Digitising history

September 24, 2019

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THANKS to modern technology, ancient history — from handwritten manuscripts to maps — can be made accessible to a large number of people at their fingertips. Now students, academics, researchers and journalists will be happy to learn that the Punjab archives department has announced its plan to digitise most of the 27,000 files it has sorted through amongst the ‘half-a-million’ documents in its collection, having recently purchased specialised scanners to this end. These invaluable primary sources of information should be available to the greater public by June 2020. The files in the authority’s possession are specific to the history of Punjab, with the oldest material dating back to the rule of Mughal emperor Shah Jehan in the 17th century, trailing down to the period under the Sikh empire and the British Raj. It is to the credit of the colonial rulers that they had a healthy obsession with documenting all transactions and observations — although for the reprehensible goal of maintaining empire.

Previously, only a privileged few were privy to this treasure trove of knowledge nestled within the confines of the Punjab Civil Secretariat. Much has been written about the ‘democratisation of knowledge’ and the concept of building ‘libraries without walls’, and such archival material will be of interest not only to Pakistanis, but to history enthusiasts everywhere in the world. Furthermore, digitisation and transferring data onto the internet is indeed the most effective way of ensuring that physical material does not get lost or damaged with the passage of time. Previous such efforts have been undertaken by the Sindh and Balochistan culture and archives departments, but due to the lack of funds and perhaps a lack of care on part of the governments, they have struggled to maintain their websites over time. One can only hope that the archives department is able to maintain the good work it set out to do, and collaborate with archival authorities globally to enrich its contribution.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2019