Digitising our past-II

Dealing with a combination of four different repositories that forms the Punjab Archives

Digitising our past-II

The Punjab Archives is the largest historical repository in Pakistan. There has never been a complete count of the number of files it contains but a rough estimate ranges from seven hundred thousand to a million files, making it a treasure trove of historical material where much of it still has to be explored.

What we colloquially call the ‘Punjab Archives’ is, in fact, a combination of four different repositories. The first is the ‘Historical Records Office’ which contains material from 1804 to 1900. This covers the Sikh era, the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, and the administration of the Punjab Province till 1900 (which included present day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the Indian provinces of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi, and the Punjab States Agency covering all the princely states in the Punjab region). It also contains files relating to the Ludhiana and Delhi agencies established by the British. This record is kept in the Mughal era Anarkali’s tomb, and is perhaps in the best state preservation (comparatively speaking) and cataloguing. The reason behind this difference is that this was the main historical section during the British period and the Keeper of the Records during the Raj (the name used by the head of the section for most of the Raj period), carefully kept, preserved and catalogued material from this period.

Out of the pre-British record, only the 350 ‘bastas and miscellaneous manuscript’ record of the Sikhs remains in Lahore, while the 120 rolls of the Khalsa Durbar record were sent to East Punjab as part of the partitioning of British Punjab in 1947. These bastas had been catalogued and annotated during the British period but the intervening decades have led to several bastas being mixed up and a lot of the record lost to poor management.

In terms of the British era record, most of the pre-1900 record was sorted and, for a large part, detailed catalogue ‘press lists’ were published for the material which not only gave reference to the record held but also a précis of its contents.

The second repository in the Punjab Archives is the ‘Old Record Office,’ which contains material from 1900 to 1947. Organised department wise, this repository was the current record room during the British period and so only a fraction of it has been catalogued. This record is kept in a building adjacent to Anarkali’s tomb in the Civil Secretariat, in a building distinguished to have first been the seat of the Punjab Chief Court in 1864, till it shifted to its purpose built buildings on the Mall in 1889.

The third repository held under the umbrella of the Punjab Archives is the ‘Central Records Office,’ which contains files from the post-1947 period to the year 2000. Throughout my time at the archives I never got to delve into this collection as, I was told, that sometime in the mid 1990s, the then Chief Secretary of the Punjab ordered the demolition of the building which housed the Central Records Office, without providing an alternative building.

According to an eyewitness, the record of this repository was simply dumped along the footpaths in the Civil Secretariat and left to the devices of the weather. Since it was the monsoons season, I am told, a lot of the record was lost to the heavy rains, till some kind hearted people in the concerned department took action and hurriedly packed up whatever they could save in nearly a thousand boxes. These boxes were then, stealthily, I am told, locked up in a room and that is where they remain to this day.

The whole task of preserving, digitising and making accessible this huge archive was perhaps a job of several decades, and so we could only be the pioneering ones who would identity the tip of the iceberg and get the ball rolling.

Since there is no space to open and examine the records salvaged, all one can do is to hope that critical moments of the history of the Punjab (and indeed West Pakistan since Lahore was the capital of the unified province from 1955 to 1970), are still recorded in the pages saved in those boxes.

The fourth collection then is the ‘New Records Office,’ which largely contains official notifications and documents from the year 2000 onwards. This office mainly serves the day-to-day needs of the Civil Secretariat in confirming old orders, sanction records, and service files.

The above four, distinctive and rich repositories then collectively make up the archival collection of the Punjab Archives. In addition to these archival collections the archives department itself has a library of bounded volumes, and the records of the Civil Secretariat Library and the old Chief Secretary’s Library also come under its purview. These libraries contain a rich collection of books printed in the Punjab and elsewhere during the British and even earlier periods, and contain several original works. They also contain several rare government published documents and books which cover critical periods of our history.

Thus when I initiated the project, the above was the ‘scope’ of the Punjab Archives with its rich and varied conditions. While the historian in me was overjoyed at being able to help the preservation, digitisation and access of these collections, the rationalist in me knew that all one could do in the small timeframe of two years, which the government had permitted us, was to set up the framework and process through which this task would be accomplished.

The whole task of preserving, digitising and making accessible this huge archive was perhaps a job of several decades, and so we could only be the pioneering ones who would identity the tip of the iceberg and get the ball rolling.

My first task therefore was to create a small yet capable team of hard working and dedicated individuals who would actually enable the working of this project. The project allowed for nearly fifty personnel from Project Managers to peons, but we decided to only hire about 40 percent of the allocated strength in the first phase. The equipment required for such a huge undertaking would have to be vetted and tendered and that process would take a few months, I was told. Therefore, we decided to only hire the bare minimum of the technical staff in order to save money for the public exchequer. I also decided that despite a handsome sum being allotted for my salary as the project director, I would not take a penny from it, even the sum I was entitled to for an additional charge. I was already getting a salary from the university and this was my passion for which no payment was required. I was glad that by the end of my tenure I was able to save over four million rupees for the Punjab government by not taking any salary.

The hiring process was again a long drawn process with several rounds of advertisements and interviews. Since this was a specialised project we needed technical people as well as people well versed in history. Finding a historian who knows IT was like finding a needle in a haystack, and it took asking every academic friend of mine to recommend students, colleagues and others, that we were able to cobble together a small team of research associates, bibliographers, record officers, preservation experts and others.

Also read: Digitising our past-III

Our team came from all the top places in Lahore, LUMS, FC College, GC University, Punjab University, and even places as far away as the University of Gujrat. In terms of subjects we covered history, politics, anthropology, and public policy for the research team, library science, chemistry and computer science for the technical team. Our aim was to identify people who had some background but were quick learners and thinkers.

With the hiring process under way, our first major initiative was to hold a workshop at the Archives in conjunction with the Columbia University’s Group for Experimental Methods in Humanities in March 2018.


To be continued…

Digitising our past-II