Digitisation preserves Punjab region's heritage and culture

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Gurpreet Singh Sohal describes a digital preservation initiative in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan

‘The art of a country reflects the psychology of its people. The quality of the art reflects the richness or the poverty of its creative force. And the quality of the appreciation of that art, in its turn, is an indication of the aesthetic and intellectual development of that people,’ said the eminent Indian painter Amrita Shergill.

In today’s society, digitisation is the key to immortality but flooding, destruction and ignorance have been problems for generations. With these threats in mind, some 15 years ago, experts in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan began thinking about a digital library to preserve the region’s heritage. The region includes Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pardesh, certain areas of Rajasthan and Western Punjab, which is now in Pakistan. The aim of the project is to locate, collect, preserve, digitise and make accessible the accumulated wisdom of the Punjab, whatever the script, language, religion, nationality or physical condition of the original resources.

The Panjab Digital Library (PDL) formally began operations in 2003. In its early years the library worked at its own but, with such a big scope to the project, in 2007 the founders decided to take donations from the outside world. The library formally launched its work online in 2009 and the resources that have been digitised are now accessible worldwide.

The project gathers literature from two main sources: the villages of Punjab and the region’s universities and colleges. It is interesting to note that the literature available from the villages is much more secure and in a better condition than some of the literature to be found in the universities and colleges.

To date, the PDL has digitised more than 6.5 million items, some of which are 300 years old. These include manuscripts, maps, rare books, newspapers, magazines, photographs, and miniatures (see box).

A technical challenge

Much work has been required to build up the collection. The digitised resources are in a range of scripts, including: Gurumukhi, Devnagari, Roman, Persian, and Arabic.

What’s more, capturing the resources goes beyond simply preserving the text. As Davinder Pal Singh, executive director of the PDL, explained, ‘Not only is the text of the source or manuscript important from a preservation point of view but the texture of the paper also needs to be preserved. In India, the texture and decorative art is very rich and long-established.’

The Dublin Core Metadata (DCM) best practice has been adopted for preparing metadata about digital collections by almost all digitisation institutions and PDL is no exception to this. The PDL Metadata Schema (PDLMS) was developed after studying the DCM schema. It consists of all the mandatory and optional elements of the DCM metadata schema as well as a few elements that are required for the local and regional needs of the PDL.

The library also continues to explore and experiment to create new tools to make the digitisation more comprehensive and its online display more user-friendly. As part of this, it has come up with its Digital Image Management Software (PDLDIMS) to cater to the PDL’s needs.

Copyright is retained by whoever owns the source; others can use it only for educational purposes. Data mining of books and newspapers is done only in the case of English documents. This is because optical character recognition (OCR) for non-Roman scripts is still in development and is currently only available on a trial basis. OCR for the Gurumukhi script, for example, is being developed at Punjabi University, Patiala.

The project site is maintained centrally. Backup is an important aspect of any preservation strategy and backups of the PDL are done weekly. The PDL is backed up in six places, in three different formats (two copies in DVD form, two on hard drives and two on magnetic tapes).

The project has already gained recognition, winning the Manthan Award India 2007 for best E-Content and the Manthan Award South Asia 2010 for best E-Content. There has also been acclaim in local press: on 15 November 2005, the Indian Express wrote: ‘They have done what the collective effort of Punjab Archives Department, three universities in Punjab and the SGPC failed to do.’

The PDL team has plenty of plans for the future too. It intends to set up a digital library in the every college in the region of Punjab and build 3D images as a record of 93 forts in Punjab that are becoming seriously damaged. In addition, the material of Western Punjab, which is in Pakistan, needs to be covered and an online catalogue of all Punjabi literature and a preservation laboratory for the region are planned.

Gurpreet Singh Sohal is a librarian at GGD SD College in India


The Panjab Digital Library (PDL): www.panjabdigilib.org

The collection and its sources

The Panjab Digital Library includes resources from the Government Museum, Chandigarh; Kurukshetra University, Kurukshetra; Beant Singh Memorial, Chandigarh; the Institute of Sikh Studies; the Department of Languages, Punjabi; Chief Khalsa Diwan; Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee; Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee, Delhi; Nirmal Sanskrit Vidyala, Banaras; St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi; Punjabi Sahitya Academy, Ludhiana; and Takhat Sri Patna Sahib, Patna.

Important assets in the collection include a 100-year old folio of a hand-written Gurmukhi Primer/textbook; a 300-year old manuscript in Gurumukhi, in quite poor condition, which is claimed to be written by Sri Guru Gobind Singh, who was the tenth Guru of the Sikhs. There are also 114 pages of the 19th century Quran Sharif with different calligraphy and art work on each page, which can be found in Kurkshetra University.

There is also a letter written on 17 March, 1711 by Diwan Bikhari Das who was a spy of Jaipur in Punjab. The letter was written to the Raja of Jaipur informing him that Jahandar Shah had been ordered to proceed towards Lahore to suppress the followers of Banda who killed Shams Khan. Bhup[ati] Prakash, the Raja of Nahan, had been imprisoned in an iron-cage. The letter also said that Bhupati was charged with assisting Banda and instructed to house the Banda upon capture.

The collection also includes 200 maps, the oldest dating back to 1782 A.D. In addition, more than 13,000 photographs and 4000 miniatures have been digitised so far. The digital library also holds periodicals such as The Indian Express, The Tribune, The Akali Patrika, The Ajit, The Hind Samachar and The Jag Bani.