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Literary notes: Mushfiq Khwaja Library digitising rare Urdu literary journals

Updated November 17, 2014


A section of the library.—White Star
A section of the library.—White Star

IT is a sad fact that thousands of rare manuscripts housed in our libraries and museums are endangered and unless they are preserved on computer in the form of digital images, they may soon disappear or get mutilated beyond recognition.

Similarly, thousands of rare literary magazines are gathering dust in our libraries, in many cases unattended, and researchers sometimes have to travel hundreds of miles to benefit from them. These periodicals, too, are facing extinction.

If these magazines are digitised, they would not only survive but thousands of students, researchers and scholars would be able to read them without going to the libraries, whose staff is not always friendly. At least four libraries in Pakistan are known for their huge collections of rare Urdu literary magazines: Bedil Library, Ghalib Library and Mushfiq Khwaja Library in Karachi, and Abdul Majeed Khokhar Memorial Library in Gujranwala.

Mushfiq Khwaja (1935-2005) was one of those few literary researchers who retain their sense of humour despite the dry and drab nature of their work, and the sobriety of research activities only enhances their wit and gift of repartee. In addition to his research works, poetry and satirical columns, Mushfiq Khwaja was known for his love of books, too, and he maintained a personal collection of about 18,000 books and rare literary journals.

After Mushfiq Khwaja’s death, the University of Chicago, on behalf of the Urdu Research Library Consortium, acquired his collection from his family and shifted it from his home to a new location in Karachi. The University of Chicago has been working on a project for the preservation of cultural and literary heritage of Pakistan, and under the programme it turned the Mushfiq Khwaja collection into the Mushfiq Khwaja Library and Research Centre.

A few years ago, a trust was formed to provide the researchers with better facilities and enhance the scope of activities. The trustees are: Dr Manzoor Ahmed, Dr Jameel Jalibi, Dr Kaleemullah Lashari, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi and Nasir Javaid. Members from Urdu Research Library Consortium are: James H. Nye (who is University of Chicago Bibliographer for South Asia and Principal Investigator for the project), Dr Barbara Metcalf, Dr Francis Pritchett, Marry Rader and Jonathan Mark Kenoyer (who represents American Institute of Pakistan Studies).

The trust has been working with a view to identify, document and preserve the research material on Pakistani literatures and languages and to assist the researchers and scholars. Today, the Mushfiq Khwaja Library & Research Centre takes pride in holding and giving researchers access to about 40,000 books, magazines, manuscripts and other research material. The trust is working on cataloguing and indexing the holdings of the collection and a major portion of the proposed catalogue has been indexed digitally. The trust also intends to participate in the huge South Asian Union Catalogue, which is accessible online. The work on this project is in full swing and soon the lovers of Pakistani languages and literatures would be able to see the collection’s catalogue online.

TWO of the old journals in the library.
TWO of the old journals in the library.

Another commendable work the Mushfiq Khwaja Trust is carrying out, in collaboration with the University of Chicago and Arcadia, is digitising the rare periodicals. The British Library had given the University of Chicago a grant from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, which is funded by Arcadia, for digitisation and preservation of 60 rare and endangered Urdu journals. According to The University of Chicago Library, with this grant digital images of Urdu journals will be produced at the Mushfiq Khwaja Library and Research Centre, Karachi, and made available through The University of Chicago Library and British Library, giving scholars access to some of the most important Urdu periodicals from the 19th and 20th centuries. A panel of internationally recognised Urdu scholars have selected the periodicals to be digitised. The panel includes renowned scholar C. M. Naim, who taught Urdu in the department of South Asian Languages at the University of Chicago and now serves as a prof emeritus. Prof Naim says: “the periodicals published between the 1870s and 1940s are of critical importance for anyone doing research in the humanities or social sciences concerning ... India and Pakistan”.

Last week Nasir Javaid, the executive director of the project, told this writer that over 4,800 issues of 40 Urdu journals had been digitised so far. The scanned images repository now consists of about 324,000 scanned pages of these journals. The project will go on but it has been decided to display these images online while the work on the remaining journals would continue. So, the lovers of Urdu literature and researches may rejoice that they will have access to the rare journals online within a few months. Nasir Javaid was all praise for the University of Chicago, the British Library and Arcadia for their cooperation. He especially thanked the Bedil Library, Ghalib Library and Abdul Majeed Khokhar Memorial Library for lending some of their holdings to the project.

What is heartening to note is that within a decade the Mushfiq Khwaja Library and Research Centre has doubled its holdings, and writers and scholars are not only presenting the centre with their new works but many have donated their personal collections to it. Recently, Prof Dr Manzoor Ahmed gave his personal collection to the centre and it consists of, among other things, some invaluable books on philosophy in Urdu and English. Also, many scholars and research students frequent the centre, which can be visited in the evening at: B-173, Block W, Allama Iqbal Town, North Nazimabad, Karachi; phone: 36617655; email:

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2014