A Union Catalogue for South Asia

The South Asia Union Catalogue is a cap-stone program gathering existing bibliographic records and combining them with new cataloging created under current projects to create a definitive statement on publishing in the South Asian subcontinent. The South Asia Union Catalogue intends to become an historical bibliography comprehensively describing books and periodicals published in South Asia from 1556 through the present. In addition, it will become a union catalog in which libraries throughout the world owning copies of those imprints may register their holdings. Scholars of South Asia in North America and elsewhere in the world will be given free access to the historical bibliography and the holdings information through the online Union Catalogue, a resource that will be delivered under the Digital South Asia Library (see article, page 6).

The four phases of the South Asia Union Catalogue program are defined by the regions of book production. Phase I encompasses south India and Sri Lanka. Phase II covers eastern South Asia and colonial Burma. Phase III covers north central South Asia, including Nepal. Phase IV ranges over western South Asia and includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of northwestern India.

Work on Phase I of the South Asia Union Catalogue began recently with support from the Ford Foundation. The third and fourth phases will commence late in 2005 under a four-year grant awarded in April to the Center for Research Libraries by the U.S. Department of Education. While full funding for Phase II is still being sought, a pilot project encompassing that sub-region will begin in 2006.

More specifically, the South Asia Union Catalogue will:

  1. Create unique bibliographic records and new authority records for books and periodicals published in the subcontinent during the period 1801–1959;
  2. Make the bibliographic records available on the South Asia Union Catalogue’s Web site;
  3. Improve the brief bibliographic records created from colonial registers by upgrading the descriptive catalog data using copies in hand and attaching holdings information and statements on physical condition of the imprints to the database; and
  4. Distribute the new bibliographic data with known holdings to international databases at the conclusion of the project.
    In accomplishing these objectives, the proposed South Asia Union Catalogue program will build upon strong working relationships with a federation of libraries created by the Center for South Asia Libraries. The federated libraries are located in South Asia, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere in the world.

To gain a sense of the problems South Asian studies humanists face, it is necessary to recall the complexities of research in the U.S. prior to the advent of major online bibliographic databases such as WorldCat and RLIN. Even more appropriately, one should imagine research in the era before the mid-19th century advent of the Catalogue of printed books in the British museum and the National union catalog. It is no overstatement to declare that today’s scholars attempting to locate early imprints from the subcontinent face many of the same problems as a scholar of U.S. or British studies working prior to 1840.

The significance of the South Asia Union Catalogue deserves special attention. It will yield distinct benefits in several key areas.

  • Scholarship—The Union Catalogue will have far-reaching consequences for scholarship about South Asia, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. Research in the social sciences and humanities is heavily dependent on access to texts and to the record of prior scholarship. Yet current library collections in the United States are, for several reasons, distinctly ill-equipped to provide scholars with early printed texts in the languages of South Asia. Only a small fraction of the estimated 1,300,000 imprints produced in South Asia prior to 1960 are available in North America. There is little capacity to generate new knowledge when linkages to the printed record are weak. The South Asia Union Catalogue will give researchers a reliable base of holdings information from which to pursue their work. With the Union Catalogue available, U.S. researchers will use their time in the field more efficiently. This is especially important given the relative scarcity of travel grants for scholars to work in South Asia.
  • Publishing Heritage—The Union Catalogue will foster a greater awareness of South Asia’s large and influential publishing heritage. That heritage is generally little-appreciated and under-protected even though it was an important force in the creation of modern consciousness in the region.
  • Preservation—The database will serve as a base for coordinated efforts to preserve the published cultural patrimony of South Asia. It will be possible to set preservation priorities and make intelligent selection decisions based on specific knowledge about library holdings and the physical condition of those holdings represented in the South Asia Union Catalogue.
  • Cross-Border Connections—The Union Catalogue will enable virtual cross-border connections without the political complications that can cripple collaborations between organizations in adjacent countries. Institutions now separated by national borders and antagonisms in South Asia will be mutually enriched.
  • Bibliographic Control—The Union Catalogue will contribute to the objective of universal bibliographic control. Currently, only a small fraction of South Asian imprints are described with electronic records.

In sum, the South Asia Union Catalogue may have an impact upon South Asian studies comparable to that of the English Short-Title Catalogue for the study of the Anglophone world.