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THE STUDENT, LIBRARIES AND MACHINES
- Recent debates over photocopying expose the many complications that underlie the practice

What did we do when there were no photo-copiers? From my undergraduate days over two decades ago, I seem to remember an economy of paucity where books, class-notes and the low cunning needed to pass examinations served as the principal currencies of knowledge. Other than a few cheap editions and reprints, most books were expensive and difficult to come by outside libraries. So we took ourselves to the reading rooms and tried to switch off the world outside for at least a couple of hours.

This is still not a bad model for the humanities, where often all that you need to do is to place a reasonably intelligent young person and a large number of books in mutual proximity. But Indian libraries are not welcoming or comfortable places, nor do they stay open beyond office hours. The mandarins responsible for higher education do not seem to realize the need of properly equipped and staffed libraries, and waste their time on footling irrelevancies.

However, it is also true that we could make do with fewer books in our time, for there was a one-size-fit-all curriculum which was rarely revised. In addition, the leisurely gait of an annual system meant that there was no mad rush for study materials. Then in the 1990s, things began to slowly change, with ‘optional’ and ‘special’ papers beginning to daringly raise their heads — for the first time, the research interests of the teachers started to be reflected in the curricula.

In 2003, Jadavpur University became one of the first institutes of higher learning to switch wholly to a semester system. The resultant culture shock played out differently — some departments resented it, and did a cut-paste job with their old syllabus, with disastrous consequences. Others, such as ours, dismantled the older system completely and extended the scope of optional courses to cover nearly half the syllabus. Evaluation methods were also changed, with reduced weight given to terminal examinations, and more stress given to continuous evaluation.

Given the wide range of new texts that were brought into the changed syllabi, the idea of the ‘set’ text began to become redundant. Library acquisitions could not keep pace with the needs of both students and teachers. In a semester at JU, four courses are taught and each of the courses may have anything between half-a-dozen to a dozen texts. In a course titled ‘Crime Fiction’ I once taught, there were nearly 30 detective novels. Which student could be expected to buy all the texts? And which library would stock them? We had perforce to depend on borrowing, photocopying and in some cases, e-texts or pdf versions of the books. It was that or not running the course at all.

I do realize that the scenario is different with affiliating universities which do not have the luxury of rotating their syllabi or offering optionals. But at the same time, there is a need to move away from the stultifying system of teaching the same syllabus year after year and sending students scurrying to photocopy the same old stuff. Sometimes, the act of photocopying itself becomes a surrogate for study, with proportionately less time devoted to the actual task of reading the copies.

Having said which, the fuss made by the three publishers about photocopying at Delhi University has a faintly comic ring about it. The fact that they did nothing all these years indicates that it was not worth their while then to prosecute, but now the peanuts DU has to shell out as licensing fee suddenly seem to matter. Add to it that one of the trio — which specializes in publishing academic journals — is notorious for charging the most unconscionable prices to libraries worldwide and not paying a paisa to its contributors.