Located in the mighty Arfa Tower, the seminar room of Information Technology University (ITU) is lit with tamed yellow light that dispersed neatly across the expanse. Built for function rather than form, and conceived in the image of a corporate boardroom, the space of the seminar room almost purposefully denies presence to RGB colours and concentrates its objects to various shades of grey. The transparency of the glass table, the flash of steel frame chairs and the shine of plain white walls embody the ethos of technology university — its resolve to stay youthful, spirited, industrious and at the cutting edge. In this microcosm of modernist style and sensibility, a group of academics, international experts and policymakers gathered to discuss digitisation of Punjab archives that date back to the Mughal Era. The event was jointly organised by ITU’s Centre for Governance and Policy, Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), Punjab Government’s Archives and Libraries Department and Columbia University’s Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities. The extensive two-day seminar (12th-13th March, 2018) was aimed at bringing out the academic, philosophical, ethical, administrative and logistical concerns that come attached with any process of archiving, with the aim of sorting them out before the start of the one-year digitisation exercise. Titled ‘Knowledge Architectures and Archives’, the first day of the seminar was hosted in the ITU while second day proceedings took place in the Punjab Civil Secretariat. The first day proceedings officially began with introductory remarks by PITB Chairman and Vice Chancellor ITU Dr Umar Saif. This was followed by a contextualisation of the entire exercise provided by Mr Umar Rasool, Additional Chief Secretary Punjab, who remained an active participant throughout the seminar. In his opening remarks, Dr Yaqoob Khan Bangash, Program Director at CGP and the brains behind this seminar, emphasised how digital access to these archives will drive up the quality of scholarship in Pakistan and place it on the international academic map. Dr Dennis Tenen, Assistant Professor at Columbia University, began by sketching out the three components of modern scholarship, which he identified as searching for latest work in your field, connecting with other scholars and building up on other people’s work — all of them facilitated by digital access to archives. The last component he termed “the essence of the scientific method”. In a session titled ‘Digitising Partition’, LUMS Assistant Professor Dr Ali Raza shared details of an archive-building project he’s spearheading at his institution. His tech-driven project aims at geo-tagging all the recorded instances of communal violence to obtain a spatial and temporal map of partition-years violence in Punjab Dr Tenen also connected the concept of archive to networks and copyrights by tracing the movement of Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays, first published in 1950, from its point of origin in the United States to a bookstall near Anarkali. He noted that even though the copyrights of the book in the US had expired, a seller in Lahore was imprisoned because he committed the ‘crime’ of reprinting the ‘India version’ of the book to make it more affordable to local buyers. So while the law penalised the reprint of that book by a road-side seller, who was fulfilling the needs of students, the reprint of that same US-origin book by a publishing conglomerate, under the India version tag, went unchecked. ‘Copyright law’, he said, ‘lags behind our transnational, globalised world’. Durba Mitra, Associate Professor at Harvard University who specialises in histories of sexuality in South Asia, gave a philosophical turn to the discussion as she brought forth some epistemic and ethical dilemmas around the practice of archiving. She unpacked the process of naming and labeling in the colonial archives and demonstrated how, for example, diverse sexual practices were reduced to one generic label of ‘prostitute’. This labeling was carried out to generate a finite set of distinct types out of a vast and complex set of behaviors, beliefs, practices and professions encountered by the colonial officials. Naming, in this instance, functions as a tool for closure of epistemic possibilities, and Mitra’s elaboration is a caution against replicating this closure in the digital realm during the act of cataloguing. She then moved to the view of archive as a paradox and explained that the label ‘prostitute’, for example, is both a fixing of a diverse concept and ‘a starting point of knowing India’. It is, in other words, at once a closure of one world and the opening of another — this paradox being an inherent feature of any archive. Her session concluded with a discussion on archive as an encounter, where she raised questions about the contrast between a bound book experience of research versus a searchbox-driven approach, and what it means to arrive at a historical document through search terms (rather than, say, chapters and headings). University of Columbia historian Dr Manan Ahmed Asif continued with the theoretical discussion of the archive and later linked it to a workable proposal. Establishing a difference between digitisation and organisation, he identified the former as a technological endeavor and