Friday, March 18, 2011

A digital tribute

India, despite mentions in history texts of places that rivalled Alexandria, does not have a contemporary tradition of scholarship or public libraries. Indeed the few government-owned collections of books and archives do not welcome readers. In 1991 or so, when I had just got into university, I decided to ask the librarian of the Indian Institute of Science for permission to use the library. Remember that these were different times, no Internet, no TV or cable. The librarian was curious to see my application and informed me with considerable pride that he had "hundreds" of pending applications from Ph.D. scholars who had not been allowed access. He said that he could allow me only if my University made an application to the Institute and so on. It seemed like it was a NO, and after listening to him for a while, I dropped the word that my father was a faculty member at the institute. He was a bit irritated and upset that I had not told him this before and within a few minutes I had a special entry pass. Obviously nobody had educated this man about egalitarianism or public service. Looking back I can only say that this librarian was clearly a hindrance to society and the worst thing was that he was not alone in this business of public disservice. Twenty years later I needed to look up something at the University of Agricultural Sciences and being an alumnus decided to approach the librarian. This time I was told that I had to be a government employee to be allowed access and that if I worked in the private sector he could not let me use the library. As a tax-payer this did not go down well with me and I told him that regardless of whether I was employed or not and regardless of who paid me, he would have to treat me as he would, any other member of the public. Somehow he heeded and asked me to pay a Rs 25 library consulting fee, after which I was happy to find the book I wanted and it was in exactly the same rack it had been years earlier.
Cover in 1972

Archives and libraries unlike museums in India are not welcoming. Even the museums are often not doing as much as their counterparts elsewhere. Perhaps the greatest empowerment in recent times has been the growth of the Internet Archive. The associated Biodiversity Heritage Library project has further enriched life for lay-scholars like me and this sudden wealth of literature access make one feel like one lifetime is not enough. Incidentally, the Digital Library of India has a useful project although their website, like most Government of India websites, looks rather primitive and appears like the work of  high-school -level programmers.  They do not respond to email, so suggestions made are probably trashed. A trick to get the material into usable form is to download it (and you need to have a  hacker bent for this) and re-upload it into the Internet Archive. Last year I decided that the time had come to give back something especially as it was now possible to upload material to the Internet Archive. I bought a Canon CanoScan LIDE 200. It is an inexpensive scanner (under Rs 3000) and a piece of smart engineering. Unlike the arc-lamps of old scanners it uses an array of LEDs and sensors to do the scanning, greatly reducing heat build up and energy usage. It actually draws all its power from the single USB cord that connects it to a computer. For a while  it seemed to be locked to Windows, but I recently discovered how to get the SANE drivers working on Ubuntu and can now heartily recommend this series to home users.
Zafar Futehally (left) in 2000

The real reason for my buying the scanner however was a bunch of old material that had landed in my custody. This was gifted to me by Padmashri Zafar Futehally, and some of the material came from the collection of late Dr Gift Siromoney, a polymath at the Madras Christian College.  Some additional material had been gifted by Dr. R. K. Bhatnagar, when he was retiring from the entomology department of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi. Having earlier extracted information out of these pages into the BirdSpot database, my initial hope was to hand it to a library that could demonstrate that they welcomed scholars - but such an animal does not appear to exist. There are many "bibliophiles" who are interested in the physical book, the smell, the binding, the feeling of owning a non-duplicatable piece of history. In my case the piece of history I was holding was rapidly disintegrating into breakfast for Thysanura and Blattaria and my decision was to scan it even if it meant damaging the original physical form. And so several months later, working each evening after work,  had them all scanned and compiled into PDF documents. These were then subsequently uploaded into the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive runs an OCR on this and although there are errors in the process, it makes the entire text searchable and thereby giving it an edge over the hardcopy version. One can run a Google search with "keyword" to find material on the Internet Archive.
The quest in 1982

The Newsletter for Birdwatchers is a very interesting private circulation serial. Started in the mid '50s, produced using a mimeograph (or cyclostyled as known in India - usually by a hand-cranked instrument produced by a company called Gestetner) and later moving to newer printing technology, it gathered notes on birdlife from across India. Perhaps citizen science is the neologism for this but some of the observations recorded in it are significant and have even been incorporated into the second edition of the "Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan" - the ten volume work whose first edition was produced by Salim Ali and Sidney Dillon Ripley.

