Arts & Culture

Researching History in Cyberspace: Scouring through the South Asia Archive

The article examines the utility as well as the limitations of various online research repositories for research in South Asian history and then discusses the immense possibilities offered for such research by Taylor and Francis’ South Asia Archive.
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  Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at Download by:  [] Date:  19 July 2017, At: 22:07 South Asian History and Culture ISSN: 1947-2498 (Print) 1947-2501 (Online) Journal homepage: Researching history in cyberspace: scouringthrough the South Asia Archive  Jayanta Sengupta To cite this article:  Jayanta Sengupta (2017): Researching history in cyberspace: scouring throughthe South Asia Archive, South Asian History and Culture, DOI: 10.1080/19472498.2017.1350416 To link to this article: Published online: 19 Jul 2017.Submit your article to this journal View related articles View Crossmark data  Researching history in cyberspace: scouring through the  South Asia Archive Jayanta Sengupta Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata, India and Indian Museum, Kolkata, India ABSTRACT  The article examines the utility as well as the limitations of various onlineresearch repositories for research in South Asian history and then dis-cusses the immense possibilities offered for such research by Taylor andFrancis ’  South Asia Archive . Digital databases like HathiTrust, the InternetArchive, ArchiveGrid, the British Online Archives, etc. turn up some usefulmaterial, but none of them matches up to the description of a real ‘ archive, ’  either for the scholar looking for rare material, or for thestudent seeking to learn the  ‘ nuts and bolts ’  of the historian ’ s craft bydelving into a large repository of primary sources. The  South Asia Archive ,on the other hand, provides easy accessibility and navigability to a vastbody of srcinal documents straddling different genres  –  official reports,censuses and gazetteers, rare books, journals and periodicals and muchmore. In addition to being an invaluable scholarly resource, it can be animmensely powerful tool for classroom teaching by integrating an archi-val experience  –  though digital  –  into the course content. This augurswell for the development of the hitherto un(der)explored area of under-graduate research in India and elsewhere. KEYWORDS South Asia; digitaldatabases; archive; studentresearch; primary sources The archive, tactile and virtual Dipesh Chakrabarty  ’ s recent book on the shaping of History as an academic discipline in early-twentieth-century India,  The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and his Empire of Truth ,recalls an age when historians had to act as what Chakrabarty has called  ‘ hunters and gatherers of historical documents. ’  They had to physically travel far and wide, keep an eye out for theoccasions when European officials auctioned off their libraries before leaving India or when thepre-British local ruling elite put all or part of their private records on sale, and constantly chipaway at the colonial administration for providing public access to the official records at infinite-simally low increments. Big money by early-twentieth-century standards, often of the order of tens of thousands of rupees, needed to be forked out for getting hold of   rumals [pieces of cloth fortying up documents in bundles] of documents; quite frequently, they needed to be copiedlaboriously by hand by the scholars themselves, and as late as 1937 scholars had to pay to theKeeper of the Imperial Records Department an  ‘ examination fee ’  of Rs. 2 per 10 typed pages (aminimum charge of Rs. 15) merely to have their notes  screened   by officials. Microfilming of documents necessary for historical research was a highly debated subject even in the 1940s, whenphotocopiers were still a thing of the future, and the Internet beyond the pale of imagination formost humans, and most certainly all historians. 1 Standing on the shoulders of those giants who toiled tirelessly in little-known repositories of that essential salt of all our research recipes  – ‘ primary sources ’ –  we have come a long way and CONTACT  Jayanta Sengupta © 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group SOUTH ASIAN HISTORY AND CULTURE, 2017  made giant strides in the last two decades when the Internet and online subscriptions haveemerged as an indispensable aid to research. There are few researchers of South Asian history,especially among those working in the West, who have not used online databases, or read theire-journals from a host of electronic subscription services. From copying and taking notes fromsrcinal sources by long hand, through typescripts and mimeos, microfilms and photocopying, toGoogle Books and ProQuest, we have traversed a very wide terrain. But  ‘ archives ’ –  in the sense of silent, sombre, and forbidding places where, save a few notable exceptions, frowning archivistsdish out fragile documents only a small handful at a time  –  still rule the roost in a large chunk of the world. Scouring for usable  ‘ primary sources ’  in such places is usually a very tactile experience,involving rustling up pages with extreme caution, the use of lead pencils, and dirtying one ’ sfingers  –  all historians ’  equivalents of digging in the trenches of excavation by archaeologists.Moreover, archives of primary sources are often like a large sea with navigational routes notclearly mapped out; one needs to cast one ’ s net wide and keep looking for the prize catch, thepiece of yellowed paper that will clinch the argument, chart a new direction, trash the unsuspect-ing predecessor who had never located this  ‘ big fish. ’  There are no  ‘ keyword searches ’  to fall back on in times of doubt. Back in the 1990s, working in the India Office Library in London, I spent awhole week rummaging through the Crown Representative ’ s Records on the Princely States of Orissa in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, looking for material on land tenurebut finding next to