A catalogue wizard

March 19, 2017

Muhammad Shahid Hanif has famously prepared indices for noted Urdu literary journals such as Saqafat and Burhan. If there is one thing that is stopping him from taking his work forward, it is the shortage of funds

A catalogue wizard

One always gets to know about the problems faced by researchers in Pakistan. Of the myriad of such problems, the abysmal condition of libraries is the foremost.

To start with, Pakistan does not have well-equipped libraries. By that, I mean they lack such basic facilities as a well-lit reading room with fans (if not air conditioning) and a constant supply of electricity to keep it running.

As far as the more serious issues are concerned, one rarely finds an online catalogue. Most of the public libraries use card catalogues which are archaic and make the life of a researcher frustrating. The reason for this frustration is obvious: it is difficult to do a quick search through card catalogues to find and locate relevant research material. An online catalogue has obvious advantages. By simply using some key words relevant to a topic of interest, one can get information about all the books and journals available in a library on that topic.

Very few public libraries have such catalogues. Where they do exist, there are problems with transliteration of titles in Urdu, Arabic and Persian. The trick is to come up with innovative ways of spelling an author or title of a book.

Another problem is the quality of software used for online catalogues. A professional programme such as OPAC would cost a hefty annual subscription fee to keep it going. (The amount required to pay for it is, at times, more than the entire budget allocated for the purchase of books in a public library.) You must then rely on cheaper options or free software developed by UNESCO -- such as CDS/ISIS -- for underdeveloped countries.

One heartening fact is that the librarians in charge of various collections aren’t lacking in technical expertise required to manage a library and preserve its material. I can say this based on my personal experience of working at the public libraries of Punjab University, Government College University, and also at the Punjab Public Library, Lahore Museum Library, Punjab Secretariat Library and the Research Society of Pakistan. It isn’t the lack of expertise but a shortage of funds which is the main cause for the abysmal state of affairs at the public libraries. This has an impact on researchers as well who get frustrated because they are unable to access material required for research.

What Hanif has done is to provide a breakdown of essays published in this journal in the form of dozens of topics and sub-topics. He then lists each essay, relevant to the said category, along with information about its volume and issue number.

In such a situation, a person like Muhammad Shahid Hanif is making a tremendous contribution. He does not have fancy degrees or an impressive job title. He is simply a computer operator at the Iqbal Academy in Lahore. But he has an obsession -- to prepare indices for every Urdu journal there is in the world.

This might sound trivial -- something which needs not be acknowledged or isn’t worthy of appreciation. But one must look at the number of Urdu journals Hanif has indexed so far, and the detailed classificatory heads he has provided.

His published indices are close to 50 which also include many literary, social, Islamic magazines. Just take the example of his most recent publication which is an index of the Urdu journal Saqafat. In publication since the early 1950s, Saqafat is a project of Idara-i-Saqafat-i-Islamiyya (Institute of Islamic Culture). Spanning over six decades and hundreds of issues, the journal has been a key contributor to various intellectual debates about Islam, theology, history and politics. What Hanif has done is to provide a breakdown of essays published in this journal in the form of dozens of topics and sub-topics. He then lists each essay, relevant to the said category, along with information about its volume and issue number. The index is searchable using the authors’ names as well.

Similarly, Hanif has recently published an index for Burhan, an Urdu journal that is printed from Delhi since 1938. Hanif starts with a long list of topics under which each individual article is listed. The list includes topics -- and sub-topics -- as Quran, the collection of Quranic text, principles of Quranic Tafseer, and so on.

To prepare such an index, one needs access to all the issues of a journal. Hanif has either got to most of the journals he has indexed, or he has acquired personal copies of some of them. Depending on the availability of funds, the young man has been able to provide digitised copies of these journals in addition to their indices.

He is also working on literary magazines such as Auraq, Funoon, Insha, Adbiat, Muasir, and Saheefa.

In an exclusive meeting with TNS, Hanif reveals that he has been approached by the Pakistan Academy of Letters to prepare the index of their magazine Adbiat, "from the first issue to the latest one.

"I shall be making such an index that can enable you to search by author’s name or the title of the article."

Hanif says that he is keen to prepare indices of many other magazines but "the people rarely cooperate with me."

Presently, he is working on a collection of articles by Dr Wazir Agha, published in any magazines over the decades. "I want to start many other similar projects but need financial support. I can’t manage the task in the absence of funds," he says.

A catalogue wizard