The Commerce in History

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Archiving fails if it cannot provide for public education.

India used to be put down as ahistorical a nation which exists outside time, which has carelessly misplaced its history and can only depend on mythology. It was also disparaged as data-rich but information-poor an epistemological midden of disjointed, jumbled facts, lacking the web of discourse to hold it together in an articulate body of knowledge.

The South Asia Archive, a 5-million-page collection of digitised books, journals, reports and ephemera dating from the 1790s to the 1950s, exposes this as a lie. Kapil Sibal launched it last week by running a search on its website. Boria Majumdar, one of the founders of the project, had forcefully recommended that Sibal should search for 'law' (bet you've forgotten that the Hon. Minister used to be a lawyer). Sibal rose mutinously to the occasion by searching for 'sepoy' instead, and was rewarded with lists of forgotten Indian soldiers decorated by the Raj.

This archive, promoted by the Kolkata-based South Asia Research Foundation, will energise South Asian studies by its scale alone. It is the single biggest taxonomically ordered resource on the internet. Apart from government documentation like the administrative and legal archives of the presidencies, it includes cultural artefacts like the influential literary journal Masik Basumati, launched in 1922. Co-founder Sharmistha Gooptu drew attention to the geographical spread of the catchment area, with documents in local languages from Baluchistan to Chittagong. The span of subjects is also wide the Tropical Agriculturist of Ceylon and AO Hume's ornithology magazine Stray Feathers are included, along with ephemera like college magazines, industry journals and cinema flyers.

An amazing volume of work has been recorded, cross-indexed and tagged, with support from the Indian government and Taylor and Francis, whose Routledge imprint is marketing the archive. At the launch, Sibal expressed the hope that this project would open the door to more such ventures. Since the government had abdicated its archival responsibility, he said, it had been taken up by "public-spirited individuals". He promised support for new ventures and new business models to make public-private partnerships in archiving viable.

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