Thursday, April 19, 2012

Roja Muthiah Library shows the way

Archiving as such in India normally takes a back seat and hardly gets the support it deserves. Even top institutions think of the archives only when there is a silver or golden jubilee function coming up. And after the function, all is forgotten. There are very few institutions that have sound archives. With its collection of nearly 250000 paper-based items, 400000 images on microfilm reels, gramophome records and organised information for the items, the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) in Chennai has demonstrated how invaluable archiving is. “We would like to work with institutions to set up archives,” says G. Sundar, director, RMRL. “We have suggested that institutes must set up archives and, taking our cue, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, has. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, is in the process of doing so.”

The Hindu has an excellent archive and has microfilmed newspapers up to a certain period, but Sundar says he is not quite sure how many newspapers fall in that category. “We need to take stock of at least out own state (Tamil Nadu) since we are dealing with regional language publications and material in English associated with the state. It is quite depressing. No single library has the entire run of titles produced in the state, not even the TN State Archives,” he says, adding, “For example, if you were to take The Mail or Swadesamitran, no library has the entire collection, or even 50 per cent of it. You find bits and pieces – some in the Nehru Memorial Library, Delhi; the British Library; and in some of the universities in the US.” Even so, most of the archival material held by mainline newspapers are not really accessible to the public. A number of scholars spend a lot of money and go to the British Library to have a look at old issues of The Mail, The Hindu and Swadesamitran. If these can be brought to an institution like RMRL, a lot of cost can be cut down on research.

One of the reasons archiving takes a backseat is because of the cost involved. The reaction usually is – who will pay for it? According to Sundar, one image or frame that can encompass two pages costs Rs 15-20 to microfilm. With a microfilm, only one person can have a look at the film. If the microfilm can be scanned, more people can have access. The situation is different in the developed countries. There is a process in place. They have strong, clear-cut policies, supported financially. How to collect, what to collect, how to preserve, in what format, where to store, how to provide access – for all this, they have policies and processes in place. In India, there is a big confusion when it comes to sharing resources, preserving material.

At RMRL, you can retrieve every single item in the quickest possible time. When Sundar joined the institute in 1994, there was no microfilming camera. He had to get one from the US Library of Congress, Delhi, where he was trained in microfilming. P. Sankaralingam, one of the best library science teachers and RMRL’s first director, also trained Sundar and staff. Sundar then slowly learnt cataloguing. The cameras in the lab were installed in 1995. The library’s staff has been trained in premier institutions around the world.

Microfilming is a tested technique. Physical archiving means only listing the items, preparing catalogues and tagging documents. But it is a lot of paper work. Once copied on to film or digital media, the duplication effort minimises the damage to the original. Paper itself deteriorates and becomes brittle. Though there are techniques to delay the process, permanence is not possible. It may only be possible to extend the life of the material for a few more years. Environmental factors such as temperature and humidity play a crucial role, especially in a tropical country like India. In addition, mass production of paper has led to use of acid for bleaching paper which is a major cause in the deterioration process of paper. High humidity also attracts pests. Newsprint paper is much more vulnerable to such vagaries. Until 2000, microfilming was considered the best technique for preserving material; even today it is believed to be the best form, tested and proven. Once the microfilms are stored in a safe environment (18 degree Celsius and 35 per cent relative humidity), they are safe for about 500 years. One 100-foot-long roll of microfilm can hold about 15 books of A-4 size, if each book is about 100 pages, or about a month’s edition of a daily newspaper, assuming the newspaper is on average a dozen pages or so.

The Roja Muthiah Research Library is located at the Central Polytechnic Campus, Third Cross Road, Central Polytechnic Campus, Taramani (Ph Nos. 22542551/2). The library is open to all. There is no fee. Only a form has to be filled in and the visitor can start using the collection. Pages needed are scanned for which payment is charged; no photocopying is done since it damages the material.

Pictures show a view of the material in the library; microfilms stored in controlled temperature in a quarantined room; an old parchment that will be restored; quality checks being conducted; and microfilming. 

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