Digitising our past-I
This month I finished my two-year term as the Project Director of the Punjab Archives Digitisation Project. The project was envisaged in 2016 by Dr Umar Saif, the then Chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board and the founding Vice Chancellor of the Information Technology University, after he read about the dismal state of the archives in a newspaper article. Unhappy that one of the largest archives in South Asia was still inaccessible to scholars and the general public, and in a terrible state of disrepair, he wanted technology to intervene and salvage our history. As he looked around he somehow found out about me as I had done a British Library Endangered Archives project at Forman Christian College.
At Forman, we had preserved and digitised a rare missionary run newspaper from the 19thand early 20th century, the Nur Afshan, and almost all its issues were now online. This was the first digitisation of archives project in Lahore and so Dr Saif wondered if I could come help with the Punjab Archives project. I was simply overjoyed hearing from Dr Saif about the idea, as any historian would be, and cherished such an opportunity.
The Punjab Archives held records of all of the British era and the Sikh Empire. Its range was not just the present Pakistani province of the Punjab but Indian Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and its surrounding areas. Later, I got to know that the archives even had invaluable records regarding China, Afghanistan, Nepal and the Gulf region, making it an important repository of the region.
Convinced of the importance and urgency of the project, I left my job at the Forman Christian College and joined Dr Saif in the newly established IT University. Several people asked me what a historian was going to do in a tech university, but the archives project, and the chance to mesh technology with historical methods and understanding was something I did not want to forgo. Dr Saif was initiating something unique and visionary and I wanted to be part of the change making team!
My first interesting experience was finding out how a project is actually initiated in a government department. I was introduced to something called a ‘PC-1’. This was a longish document which had to be filled in with all the project details. Having written a number of grant applications I thought this would be straight forward though time consuming. But how wrong I was! While the basic text of the PC-1 was easy to fill in, the number of offices the document had to be vetted by and the very official process in which this had to be done was long and cumbersome to say the least. Once I even lost a file since I had not taken ‘receiving’ from an official and just gave him the file.
Through experience I learnt that unless you take a signature of a file being ‘received’ from an official on a little log book, the file does not exist in the office, no matter how clearly you remember having delivered it and the conversation about it with the said official. I also learnt that even though email and online work was fast becoming normal in government offices, the printed word is what carried weight. Often times I would see routine emails of mine being printed and put in a file for further action, betraying the whole purpose of trying to do things online! I often remarked to Dr Saif how despite his efforts of cutting red tape, inertia and delays through technology people were still finding way around it. ‘It’s a constant and real battle,’ he would always reply.
After about eight months of constant back and forth, several rounds of meetings with officials from departments I can’t now even recall the names of, we finally had a document which could go on for approval. I was happy that despite some hiccups, the document was ready, that the project was largely according to plan, and that all approvals had been given. Now what was left was what is called the ‘Departmental Development Sub-Committee’ or DDSC for short. I again wrongly assumed that it was just a formality as the project has been finalised only after thorough consultation with all the stakeholders. In reality, while the actual DDSC meeting lasted only about forty-five minutes, making sure that all the people required for the quorum at the DDSC were present was a much harder task. After several false starts and attempted meetings, however, we finally held a meeting where everyone who was essential was present and the project was approved. By this time it was the autumn of 2017.
After the minutes of the DDSC meeting were confirmed I was told that it was only a matter of time that the money for the project would be released and we would be on our way. Meanwhile, I further prepared for the project by holding meetings with the British Library staff in London who had been doing a large-scale digitisation project funded by the Qatar Foundation. Aiming to put everything related to the Gulf region online this mega project dealt with exactly the same type of documents we were dealing with (mainly Government of British India records), and so our process could easily mirror their work. Utilising some extra days while on a conference trip to the UK, I spent a couple of days at the British Library learning their best practices, the digitisation process, issues with preservation, and the cataloguing method. The staff at the British Library was very helpful and patient and helped with all my queries and concerns.
My grand plan was that it would be great if we could link the catalogue of the Punjab Archives with that of the old India Office at the British Library so that anyone searching on either side would be able to know what is held in both London and Lahore and would be able to call up material from either location digitally. This would simply revolutionise the way we do research, and make it more in depth, local and sound. The British Library was immediately on board with the idea and we agreed to work closely as the project took shape.
Back in Pakistan, I learnt that the first tranche of the project money would be released by January 2018, and so we began in earnest to launch the project. My aim was to hold an international workshop on archives in Lahore, bring scholars, experts and practitioners from all over the world to Lahore, to showcase our holdings, learn from our guests, and give a good start to the much awaited project.