The scanned volumes of the Newsletter for Birdwatchers
[01 + (2)] [02] [03] [04]
[05] [06  + (6)] [07] [08]
[09] [10][11+(12)] [12+(4)]
[13] [14] [15] [16+(10)]
[17 (missing 1,3,8,9)] [18+(2+6)] [19+(1+7)] [20(3+4)]
[21] [22] [23] [24] (missing 1-2)
[25(5-6)+(9-10)][26+(3-4)+(7-8)] [27+(3-4)]

[Index 12-13] (Note: the frequency of publication changes)

[28(1-2)] 28(3-4) [28(5-6)] [28(7-8)] [28(9-10)] [28 (11-12)]
[29(1-2)] [29(3-4)] [29(5-6)] [29(7-8)] [29(9-10)] [29(11-12)]
[30(1-2)] [30(3-4)] [30(5-6)] [30(7-8)] [30(9-10)] [30(11-12)]
[31(1-2)] [31(3-4)] [31(5-6)] [31(7-8)] [31(9-10)] [31(11-12)]
[32(1-2)] [32(3-4)] [32(5-6)] [32(7-8)] [32(9-10)] [32(11-12)]
[33(1)] [33(2)] [33(3)] [33(4)] [33(5)] [33(6)]
[34(1)] [34(2)] [34(3)] [34(4)] [34(5)] [34(6)]
[35(1)] [35(2)] [35(3)] [35(4)] [35(5)] [35(6)]
[36(1)] [36(2)] [36(3)] [36(4)] [36(5)] [36(6)]
[37(1)] [37(2)] [37(3)] [37(4)] [37(5)] [37(6)]
[38(1)] [38(2)] [38(3)] [38(4)] [38(5)] [38(6)]
[39(1)] [39(2)] [39(3)] [39(4)] [39(5)] [39(6)]

Editorial board in 1962
It has been some time since these scans have been available on the Internet Archive. The hundreds of downloads since and numerous other untracked page views are a clear indication of how many people are interested in such content and just how many have been denied access all along is anyones guess. With material such as this becoming available, the concept of "grey literature" changes. The definition making used of the idea that it was not widely published no longer holds.  This post is meant to be a tribute to the founder of the newsletter who turns 91 tomorrow on 19 March 2011 as well as the numerous contributors, many of whom have passed. If there is anyway in which the contribution of the newsletter to Indian ornithology can be surpassed, it could only be by improving access, preferably by producing a high quality open-access-and-freely-licensed journal or database system especially for collating occurrence records and short notes.

The physical versions of the above newsletters languish with me. If there is any archive that is interested in having it I shall be happy to deposit them. Any takers?

Should anyone be interested in obtaining help on contributing scans of materials (non-copyrighted  works, unpublished manuscripts, archived notes, government of India publications or even out-of-print orphan works) or have access to the material marked as missing above and are willing to fill in the gaps, please do let me know.

8 June 2011 - Mr S Sridhar has since made the issues from 2000 onwards available here.
19 Feb 2013 - The physical versions were passed on to the library at ATREE (thanks to NA Aravind)
Some scans of clippings of newspaper articles by Zafar Futehally are now available here and here.
27 Feb 2013 - added links to some later blog posts
26 Aug 2013 - Mr Futehally passed away on the 11th of August 2013.
22 Apr 2014 - Thanks to Shanthi and Ashish Chandola, who paid for and obtained photocopies of some of the missing issues from the BNHS. These are being / have been scanned and uploaded but the quality is poor and some pages may have been missed either in photocopying are or missing in the BNHS library copies. The substantially missing issues are 17(1), 17(3), 17(8), and 17(9).

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