A report on the workshop on 'Preserving our Scientific Heritage' held at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics during 21-22 January 2008.The Indian Institute of Astrophysics, The Indian Institute of Science and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research were joint organizers.
The report was prepared by Christina Birdie and A. Vagiswari, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore and Indira Chowdhury, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.
In India many scientific institutions have a long history and some of them trace back their origins to the colonial period. These institutions have a vast collection of valuable information stored in various formats. However, India has had no tradition of archiving old documents and preserving them for posterity. Fragments of history are lost everyday as pioneers retire and institutions fail to take care of their documents. There is an urgent need to create awareness among science institutions to collect, preserve, and catalogue and provide access to their archival material. With these objectives in mind, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the Indian Institute of Science and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research organized a national workshop on Preserving our Scientific Heritage at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics on 21 and 22 January 2008.
The workshop was unique as it attracted about 100 participants from different walks of life like historians, librarians, scientists and policy makers. Prof. Siraj Hasan, the Director of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and the Chairman of the Scientific Organizing Committee of the workshop invited all the participants and the speakers to the workshop. He also read out the inaugural address sent by Prof. K. Kasturirangan. It was followed by special remarks by Prof. M. Vijayan, President of INSA. He gave an important message of not throwing away any material even if it was not used frequently. In scientific research the reference to the original contents created years ago plays an important role when you refer back to the originals. The keynote address was given by Dr. Ross Bassett who is presently an Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He emphasized the need for indigenous archives which will alone reflect indigenous perspectives. His role as a consultant to the archives of IITs in India has thrown many concerns and issues which has direct link to the absence of awareness among the policy makers. He said that without archives when the first generation of scientists in India are no more, important part of India's history will be lost.
Day 1, Session 1: Collection policies and organization
The main points which emerged from this session are that archiving should be an ongoing process and should be started almost as soon as the institution is set up. Emphasis was laid on making policy statements for collection building and mapping institutional and organizational developments which are absolutely essential when setting up an archive. Collection building will have to go beyond the institution itself to other institutions and at times even to the general public.
Archives should incorporate reports, biographies, correspondence, newspapers, journals, audiotapes, speeches, photographs and oral histories. Preservation, digitization and access to information available in newspapers with special reference to 'The Hindu' was presented. Finally, most participants felt that library and information schools should incorporate programs dealing with archives and record management as part of their curriculum.
Day 1, Session 2: Case Studies of Science Archives
The first presentation covered the Indian Institute of Science archives, Bangalore which is being set up currently. The strong motivation for taking up this activity was the advent of the centenary year of IISc in 2008 - 2009. It gave an interesting history of its inception and the efforts put in by the members of the archival committee to collect the relevant and related materials to their archives both in-house and outside.
The Saha archives has been set up at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata .This has a magnitude of papers and documents relating to Prof. Saha. The collection has an interesting trajectory as many of these documents were first donated to the Nehru Memorial Museum by M.N. Saha's son, and later efforts were made to procure copies for the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics.
The presentation on the Physical research Laboratory collection was focused on the oral history recording of the scientists who superannuate from the organization. They have a plan to integrate these recordings with the archival material of the organization.
Tata Institute of Fundamental research has recently set up their archives. This presentation focused on ways in which archival resource creation might lead to a critical institutional history. Apart from collecting scientific papers, correspondence, photographs and sound recording, the TIFR Archive has also initiated an oral history programme that records the life histories of scientists, mathematicians and administrators who worked at the Institute. In addition to three exhibitions, The TIFR Archives regularly displays archival material for the TIFR community.
The Indian Institute of Astrophysics which traces its origin to the Madras Observatory founded 1786, has a vast collection of material dating from the 17th century. The IIA Archives also has a rare first edition of Kepler's Astronomia Nova of 1609. A selection of the archival material has been recently organized and displayed at the Institute campus. The IIA Archives has also been working on historical projects using some of the resources they have collected.
The Jesuit Archives now located at Shenbaganur, Kodaikanal has a very long history. This Archives has a large collection of palm leaf manuscripts in different languages, letters of missionaries, parish diaries, photographs and other material of historical value. Kodaikanal climate has been so far suitable for preserving old material, however with advent of global warming there are many uncertainties.