nothing, and getting vicariously hooked on to the fascinating  shikar   tales of British officials on horseback gunning down partridges and sand grouse in the countless waterbodies and swamps of Orissa. But then, days of toil with no immediate reward in sight  –  otherthan the delightful digressions in hidden alleyways that keep turning up every now and then,luring the scholar  –  are completely in tune with the ways of the Archive, and, master andapprentice alike, all researchers have to walk them as valiantly as they can. At least that is whatit has always been about.Now, things are about to change once more, with Taylor and Francis ’ s  South Asia Archive .Digital archives, truth be told, are not new, and we already have the  ‘ elephant that will neverforget, ’  the HathiTrust Digital Library (, a single repository created by thecollaboration of some of the largest research libraries in the United States, who have decided toput their vast digital collections, including millions of books, online. Many books can be read intheir entirety, while many others offer no more than the [keyword]  ‘ search only  ’  option owing tocopyright restrictions.But does HathiTrust or Google Books offer an  archive  at our fingertips? No, they are at best anelectronic library of old books  –  mainly books written in the nineteenth and early twentiethcenturies  –  for which we once had to physically go the libraries but do not need to any longer.Between them,  JSTOR , which over the last couple of years has launched a new program of offeringdigital books for a fee, HathiTrust, Google Books, and the bunch of e-journal subscriptionpackages offered by Taylor and Francis, Sage Premier, Wiley, Cambridge University Press,Oxford University Press, Project MUSE, etc. have eased our lives as scholars by providing accessto a huge range of digital content straddling across books, journals, reports, catalogues, and thelike. But none of them offers the privilege of swimming freestyle or keyword-guided in a vast seaof documents straddling different categories, and charting out a path  –  or several ones  –  foroneself. Online repositories that call themselves  ‘ archives, ’  for instance the Internet Archive(, work more as a digital library, providing free public access to a largecollection of digitized materials that include, in addition to nearly three million public-domainbooks, images, movies, software programs, and the like. Much as we call it an  ‘ archive, ’  it simply does not match the ability of a real archive to surprise us at every turn with an unexpecteddocument.What possibilities of an archive, then, are available on the World Wide Web? What documentscan the scholar of South Asian history unravel by scouring through cyberspace? How navigableare those that can be located online? These questions do not have easy answers, but a cursory  2 J. SENGUPTA  search will reveal few online resources that constitute an archive of books and documents by itself.A few databases act as useful guides to archival resources strewn across different repositoriesacross the world. A classic example is ArchiveGrid (, a betaservice linked to WorldCat that connects the scholar with primary source material held inarchives, libraries, museums, and historical societies around the world. Containing overfour million records describing archival materials, it is an excellent resource that also helpsresearchers contact archives to request information, arrange a visit, and order copies of material.While writing a book on political change in Orissa in the twentieth century, 2 this was the websitewhere I stumbled across information on a ship of the name  Orissa  that made regular voyagesbetween Boston and India in the mid-nineteenth century, and w hose logbook was among thecollections of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. 3 Though it was nice to know that a province of British India that was traditionally perceived as ‘ poor, ’ ‘ neglected, ’  and  ‘ marginal ’  had lent its name to a ship that circumnavigated halfway acrossthe world in the days before the Suez Canal came to be dug, by and large these repositories turnup material on India/South Asia that is at best fragmentary and episodic. The British OnlineArchives (BOA) ( is a case in point. A conglomeration of more than 60 digitized collections of primary sources, the BOA claims to cover  ‘ four hundredyears of world history  ’  with the subjects covered  ‘ ranging from colonial, missionary and transat-lantic relations to twentieth century political and social development. ’ 4 But searches run onmaterial relevant to South Asian history returned a relatively insignificant amount of material  – the papers of two leading actors of the East India Company in mid-eighteenth-century Bengal,General and then-Governor Robert Clive and Brigadier-General John Carnac, covering the period1752 – 74; the papers of the 1st Earl of Minto, Governor-General of India during 1807 – 13, and the4th Earl of Minto, the Viceroy of India during 1905 – 10; records and manuscripts of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, charting the history of Anglican Protestantengagement in India from the 1750s right through to Partition in 1947; and documents relating tothe Meerut Conspiracy Trial, 1929 – 33, which usefully combine material from the British Library,the Labor History Archive and Study Centre at Manchester, and the Working Class MovementLibrary at nearby Salford.Similarly, databases that claim to be global in their scope  –  like the one that calls itself   The Making of the Modern World   (  –  are usually aggregations of the collections of a small number of large libraries or do not offer very significant material onIndia/South Asia.  