the latter as a political concern. In his elaboration of the process of archive formation, he talked about the internal and external logic of an archive: the internal logic pertains to categorisation within the text, while the external logic is provided by a cultural authority or manifesto guiding the formation of the archive. As an example, he cited colonial archives (libraries, museums and collections) which, in their formation, were driven by the logic of extraction — the colonial authority’s extraction of manuscripts and materials from the pre-colonial state, personal collections of local rajas and the natives at large. In Dr Asif’s formulation, the act of digitisation is our chance for ‘digital repatriation’ — of returning to people what belongs to them as a collective. This, he proposed, can be done by building a Wikipedia-style community platform around these archives, structured around the principle of open provision of metadata, commentarial data and annotations. Such ‘rethink and remix of the archive’b, he said, would be a counter to colonial categorisation that puts epistemic limits on the text and, by extension, our view of the past. Speaking on the current state of archival access and his personal experience, he said “the only country in which I was denied access is Pakistan” — a remark that resulted in suppressed laughter, embarrassed throat clearings and chair creaks among the audience. In a session titled ‘Digitising Partition’, LUMS Assistant Professor Dr Ali Raza shared details of an archive-building project he’s spearheading at his institution. His tech-driven project aims at geo-tagging all the recorded instances of communal violence to obtain a spatial and temporal map of partition-years violence in Punjab. Starting with the premise that violence is inherently methodical, his aim is to unearth the patterns undergirding this seemingly spontaneous and arbitrary act. “Some of our main sources for this research are police records (1946-48), military records (especially those of Punjab Boundary Force), newspapers, accounts by political parties, autobiographies of migrants and oral testimonies”, he explained. Other than location and time of incidents of violence, his team will also tabulate data on the number of casualties, injuries and modes of violence. Others who spoke on Day 1 included Dr Nadhra Khan of LUMS, Ryan Perkins of Stanford University, Ahmed Salim, Marvi Mazhar, Hira Nabi and Zehra Nawab. The second day of the event commenced with a visit to the Anarkali Tomb where most of the pre-partition archives are housed. After the visits, Dr. Yaqoob Bangash delineated some features of the digitization project that will include optical character recognition (OCR) and folioing of the manuscripts being scanned and archived. “We’re first going to conserve them, then scan them and then put them in acid-free boxes to enhance the life of these manuscripts”, he said. Dr Bangash also shed light on the activities planned around these archives once their digitization is complete. The plan, he said, is to link all federal and provincial archives; collaborate with the British Library in linking different sets of colonial-era archives; collaborate with private archives across Pakistan and help them in preserving their collections; initiate a program of Visiting Fellowships for scholars; and grant public access to documents on selected themes every few months to raise awareness about the existence and value of these archives. An online portal will serve as the primary interface between the Archives Department and interested scholars from Pakistan and around the world. A nominal fee will be charged for this access, he said, explaining that this revenue trickle will be used to finance the maintenance operations of these archives. An overview of the scope and contents of the archives was provided by Abbas Chughtai, Director Punjab Archives. The documents, books, letters and paintings, he said, date back to the 17th century and include Sir Syed’s epistles and Mirza Ghalib’s pension letters, among other historically valuable documents. Iqbal Qaiser, founder of Punjabi Khoj Garh, recounted the issues he faced in tracing the Sikh holy places in Pakistan. “There are 135 holy places of Sikhism in Pakistan which have the potential to attract regular visits by adherents”, he said, adding that most of them are victims of state neglect and are currently in ruins. “This heritage belongs to Pakistan as well, not just Sikhs”, he added. Bringing a practitioner’s viewpoint to the conversation, Bushra Almas Jaswal, Chief Librarian at Forman Christian College, highlighted the logistical roadblocks that librarians run up against in the process of digitisation. These issue range from unavailability of scanning machine spare parts in Pakistan to the compatibility of the digitized object with various existing and future file formats. “We should take into account the fact that most of the software and hardware we’re currently using to view the scanned documents will be obsolete in a decade or so”, she said. Representatives of other provincial and federal archives departments were also present. The event concluded with site visits to Quaid-e-Azam Library, located in Bagh-e-Jinnah, and Fakirkhana Museum, a private collection situated in the Walled City of Lahore. Published in Daily Times, March 19th 2018.