The NIMHANS archives is being steadily set up and documents are being assessed and analyzed. Records of case studies available here have provided valuable information especially on the evolution of psychiatry and treatment of mental illness
A public lecture by Prof. P. Balaram, Director- Indian Institute of Science marked the end of the first day. In his talk entitled "Private Philanthropy Public Good - The early history of IISc", Prof. Balaram focused on a segment of the history of the IISc. As he put it: "It is a story that begins with an act of philanthropy, unprecedented for its vision and unmatched for its generosity." Prof. Balaram traced the events that led to the birth of IISc, starting from the 1890's when Shri.J.N.Tata mooted the idea of an Institute of Higher Education for India, based on his discussion aboard a ship with Swami Vivekananda, and set aside a huge sum of money for the same. The British did their bit to delay the scheme, but it was Shri J. N. Tata's trusted lieutenant Shri. Burjoji Padshah who diligently pursued the scheme regularly writing to Lord Curzon till the Institute was founded in 1909. It was the gracious grant of land by the Maharaja of Mysore, His Highness Shri Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV in Bangalore, which brought the Institute here. Prof. Balaram then traced the early years of the Institute, from its first Director Prof Morris Travers and the early departments of General Chemistry and Electrical Technology to the vibrant Institute that exists today like a jewel in the crown of the country.
Day 2, Session 1: Preservation & Conservation 1
There were 5 lectures on preservation and conservation of archival material. Some points emerging out of this session have been consolidated here. The Speakers reiterated that it is essential that extreme care be taken in developing an environment that is most suitable for an archive. This included building design and control of heat temperature, humidity and light. Care should be taken to prevent destruction due to physical and biological factors and improper handling.
There was also a need to develop policies for Disaster Management for which it was essential to have basic knowledge of the topography and climate of the area in which the archives is situated. A Disaster Response Team should be set up in each archive who can react immediately when disaster strikes. Staff should be trained regularly in control of fire and in the handling of fragile objects.
The next two talks were on presentation of archival material. Preservation of palm leaves is important as so much of our heritage is embedded in them. The ancients used natural material for preservation and this could be continued even now as side effects are minimized. The importance of Neem and Negundo leaves which are natural materials have been found to be really effective.
Day 2, Session 2: Preservation & Conservation 2
Digitization and microfilming were two available options in today's world. The conference emphasized the need for developing policies for the digital preservation of material. Even though digitization is a good alternative for not handling the original document one concern that was put forward was that the rate at which current technologies were being replaced by new technologies which would inevitably lead to the loss of digital information. It was felt that few significant methodologies had to be incorporated into the digitization procedure. This would mean being aware of new technologies and adapting to them before information is lost. There was also an emphasis on the creation of suitable metadata which is very important for accessing digitized information. Microfilm is a valuable mechanism for storing ancient and historical documents and will survive for 500 years. Unlike digitization it is not useful for dynamic media. So it was felt that magnetic tapes be could be used for storing and then may be converted into DVDs and later one can adopt 'Blue ray' or HDD which is the next generation digital storage technology.
Regarding care and preservation of photographic material it was said that photographic materials should be treated differently from other library or archival materials (like paper etc.) while preserving, handling or storage. All photographic materials, i.e., photographs and films should checked at least once by a professional for the status of deterioration.
Day 2, Session 3: User's Perspective
The session on user's perspective highlighted the difficulties faced by the science historians in tracing source material. Majority of institutions in India like colleges, universities and societies have not cared to preserve their old records. One of the scientists presented few examples in tracing the development of astrophysics in India using IIA archives.
Day 2: Panel Discussion:
The Panel Discussion was the last session of the workshop and by Prof. Roddam Narasimha chaired this session. Four themes were taken up for debate discussion. They were copyright problems, how to develop archives, archival standards and the need for National Science Archives. Unfortunately there are no set guidelines for this in India. However each archive is designing its own rules based on existing (general) copyright laws and experiences. It is evident that permission should be sought form the authors before holding their work in any format. Archives can only hold material which has been generated by these institutes itself. Archives should respect the copyright laws of other countries while holding material of other countries. For data which cannot be displayed on the web, the indications of its availability and metadata should provided for the users. One important issue which is being debated widely in archiving 'orphan' works. The IIA Archives is still attempting to trace the authors of 'orphaned works'. Many of these issues need further discussion and debate.
Some factors to be considered while setting up an archive were discussed. A handout was given outlining ten steps to the creation of an archives. The usefulness of defining what an archives will contain and the importance of documenting the provenance of the collection and respecting the original order were emphasized.
The question of evolving standards for archives provoked a great deal of discussion. While there are standards available in other countries, no national standards exist in India. There is an urgent need for compilation of standards which should be taken up by a central organization.
The need for a National Science Archive was mooted during the panel discussion. However majority were not in favour a single centralized archive. Instead it was felt that there was an urgent need to create a network of science archives with common standards. Many institutions would want their archives in their own institution and not elsewhere. Further, local expertise would be available for the archives in their own institution. The conference was unanimous in recommending that an Association of Archivists in India be set up. Such as an Association could work towards setting up standards, exchanging of information and helping small institutions with little access to funding to set up their own archives.