Saving the past for the future

February 7, 2010
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, MUMBAI, Feb 8 – In the basement of the University of Mumbai’s Fort Campus library, a towering Gothic-style cathedral to knowledge built by the British in the mid-19th century, half-a-dozen people are hard at work.

Some are hunched over computers and a state-of-the-art scanner. Others busy themselves in an air-conditioned laboratory, surrounded by fumigation units, bell jars of chemicals, trays of clear liquids and metal drying racks.

This is the institution’s rare books restoration project, which aims to return ancient and hard-to-find works to their former glory, so the scholars of the future can learn from those of the past.

Everyone involved shares the same enthusiasm for the task — making damaged books fit for another 100 years.

"Future generations should know what our history is," said Kirti Joshi, an assistant conservator, wiping her hands on a white apron. "To do so we have to preserve it."

The 2.5 million rupee (55,000 dollar) project began early last year and is nearing completion.

So far 100,000 pages — or around 300 books — have been digitised to UNESCO standards and 88,000 pages cut, cleaned, laminated with chemical-free Japanese tissue paper and rebound in red leather covers with gold-embossed lettering.

Those involved want to extend the project, hoping that if money is found, 500,000 books from the university’s 800,000-strong collection can be saved.

Amol Divkar, an academic whose private archival science firm is undertaking the restoration work, says it has been a labour of love, with the funding just about covering the cost of materials and labour.

But he said it has a wider significance — to set a precedent for other institutions around the country.

"We are determined to show that despite all the constraints, we can do a wonderfully positive project," the historical researcher told AFP.

India is one of world’s oldest civilisations, home throughout the years to pre-historic settlements, Mughal invaders, British colonialists and modern-day freedom fighters.

But bar a few exceptions, the upkeep of the nation’s heritage is often lacking.

Mumbai’s Anglican cathedral, St Thomas’s, for example, has birth records dating back to the 17th century, which could be a boon for family history enthusiasts and historians, said Divkar.

But the piles of hand-written ledgers are gathering dust, mould and decay.

Like many areas of life, funding is a problem, he said, and getting government help involves a painfully slow process of tenders and red tape.

Trained book preservation specialists like Joshi and her colleagues are in short supply, with some of their work correcting that of well-meaning individuals who have previously attempted emergency repairs.

"People do preservation but they don’t have the right kind of knowledge about how books should be treated," said assistant librarian Anjali Kale, holding up one tome restored with greaseproof paper.

"See, its pages are curled. That’s to do with the heat."

With a lack of will, capacity or knowledge, it’s left to passionate individuals like Tilaka Joseph, the former assistant librarian who initiated the project, to stubbornly look for alternatives.

She convinced Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest software exporter, to provide funding.

The giant Tata Group conglomerate is also involved in helping the prestigious Asiatic Society of Mumbai restore its 200,000-strong collection.

Some 3,200 books have been restored there, including a manuscript of Dante’s "Divine Comedy", a copy of Charles Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species" and delicate illustrated Buddhist palm leaf manuscripts dating from the 13th century.

An adopt-a-book scheme has been running at the 195-year-old institution since 1991 for individuals to donate cash towards the cost of restoration.

Galileo’s 1632 work "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems", one of the many volumes gathering dust in the society’s dark, musty basement, is to be restored with finance from local Italian business people.

"The main thing is getting donors to adopt books or boosting the coffers to allow us to restore the books," said the organisation’s president Aroon Tikekar.

Without consistent funding, Tikekar and Divkar fear for the disappearance of India’s heritage as misuse, overuse and the damaging effects of tropical temperatures, monsoon humidity and insect infestation eat away at old pages.

"It’s important that this information or knowledge is disseminated to all," Divkar said.

"Some of the best pieces of information in the world from the 17th century are available in Mumbai. Very few people are aware of it.

"If this is not made available for future researchers, it crumbles to powder and is lost to posterity. Valuable knowledge will also be lost.

"We have what we have because of what our ancestors have done and produced for us. If we can’t preserve it, we will have failed."

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