Library digitisation enters third phase

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By Staff Reporter
  • Published 30.08.12
Swapan Chakravorty speaks on ‘The National Library and Digital Resources’. (Anindya Shankar Ray)

In a state where priceless documents are consigned to cobwebs right under the chief minister’s nose, as has happened at Writers’ Buildings, the National Library has entered its third phase of digitisation. This happy fact was shared by Swapan Chakravorty, the director-general of National Library, before a select gathering at The Conclave on Saturday.

“Almost all Bengali books before 1914 have been digitised,” Chakravorty revealed while speaking on “The National Library and Digital Resources”, organised by the International Centre Calcutta.

The library was, in fact, one of the first in the country to walk the tech-talk, only behind Punjabi University, Patiala, and IIT Kharagpur. In the first phase (1999-2000), a digital camera was mounted on a tripod for the purpose of digitisation. In the second (2005-06), a scanner was used.

In the two phases, titled “Down Memory Lane” in government records, some 3.2 million pages were digitised at National Library.

“However, this early momentum was soon lost,” admitted Chakravorty. Worse, the library treated digitisation “merely as a means of preserving old and rare and brittle documents”.

National Library did provide readers with access to the documents stored in the server and in removable media but “this in no way should be termed ‘promoting electronic resources’,” warned Chakravorty, who spoke of the famous Bodleian Library at Oxford University, his alma mater.

Despite the early start, till as late as 2010, National Library didn’t have electronic journals. “The library had one Internet connection — a dial-up, mind you — when I joined in early 2010,” he added. Things have moved on since.

For the last couple of years, the tech infrastructure at the library has been upgraded and an online public access catalogue is now available on site over the local area network (LAN), although there are some mistakes in the subject headings.

Chakravorty has much hope for the library website (, which is divided into a static part and a dynamic component. This gives the library “some kind of a protection”, he pointed out. A new service toll system has been made operational and the LAN has been extended. A database of National Library holdings is hosted on the remote NIC server and can be accessed through the dynamic site.

The static part of the website has been “thoroughly edited”. In 2010, the library started subscribing to the 10Mbps leased line Internet from BSNL. Though the Rs 40lakh annual bill is subsidised to Rs 16lakh, Chakravorty feels “we should have got it free from the National Knowledge Network.”

The leased line has made the introduction of electronic journals possible and the library now subscribes to over 7,000 e-journals. Electronic databases such as Oxford Dictionary Online and Oxford Bibliography Online have been acquired. According to Chakravorty, two acquisitions have been of immense help — Early English Books Online, which contains full texts of around 125,000 titles printed between 1475 and 1700, that is all titles since William Caxton printed the first English book. The other is a database of theses, containing 2.7 million citations to dissertations and the full text of 1.2 million theses (downloadable in PDF format) produced across the world since the 1860s.

E-books were introduced this year; National Libray is the first public library in the country to do so. At the same time, in-house production of digital material has re-commenced. “The third phase of digitisation of select materials started in October 2011 and in this phase, we hope to cover 2 million pages. The directory of e-resources of the library has also been completed,” informed Chakravorty.

But he issued a word of caution too. While going digital was a need of the times, he insisted it was not possible or even desirable for a public depository library to be a repository of born-digital material, particularly in a multi-lingual country like ours.

“The National Library cannot afford to ignore the enormous collection of books, journals, manuscripts and documents that have piled up since its inception as Calcutta Public Library in 1836,” he pointed out. Digital material being generated every day, particularly in vernacular, needs to be housed elsewhere, and such a place should be equipped to receive and manage born-digital materials, he suggested.