Digital South Asia Libraries

Beginning in the early 1990s, American research libraries were confronted with a pressing problem: the decreasing value of the U.S. dollar and the increasing cost of all library acquisitions threatened the quantity and quality of acquisitions for area studies. As a result, a task force of the Association of American Universities and the Association of Research Libraries proposed “the creation of a network-based, distributed program for coordinated development of foreign acquisitions for U.S. and Canadian research libraries.”1 With the help of a two-year pilot project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and grants from the United States Department of Education, the Digital South Asia Library (DSAL) has become widely recognized by scholars and Internet search engines like Google as an essential resource for the study of South Asia.

From its inception, DSAL has been a collaboration between research libraries and institutions in the U.S., Europe, and South Asia, including the Center for Research Libraries, University of Chicago, South Asia Microform Project, Committee on South Asian Libraries and Documentation, Association for Asian Studies, Library of Congress, Asia Society, British Library, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, Roja Muthiah Research Library in India, Sundarayya Vignana Kendram in India, and Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya in Nepal. The participating institutions have contributed both resources and expertise to the construction of a library that has made crucial resources available to a broader audience. The Center for Research Libraries has played a vital role in coordinating these innovative collaborations.

DSAL is now the home of more than 100 separate resources, arranged among eight broad categories, and more than a dozen others are in various stages of development. A detailed description of a few of the resources will illustrate the increasing importance of DSAL to research on South Asia. Among the essential reference works provided to the public via the Internet is the Imperial Gazetteer of India consisting of 26 volumes and more than 25,000 pages of text and scores of detailed maps. Compiled during the course of six decades and published in several editions from 1881 until 1931, the Gazetteer is acknowledged as “one of the largest and most influential exercises in imperial information gathering undertaken in the nineteenth century.”2 The Gazetteer provides critical descriptions of cultural, geographical and administrative districts of South Asia under British rule.

As with many of the resources on DSAL, there is an effort to provide patrons of the Imperial Gazetteer both with formats that appear familiar, such as page images that look and feel somewhat like the original volumes, as well as newer formats that allow users to take advantage of the more robust search capacities, such as full-text and proximity searching, that digital editions permit. Furthermore, in the production of digital resources, DSAL has attempted to plan for the future and the implementation of new capacities. Provisions have been made for the integration of geographical information systems to better link the historical and statistical data contained there with cartographic representations of the subcontinent such as those found in another invaluable resource currently in the latter stages of development for DSAL, A Historical Atlas of South Asia, edited by Joseph E. Schwartzberg. Additionally, DSAL is investigating methods in which to link its collections of more than 50,000 historic photographs with the descriptions of the Gazetteer and the Historical Atlas. In order to make all of these interconnected digital resources more accessible to scholars and the public, DSAL, with help of the University of Michigan’s OAIster project, is developing a portal using the Open Archives Initiative metadata harvesting protocol in which large digital collections with only collection level records will in the future have records available for each individual digital object. This has the added potential to make visible and accessible thousands of digital files hitherto unknown to patrons using Internet search engines.

Another important DSAL resource that exemplifies the benefits of close collaboration is the digital version of the National Bibliography of Indian Literature (NBIL). The NBIL is a selective bibliography of literary texts in 22 languages compiled by a group of distinguished language specialists under the direction of B. S. Kesavan, a former director of the National Library of India. The NBIL implementation on DSAL comprises not only the more than 55,000 titles included in the print bibliography but also provides additional information on those titles that were included in the Microfilming of Indian Publications Project (MIPP) undertaken by the Library of Congress and the National Library of India, acquired by the South Asian Microform Project (SAMP) and housed at the Center for Research Libraries. The linking of bibliographic information with holdings information is an essential tool for scholars, and DSAL is expanding this concept beyond the select corpus represented by the NBIL to develop a South Asian Union Catalogue (SAUC) with bibliographic and holdings descriptions for books and periodicals published in South Asia from 1556 to the present. These important resources for the study of South Asian literature in several languages are augmented by DSAL’s role as the host site for the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia, a project of the South Asia Language and Area Center of the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the Triangle South Asia Consortium in North Carolina that currently provides 21 digital dictionaries for the study of South Asian languages. Through the collaboration fostered by DSAL, a core set of essential tools to find, access, and understand an important corpus of South Asian literature has been made available to scholars and the public.

In the spring of 2005, the Center for Research Libraries was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Education through the Technological Innovation and Cooperation for Foreign Information Access program to continue the work of DSAL in improving access to vital resources on South Asia. Through this grant DSAL will continue to development the South Asian Union Catalogue. It will also provide an important resource for the teaching of less commonly taught languages by digital conversion and delivery of audio recordings from the Linguistic Survey of India. In these and other activities intended to preserve and deliver materials from South Asia to readers in the U.S. and elsewhere, DSAL will continue to rely upon the collaboration of critical partners in order to provide new and innovative resources for scholarship.