16-22 February 2018 #897

Digitising archives, sharing knowledge

Nepali Times caught up with James Nye, Bibliographer Southern Asia at Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago during a visit to Kathmandu this month

Kapil Timsina

James Nye is a Bibliographer for Southern Asia at Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago and is an authority on archiving in the region. Nepali Times caught up with him during a visit to Kathmandu this month.

Nepali Times: What is the single most important change that has taken place in archiving in South Asia in the last four decades?

James Nye: Without a doubt, it has been the rise of collaboration between institutions for archiving, collection development, and preservation of resources. Almost everything that is important for the future will build on the solid foundations already in place and will benefit from expansion of our collaborative programs in Nepal and elsewhere in South Asia.

Some types of institutions are more suited to joining in collaborations than others. Within South Asia and also in Europe we have found that non-governmental organisations and private collections have been much better partners than government institutions. Our collaboration with Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (MPP) in Nepal is a fine example of impact -- we have worked together in microfilming rare Nepali resources through the South Asia Microform Project, ensuring that periodical publications in the Nepali language are preserved and made accessible for use by researchers. More recently, MPP has been wonderfully successful in continuing programs funded by several grants from the Endangered Archives Program at the British Library.

What are the advantages and challenges of digital technology in archiving?

The Endangered Archives Program is an excellent example of how large audiences of readers around the world can benefit from easy access to rare archival resources in digital form. At the same time, some readers need to use original resources like paper manuscripts, printed books, photographic negatives, gramophone records, and other such objects. Some scholars studying the history of the book benefit from examining the paper used in printing and the watermarks on the paper as evidence for book production. Digital copies are not adequate to meet those special needs.

Has there been any effort to assess Nepal-related collections, say, across libraries and archives in the US?

Three decades ago North American research collections participated in a program called the Research Libraries Group Conspectus, created to provide a uniform evaluation of collections in all disciplines and from all geographic regions. The University of Chicago declared our Nepali collection to be at the research level. That is, we collect major published source materials, including all important reference works and a wide selection of specialised monographs, as well as maintaining an extensive collection of journals. A few other US libraries like Cornell University also described their collection on Nepal in similar terms.

The University of Chicago itself has a strong Nepal collection. How was this achieved?

Chicago has been fortunate in two ways. First, Maureen Patterson, the pioneering Bibliographer for Southern Asia from 1959 through 1984, was able to purchase rare books in the antiquarian marketplace –in South Asia and Europe – at a time when many rare books on Nepal were available for sale. Second, the cooperative acquisitions program run by the Library of Congress since the early 1960s has provided the University with books and periodicals from Nepal. Staff at the Library of Congress Field Office in New Delhi, working with book dealers in Nepal, have selected the most important contemporary publications, cataloged them, and delivered them to Chicago for addition to our collection. We have, however, not acquired manuscripts. Antiquities laws and our concern to respect cultural patrimony have made manuscripts out-of-scope for our collection.

Academics here are pushing for greater access to Nepal-related holdings elsewhere. What do you think would be the best way forward?

People in Nepal have every right to expect that their own heritage is available to them. We need to develop both human and material infrastructure for archiving in Nepal and in the US. We need to arrange for training in technical skills, enhancing language knowledge, and improving sensitivity to the rich heritage of Nepal. In the near future I see several important programs expanding their work and new programs beginning to contribute to our shared cause. The South Asia Materials Project is now digitising as the means of preservation, and many of the resources are being made available online. Further, the newly formed South Asia Open Archives initiative is laying plans for massive efforts to digitise and make available important cultural resources for open access.

As a Fulbright Specialist, what are your expectations from this visit to Nepal?

We have been exploring private and institutional collections in Tansen, Lumbini, and in the Valley with the intention to expand Madan Puraskar’s networks and linkages. This work of exploring other collections is also being used to develop an instrument for surveying collections throughout Nepal. It is delightful to see how our collaborative work is building important knowledge about cultural heritage needs in Nepal that will fuel planning for South Asia Open Archives work over the coming years.