Category Archives: South Asia Collection

Distinctive, Collaborative Collections Work in the Subcontinent

Regular travel “to the field” is an indispensable tool in the area studies librarian’s toolkit.  Firsthand knowledge of the cultural, political and intellectual context for the production and distribution of information resources is essential to maintaining both our expertise and currency in support of the global literacy being nurtured and developed here at UT.  I was fortunate to travel to India again this January due to the generosity of UT’s South Asia Institute and the many donors to UTL’s 2019 Hornraiser funding campaign.  I am immensely grateful to both for supporting this mission-critical acquisitions-, networking-, and professional development work! 

This year, I was able to visit 3 north Indian cities (Delhi, Lucknow and Varanasi) and I was able to achieve 3 major goals:

  • Acquire distinctive materials for UT’s collections, including materials specifically requested by UT faculty to advance their teaching and research but also books in Hindi and Urdu that will deepen our ever-growing South Asian Popular and Pulp Fiction Collection
woman in sales transaction with man in black coat and hat, in a book stall
Buying pulp fiction titles in Lucknow.
twelve people (from the english department at the university of lucknow and librarian mary rader) standing, smiling for the camera.
With the English Department at the University of Lucknow
  • Advance post-custodial open access efforts on South Asian Studies, including recently completed and collaboratively funded digitization projects, for example the newly available journals (Viplav, Viplavi Tract and Baagi), while simultaneously advocating the use of open access initiatives such as the South Asia Open Archive

One project I have been working on for the past 5 years exemplifies the type of work we UT global studies liaisons try to do while traveling abroad: the Sajjad Zaheer Digital Archive.  The opportunity to digitize the papers of the 20th century Progressive Writer, Mr. Sajjad Zaheer, was brought to me back in 2014 by 3 UT professors—Kamran Ali (Anthropology), Akbar Hyder (Asian Studies) and Snehal Shingavi (English)—as all 3 used Sajjad Zaheer’s work in their scholarship.  As the Zaheer family had made an MoU with Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) to be the physical home of the collection, over multiple trips to Delhi and via countless email messages over the years, I worked with both the family members and with representatives of AUD’s Centre for Community Knowledge to inventory the collection, to get permissions to digitize the material, and to put the resulting files online in an open access repository.  Successful appeals to UT’s South Asia Institute and the South Asia Materials Project (SAMP) at the Center for Research Libraries for funding and eventual hosting of the archive enabled the work.  I used connections I had made on previous trips to facilitate the careful scanning work with digitization partners in India (the Roja Muthiah Research Library).  At our meeting this year in Delhi, we celebrated the completion of our initial objectives—digitally preserved and openly accessible copies of the collection

archival photo of three people (Sajjad Zaheer, Jawaharlal Nehru and Nehru's daughter) on a stone pathway in a garden
Photo from the Online Archive of Zaheer with his daughter and India’s 1st Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Digital collections are never done, however, so we also used this year’s meeting to put our heads together to explore ways to improve access and discovery of the archive (a digital humanities project currently underway at UTL, again generously funded by UT’s South Asia Institute) and to think of other authors’ work we would like to present in similar ways.  The project may have taken 5 years but they were productive, cooperative, and mutually beneficial years.  I can only hope for such success in future projects!

Vibrant but Vanishing Lending Libraries of South Asia

Inside Eashwari Lending Library.
Inside Eashwari Lending Library.

Throughout the fall of 2018, I was honored to be able to convene UT South Asia Institute’s Seminar Series, “Popular | Public | Pulp: form and genre in South Asian cultural production.”  Throughout the series, speakers explored printed examples of South Asian popular culture—mysteries, romances, comics—as they underscore and grapple with historical and contemporary concerns such as identity, power, & representation.  In addition to interrogating literary approaches, speakers in the series further addressed questions of gender, of sexuality, of caste & religion, and of authority, helping readers and scholars alike challenge what qualifies as “worthy” both in terms of style and substance.

One goal of the series was to draw attention to UT Libraries growing collection of popular and pulp fiction in South Asian languages, a collection that is nationally and internationally unique in gathering and preserving popular materials and subsequently making them available for users.  Beyond publicity, however, the series was also intended to uncover reading and distribution networks for these materials so that I might continue to creatively and productively acquire them while on acquisitions and networking trips to South Asia.  In November and December, and with the generous funding of both UTL and the South Asia Institute, I was privileged to travel to India and more deeply explore a venue repeatedly invoked in the fall speaker series: small lending libraries.

Small lending libraries are a cultural phenomenon throughout South Asia which support themselves through highly localized, neighborhood-based memberships.  Unlike UT Libraries which has a long-term and “long-tail” research agenda, the mission of these lending libraries is to support current and highly popular reading practices, not unlike many small public libraries in the U.S.

Senthil Lending Library.
Senthil Lending Library.

While in Chennai, I was able to visit two lively lending libraries—Easwari and Senthil—to observe their operations, to ask questions about the popularity of particular authors, and to acquire second-hand materials.  Both libraries carry all the bestsellers—in English [Mills and Boon, Harry Potter, James Patterson] and in Tamil [Rajesh Kumar, Indira Soundarajan, Raminichandran]—and experience high circulation of their books.  Because preservation is not part of their mission, the libraries are willing to sell the most ephemeral of their materials, namely monthly periodicals which include crime, detective and “women’s” fiction (romances as well as family dramas).

Eashwari Lending Library.
Easwari Lending Library.

Inside Eashwari Lending Library.
Inside Easwari Lending Library.

Despite the vibrant activity I observed at both these libraries, I am told that lending libraries are slowly vanishing from the South Asian landscape, ceding space to other entertainments and ways of “time pass.”  I was happy to have had the chance to visit these libraries and I do hope they will still be open and serving their readers on my next visit.  If not, though, I am comforted knowing that UT Libraries is participating in documenting and preserving some of this literary and cultural history for researchers long into the future.