Davinder Pal Singh, Co-founder & Executive Director of Panjab Digital Library, talks to Chandigarh Newsline about preserving Punjab’s heritage for future generations.
Tell us about Panjab Digital Library
Panjab Digital Library is an effort to digitally preserve the accumulated wisdom of Punjab, the land of five rivers, without considering linguistic, political or religious boundaries. Launched in 2003, the library was a result of the early phase of the digital revolution in Punjab. While most saw it as a small digitisation organisation or an assemblage of some unknown youth working towards capturing some manuscripts on their digital cameras, we saw it as a cornerstone of a fundamentally new approach to preserve Punjab’s heritage for future generations.
What made you set up the library?
It is all about reach. Books, which interest children, are always placed on shelves within their reach. So, we have to bring our books where people are, this time on the Internet. Well, this is the reason to set up the library. But our project is beyond that. Our primary focus is to digitise each and everything concerning Punjab and preserve digital backups for posterity. Future is digital. We are lucky that we are witnessing the migration of knowledge from paper to digital. Last time, knowledge migrated when humans developed writing tools, some 2,500 years ago, when it migrated from brain to paper.
It is an important and interesting time. We have to be both careful and responsible. Things, which will not migrate, will die forever. We have a maximum of 50 years to do this. Within this period, all records on paper will be lost. We understood this in the year 2000 and started the project in 2003. All our memory is on paper and it is terrible to lose one’s memory. It is like a river losing its source. Change of source can change everything. These thoughts made us very fearful and concerned for our future generations. So there was no option, but to immediately start preserving our memory, and doing so digitally was the only option. Digital is the future!
What were and are the challenges?
The initial years were very challenging, more so when your budget is a meagre Rs10,000 per month. Making people agree to get their documents digitised was the second challenge. In those days, nobody knew about the digital preservation of heritage. It was tougher since our focus was villages. Nobody there knew about the technology, leave aside its benefits, and we did not have the resources to reach out to them with equipment to make them understand. The only option was to carry the only desktop that we had with its 15-inches CRT monitor in a bus to the villages and show the people the digitised manuscripts on screen.
Everything would change to positive once they saw the screen. Slowly, we started getting more documents than we could digitise. Now, we have digitised over 19 million pages and are digitising two million pages every year for last five years. But, we have permissions for 80 million pages. At this speed, it will take us 40 years to digitise these, and we know there are millions more that we don’t know about. There are more documents in west Punjab than east (Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir).
Today our challenge is to digitise at least four million pages in 2019. The biggest challenge is always monetary. We need funds to pay salaries, buy new equipment, need more space and make backups – all this will increase our speed of digitisation. It is a race against time. We digitise first or the document is destroyed before that. We have seen documents crumble in our hands, before our eyes. The biggest challenge is to increase digitisation speed from today’s 13,000 pages per day to 50,000. We want to achieve this speed by 2020. From Day One, we knew we won’t have the type of funds to do this kind of project, especially buying equipment. So, we researched and developed machines in-house.
Please share some of the most important work that the library has done over the years.
The organisation has progressed in two directions – digital preservation and awareness. Digitised records include over 9,000 manuscripts, 41,000 books, 1,50,000 photographs, 10,000 coins, 50,000 artefacts, 31,000 newspapers and 200 architectural monuments among many more. For awareness, we launched the first digital library of south Asia and gave free access on a single platform to millions of pages from centuries-old manuscripts, books, newspapers, magazines and pictures on one platform. Apart from regularly serving over 1,75,000 followers on social media, we hosted exhibitions at various places in India and abroad and also published books. We are helping set up private and government museums, develop coffee table books.
Digitisation of single copy documents are the most valuable and important projects. I must share that government departments have preserved some very important single-copy documents. Starting from the records of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s darbar to cis-Sutlej states, all are preserved in the government archives, which are being digitised with their cooperation. We are digitising the archives departments of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, together they have over 70 million single-copy documents, extremely rare and important.
Apart from these two very important state archives, we have digitised over 25 institutions, including Punjab languages department, Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh, CRPF, Kurukshetra University, S T Stephen’s College, Delhi, Punjab Vidhan Sabha, Punjabi Sahitya Akademi, Rozana Ajit, Punjab Kesri, Chief Khalsa Diwan, SGPC, DSGMC, Nirmal Sanskrit Vidyalaya, Varanasi, and Kanya Mahavidyalaya Jalandhar. Apart from these, there is an unending list of over 150 private custodians.
How important is the need for archiving our history, which we lack in India?
We need to understand that we just can’t let go all that we know. We should start understanding the need to keep the source, the fountainhead of our knowledge preserved. Our original sources have been dammed and a new stream of knowledge opened to fill the vacuum. Imagine this happening to a river. In no time the nature of river will change, the colour of the water, aquatic life, people living on the riverside, religions, pilgrims, and not the least, soil on the banks will change.
Ultimately not only this, but the character of the society will change, whole demography will change. Just imagine this and feel it, how dangerous it is. If damming a river can play havoc, what would have happened or would happen if our accumulated wisdom is dammed, stolen or burnt and a new set of knowledge is given to us? We need to wake up and digitise everything otherwise it will be too late.
What are your future plans?
Knowledge is not only on paper, a lot is still in people’s memory. There is a need to bring that out and preserve in digital form. We plan to start an oral history project in future, create products and exhibitions for awareness of heritage, open outreach chapters to engage school-going children in heritage preservation and awareness activities. They are our future leaders.