they think that it will diminish their own authority and researchers will go to the University directly and not to them. Often the donors can’t trust the institutes and ask to digitize materials in their own home and return the original materials as soon as possible before they are stolen or lost. Regarding problem of digitization it is observed that most materials are fragile and digitization tasks with scanners and other technological instruments often led to the destruction of the original material.

We also need to think of preserving the large terabytes of data on one hand and original copies on the other hand. Institutional collaboration can be one way of bringing all digital materials in one single platform. In this regard, the role of C-DAC, Kolkata and SNLTR in digitization of vernacular language materials is praiseworthy.


Saidul Haque is a student of the PG course on Digital Humanities and Cultural Informatics at the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. This research study was part of a series of projects commissioned by HEIRA-CSCS, Bangalore as part of a collaborative exercise on mapping the Digital Humanities in India. See here for more on this initiative.

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