In the heart of the capital, crores of yellowed manuscripts are delicately being ushered into the digital realm. The National Archives of India (NAI), custodian of the nation's historical records, is unraveling its age-old scrolls and weathered manuscripts, transforming them from relics of the past into pixels of the future.
No longer confined to the shelves, these historical treasures are set to transcend geographical boundaries, inviting scholars, students, and enthusiasts of history to unravel the tapestry of India's past with just a click.
Talking about the NAI repository, director general Arun Singhal told Decode that there are over 70 lakh documents which run into 34 crore pages. The source of these documents are the central ministries and departments who are mandated to transfer records older than 25 years to the NAI, as per the Public Records Act of 1993.
Speaking to Decode, Singh said that while many ministries are prompt in sending their records regularly, many aren’t. “Our plan is to designate records officers in each of these ministries, tasked with streamlining the process and ensuring that the records are well-maintained until they reach us after 25 years," he said.
The repository of the National Archives of India
Talking about the mammoth task of digitisation, he said, “The process of digitisation is underway and we hope to tackle the remaining 30 crore pages in the next two years.”
The digitised records are meant to be uploaded on NAI’s Abhilekh Patal portal, where researchers can view the records with just a click and pay a nominal charge in case they want to download any of them.
“Our unwavering commitment is to ensure accessibility, considering these documents as part of our national heritage. Since taxpayer funds are utilised for their preservation, it is imperative that they remain accessible to all,” said Singhal.
From Dust to Digital: Challenges in Modern Archiving
The NAI has been entrusted with the colossal task of preserving heritage documents, dating back to the 18th century. These range from letters by the Rani of Jhansi to FIRs on Mahatma Gandhi, making the digitisation process a formidable undertaking.
According to Singhal, there are no standard operating procedures laid out for carrying the documents outside the NAI premises so the entire process, from repairing brittle documents to finally uploading them on the portal, has to be done within the ambit.
Repairing these aged documents involves an intricate lamination procedure. It includes sandwiching the document between two sheets of tissue paper, applying a specialised adhesive that dissolves upon contact with warm water. Once laminated, the document can be immersed in hot water to retrieve the original one.
Throwing light on some of the problems faced along the way, Singhal elaborated, “Firstly, as we have hastened the process, we had to work out an average according to which we needed to hand out six lakh pages per day to the scanning vendor. We required that scale of manpower to execute that.”
For this, NAI hired 60 men who work in two shifts, each assigned with carrying 10,000 documents to the scanners.
The iron shelves of the repository date back to the British era
Second challenge was the number of scanners. Previously working with only 15, the revised deadline now warranted 150 scanners. “We cleared out our abandoned rooms to make space for the additional scanners. Now we have 75 scanners running in each shift,” said Singhal.
Finally, there are challenges inherent in the digital scanning process. This involves three key steps: translating transcripts into the base language (English), quality-checking documents returned from the scanners to the repository, and swiftly uploading them onto the portal.
While the first two steps have been taken care of by hiring more people, an expression of interest has been floated for the third as to deliberate what can be the best solution.
Explaining the issue with uploading the data, Singhal said, “Uploading swiftly into the portal is a challenge, compounded by the need to store raw data in two distinct mediums, aligning with disaster recovery guidelines. Upon completion of scanning 34 crore pages, the data volume is estimated to reach around 15 petabytes.”
The records are now being shifted to compactors which provide them with a controlled environment
When Archives Meet AI
As the art of preservation meets the science of innovation, AI has now also entered the world of archives. The NAI's Abhilekh Patal portal will also have an AI-search feature. Expounding on the utility of the same, Singhal said, “Suppose you look for documents related to Kanpur or Prayagraj, you will not be able to get all of it, as their old names were Cawnpore and Allahabad. But with AI, the search result will dig out everything, including photographs, despite the name change.”
The AI feature is set to streamline the portal, throwing up tags and snippets with each result, as per Singhal. “Documents in NAI are stored in a control environment with optimum temperature, moisture and light. When citizens come to physically inspect the record, we don't really want that to happen as that meddles with the controlled setting,” he said.
Thus, our aim is to ensure accessibility for everyone from the comfort of their homes, eliminating the need for mandatory visits, Singhal added.