Monday, 25 March 2019

Challenges in the preservation of Lahore’s archives: a researcher’s perspective

I am delighted to publish this post by Mobeen Hussain, PhD candidate in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge. 

During my summer research trip to Pakistan in 2018, I visited many local archives and libraries which provided a snapshot of the archival and scholarly landscape of Lahore. I visited the Punjab State Archives and Civil Secretariat Library, the Pakistan Research Society at the Punjab University, Punjab Public Library, the Quad-i-Azam Library and the National College of Arts (formerly Mayo School of Industrial Arts). 

Getting to grips with content: 

Visiting Lahore for the first time meant that I was able to observe numerous researcher and archival challenges; challenges that local users are aware of and have to contend with on a daily basis. Upon arrival at the Punjab State Archives, I met with the archives’ director, Mohammed Abbas Chughtai, who explained that the archive and its libraries have received fewer visitors after the events of 9/11 due to concerns about safety in the country. The archive does, however, receive some non-native and international scholars, and the research officer and director were eager to help as well as point visitors in the direction of other useful resources. The Punjab State Archives and the associated Civil Secretariat Library boast of lengthy Persian and Urdu collections as well as administrative documents from the Punjab during British colonial rule. I learnt much about the archive culture in Lahore by taking time to talk to academics, fellow researchers, archivists and librarians who were pleased to receive scholars in their institutions. Speaking to archivists and librarians is a must­­— they know their materials best. I would also advise researchers to take some time speak to fellow Lahore-based researchers and academics at local universities including the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and Punjab University. Local scholars often know about the research potential across the city, about new books published in Pakistan (particularly by the Oxford University Press based in Karachi) and other places of interest.

Handlists, Catalogues and Digitisation: 

Due to limited funding and resources, many South Asian libraries and archives do not have intuitive online catalogues or websites. If they have a website, such as the Punjab State Archives, it can be unwieldy and only highlight key points of interest in the archive (and not reflective of the content held). However, many institutions have handlists including the Civil Secretariat and Punjab Public Library. These are by no means exhaustive but are useful in order to take stock of what an archive holds and helps to narrow and focus a search. The Punjab State Archive has announced its digitisation project and recruited digitisers, but the project is yet to start and the archive is waiting on lengthy administrative processes to obtain more funding.   

Heat and humid conditions: 

The climate of Pakistan presents its own preservation pressures. The heat and humidity, despite the use of fans (and, at times, air conditioning) as cooling methods, results in brittle paper that is prone to easy wear and tear and the rapid accumulation of dust. 

Space and building issues: 

When discussing the preservation of archives in Pakistan, Saamia Ahmed, the associate professor in charge of the archives at the National College of Arts, noted that finding space was one of the biggest challenges facing small and local archives. Indeed, the Civil Secretariat library has a handlist of English-language colonial-era books, but numerous items went missing as a result of numerous relocations of collections. Researchers just have to try their luck but I definitely recommend a visit as the current location is library aficionado’s dream.  

Consulting materials:

A few of the libraries and archives I visited did not have many handling restrictions. The use of pens was not prohibited, and fans and drinks were vital for users in the summer heat but could easily contribute to the damaging of records. The limited restrictions were useful when viewing and handling full records and taking photographs. However, in order to help maintain records for future, researchers should not take advantage of this and handle material with care (taking note of best practice at other institutions). Both researchers and archivists have a responsibility to think about long term preservation and how best to attract visitors to use their vast materials.
Of course, it is important to bear in mind that many of these archives are still young compared to institutions like the British Library in London. Most Lahori archives and libraries run on limited funding and resources. Therefore, sharing knowledge practice with other national archives like the National Archives of Pakistan in Islamabad and international organisations would be useful. Some of this collaborative work has been done but needs to continue in order to preserve and make the most of these rich resources. 

Other useful resources on South Asian archives:
The Archives of Economic Life in South Asia
A Review of Three Archives in Pakistan

Image: Punjab State Archives in the Tomb of Anarkali, Civil Secretariat (author’s own photograph).

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