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Digitizing endangered historical documents in India

February 22, 2012
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SFU alumnus Kyle Jackson, who graduated in 2007 with a BA in history/political science, submitted this fascinating article about his participation in a global rescue mission to India to digitize some of the world’s most endangered historical documents. While SFU News traditionally publishes articles only about current students, we couldn’t resist sharing Jackson’s story.

By Kyle Jackson, special to SFU News

A big bowl of boiled baby bees was being pushed towards me. 

It was the generous honour afforded to us dinner guests in a village home in Mizoram, the remote tribal state at the southernmost tip of India's easternmost frontier.  

I wished then that my hosts were less generous. I wished then that the honour was less larvae-related. I cursed the British Library under my breath. And grabbed a grub. 

I was in Mizoram as a part of a four-member pilot-project under the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), a global rescue mission for the world's most endangered historical documents. Administered by the UK's British Library and funded by Arcadia, EAP researchers have in the past seven years fanned out across the globe, armed with little more than high-resolution digital cameras and strong stomachs. 

From the crispy Sahara to soggy Amazonia, the Programme selects from a world of possibilities:  twentieth-century Bengali street literature, nineteenth-century Siberian glass-plate photographic negatives, eighteenth-century Tamil palm-leaf manuscripts. Digitization projects operate literally all the way to Timbuktu. 

The stakes are high. The princess to rescue is the world's most endangered written heritage; the dragons that threaten her are called climate, conflict, critters and carelessness.

Our own adventure begins in Mizoram's monsoon-soaked capital of Aizawl—a city perched perilously on the cliffs of the towering north-south running mountains that lay like parallel spines across India's northeast.

The Tibeto-Burman language of the Mizo people that live there demands mental gymnastics for any foreigner to navigate. The Mizo word lei can mean “tongue”, “bridge”, “sand”, “unlevel”, or “buy”, depending on the precise tone you say it with. I could only pray that my tongue would never get sand on it as I was trying to buy an unlevel bridge in Mizoram: an impossible story to recount. Plus, I would have sand on my tongue.

I thus stick to the basics:  i dam em? (how are you?), ka dam e (I'm fine), and a nak ah a zuang chungin a pet (flying kick to the ribs). The latter is what I feel like I have experienced after each of our journeys across the rivers and jungles separating Mizoram's rural villages. The winding roads are some of the worst on the planet. It takes nearly eight hours by 4x4 to cover a mere 150 kilometres, like driving for eight hours from Vancouver to reach Hope.  

We arrive battered. Sometimes the historical documents are already long gone. We find a corpus of old diaries shredded into rats’ nests in Saikao village. 

We find a 1928 book of hand-drawn maps pockmarked and perforated by little silverfish.

We find books of the Old Testament (works among the earliest ever printed in the Mizo language), chewed through by a rodent. The rat no doubt especially enjoyed Jeremiah 15:16. 

Other times we strike pay dirt. 

We find the first letter ever written by a Mizo—a chief writing to none other than Queen Victoria, proudly informing her of his patriotic lighting of bonfires all around his village on her birthday. 

We find the diary of a lone-ranger British missionary who worked amongst the secluded Mara tribe—a document that could shine new light onto the shadowy history of a sequestered society. 

We find an old record of village rainfall—a testament to a staggering 12,491 inches of precipitation (nearly the same height as Burnaby Mountain's prominence) across the last hundred years.

Such documents capture the exceptionally rapid transition of a society uniquely and fundamentally transformed. Mizo historians are fond of reminding each other that in 1901, nearly no one in the Mizo tribe was literate or Christian; in 1961, nearly everyone in the Mizo tribe was literate and Christian; and in 2012, Mizos command the second-most literate state in all of India.

Much digitization work remains. However, across three months our little team preserved hundreds of rare books, diaries, missionary treatises, church and government records, photographs, and personal letters, all totaling some five hundred gigabytes worth of digital images. As the only foreigner, I feel I did well culturally, too, politely eating all my bees in a total of five mega bites. 

The documents that have been digitized will soon have the power to revolutionize not only how Mizo history is understood, but also how the craft of history writing in Mizoram is pursued.  Now in the process of being cataloged, they will soon be deposited for easy access for all at universities, libraries and archives across Mizoram state, as well as online through the British Library. 

The evil twin hydras of neglect and humidity daily rob the globe of its history. It is time we took a running leap to give them both a serious a nak ah a zuang chungin a pet.

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