The Making of the Modern World   combines the resources of just two libraries,the Goldsmiths ’  Library of Economic Literature at the University of London and the Kress Library of Business and Economics at the Harvard University Graduate School of BusinessAdministration, with some supplementary materials from a couple of other libraries. Searchingamong its 61,000 titles with a keyword as broad as  ‘ India, ’  one comes across a small and disparatebunch of papers, letters, and antediluvian books  –  for instance  Reflections on the Present State of our East-India Affairs; With many Interesting Anecdotes never before Made Public , written by a ‘ Gentleman long resident in India, ’  and published from London in 1764, or Sir Robert Grant ’ s1813 book   The Expediency Maintained of Continuing the System by which the Trade and Government of India are now Regulated   –  whose full-text versions are easy to find elsewhere onthe World Wide Web, like the Internet Archive. 5 All told, therefore, much as these onlinerepositories facilitate research with primary sources and rare books from the comfort of ourhomes and offices  –  if we are lucky to have a subscription to them  –  they do not match up to thetag of an  ‘ archive. ’  South Asian material is relatively hard to come by among their millions of digitized pages, meaning that scholars working on that part of the world continue to dependcritically on actual physical travel to the real archives in Dhaka, Islamabad, London, New Delhi,and myriad other cities and towns that hold the real goods, as it were.But, as we have seen, all this is set to change with the advent of the  South Asia Archive , Taylorand Francis ’ s  ‘ new, fully searchable digital archive encompassing over five million pages of  SOUTH ASIAN HISTORY AND CULTURE 3   valuable research and teaching materials, providing online access to documents ranging from themid-18 th to the mid-20 th Century. ’ 6 This is the only online repository of primary sources devotedsingularly to South Asia, and it encompasses a very broad range of material  –  official reports,censuses and gazetteers, rare books, journals and periodicals, and much more. But most impor-tantly, it includes a very large volume of nonofficial material that is invaluable for scholarsespecially of the social and cultural history of modern South Asia. Indeed, information availableon the homepage of the  South Asia Archive ’ s website mentions that about 30% of the documentsavailable on the digital repository represent those written in the  ‘  vernacular languages of theperiod/regions, ’  most commonly in Bengali. This is somewhat natural, since the repository feedson the collection of the South Asia Research Foundation, which itself sourced its first materials fordigitization from rare book dealers at the Kolkata Book Fair  –  an international event that serves asan annual, fortnight-long congregation of publishers and booksellers, the bulk of them based inKolkata. 7 Moving away from Orissa, my first serious engagement with another province was with Bengalitself, as I delved a bit into the history of food and cuisine in colonial Bengal. 8 As I explored thenew importance accorded to food and cuisine by bhadralok publicists in Bengal in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, I realized, of course, that this was part of a largerdiscourse of new domesticity that was emerging not only in Bengal but also in other parts of India during the period in question, and occupied a key space in the nationalist politics of gender.In its turn, this new ideology of domesticity was embedded in the vernacular print culture thatmushroomed in different parts of India in the late nineteenth century and opened up a broaddiscussion on issues relating to family, household, and kin relationships to newly literate audi-ences, including middle-class women. Compared with the middle decades of the nineteenthcentury, the much wider circulation of these vernacular texts represented a shift of literary cultureand spawned a public sphere in whose discussions women came increasingly to participate  – initially as consumers, but subsequently also as authors, of ideas on education, family life, andsocial etiquette. 9 What can the new researcher unravel in the  South Asia Archive , by way of material relating tothe public sphere shaped by this kind of print culture, particularly in Bengal? The answer isexciting, to say the least. The  Archive  has no fewer than 147 journals, with print runs in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, providing invaluable material on the social and politicalquestions of the day, including social and constitutional reform, the cultural and political aspectsof a burgeoning nationalism, and issues related to family, domesticity, and related questions of gender. Among the journals on offer are  Arthik Unnati , a rare Bengali journal on economicmatters edited in the 1920s and 1930s by Benoy Kumar Sarkar and elsewhere available in adigitized form only in the closed-access digital archive of the University of Calcutta, 10  Aryadarshan , which in the 1870s and 1880s sought to propagate systems of   ‘ modern ’ knowledge,  Banga Lakshmi , which dealt with issues related to women and the family, Bharatbarsha , founded by the poet and playwright Dwijendralal Roy and one of the mostimportant periodicals of twentieth-century Bengal dealing with a broad range of themes andsubjects from history and literature to economy and science,  Bharati , a literary magazine closely associated with the family of Rabindranath Tagore,  Manasi o Marmabani , one of the mostimportant literary magazines of the early decades of the twentieth century, the redoubtable Prabasi  with an impressive print run spanning more than the first half of the twentieth century, Sachitra Bharat  , with its focus on literature, film, and theatre, the closely related  Sachitra Sisir  ,with its focus on the fine arts, and many, many more. 11 This is nothing short of a treasure trove of delights for the scholar seeking to use the window of vernacular print culture to delve into Bengal ’ s vibrant and variegated public sphere in thelate-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The  South Asia Archive ’ s sterling collection of digitized Bengali periodicals, when considered in conjunction with the other recent, landmark initiatives in Bengal to digitize similar material and offer it on the public domain, makes for a 4 J. SENGUPTA
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