Digitalization - a new mandate

We are very quick at picking up jargons, use them indiscriminately, make claims and over claims. In the last few years, it was the computerization of the library catalogue garnished with bar coding. The latest fad is setting up of a digital library. For most, subscription to a few CD borne databases and encyclopedias, obtaining access to a few e-journals and buying a scanner and OCR software are enough to tom tom the enterprise as a digital library.

It is well to admit that we do not have even one, which could be called a digital library in true sense. Though there are libraries whose operations are fully computerized, the materials handled continue to be print-on-paper products. The much hyped IISc _ IBM digital library project has dissipated into a whimper.

With rapid improvement in performance and declining cost of the devices required for digitization, technology is no longer an important factor. Issues concerning copyright and commercial rights and materials management of the originals continue to be bothersome. The major difficulty is that the IPR implications of digital documents are not clear both nationally as well as internationally. In fact, what constitutes "fair use" is a matter of professional debate and personal judgement. If we take digital imaging as another form of reproduction, then whatever consideration that applies to the photocopies would also apply to the electronic version. Therefore, electronic reproduction of a print-on-paper book, which is expected to be used one-at-a-time basis and hosting of the electronic copy on, say, Intranet might amount to a copyright violation. One has to wait till the publishers themselves come out with e-documents and offer a multi-user or network license. The dreams of technology savvy information scientists will therefore take quite sometime to realize. It would be better if they divert their energy to do something useful, perhaps more realistic.

Imaging of manuscripts, paintings and pictures is more than just an archival application of digitization. These materials are too fragile and precious to be exposed to public handling. The old technology of microfilming, used by the archive departments of the state and the centre, is cumbersome, and the output is difficult to use. Whereas, digitization is a simple process and when required, the digitized text can be hosted on the net for the public.

The ancient texts, paintings and similar mantefacts are mostly free from copyright hassles, as these are a part of the national heritage. Conservation apart, the technology of digitization can help to restore the pictures and paintings, audio and video tracks and bring these back to their pristine glory. It is sad that the acid in paper, heat and humidity, and pests have been taking a heavy toll of such heritage materials. With the loss of such documents, the mankind looses thousands of years of accumulated knowledge.

One need not visit only the gurukools or madrasas to locate heritage documents or the shanty museums for antique paintings. Many of the universities especially the old ones like the Bombay, Calcutta or Madras have these. They also receive transfers from personal collections. These are fondly kept out of public sight so much so that the custodians themselves often forget about the existence of such collections. Materials in special institutions like the Asiatic Society, state and public libraries and innumerable personal collections are veritable treasure troves, which are seldom explored, preserved and professionally organized. It is also alleged that ancient materials easily find eager collectors across the national boundary.

It is beyond the capacity of few organizations like the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts to accomplish the enormous task. Actions are to be nucleated at site or close to the sites. In fact, all the libraries subsisting on government support may be given the mandate and a timeframe to scout for and create databases of target materials, and their digitization. Required infrastructure for the purpose may be put in place through a national program.

The next step involving study, research and interpretation of the materials leading to identification of, or sieving for knowledge elements is too formidable to make off-hand suggestions.

The fact that there is fast progressing and irreversible erosion of the knowledge base and cultural heritage has as yet not been recognized to be important enough to warrant a countrywide action. The irony is that those who have the technology cannot access the materials. And those who have the motivation to act, lack the wherewithal and financial resources.

These days it may be quite fashionable to make eloquent speeches on traditional knowledge and culture. But commensurate translation of such wishful thinking into actions has not been forthcoming.

It is difficult to wake up a person who is dead or not sleeping.

— A. Lahiri

Information Today & Tomorrow, Vol. 20, No. 2, June 2001, p.1-p.2