The challenges and potential of Lahori libraries and archives
On my first visit to the Punjab State Archives in Lahore this summer, I met with the archive’s Director, Mohammed Abbas Chughtai, who explained that the archive and its libraries have received fewer visitors after the events of 9/11 due to concerns about safety in the country. The archive does, however, receive some non-native and international scholars, and the Research Officer and Director were eager to help as well as point visitors in the direction of other useful resources. Coupled with this enthusiasm is the “chai and chat” culture of Pakistan; before delving into your research, you may well spend some time waiting, chatting, and being introduced to people. While researchers, including myself, will be in a rush to get started, these conversations have proved to be fruitful and a great way into the history and archive culture of Lahore. For instance, through conversations with the Director of the State Archives, I found out about materials at the Punjab Public Library and ended up spending a lot of time there. Indeed, the archives and libraries provide a snapshot of the vast archival and scholarly landscape of Lahore and are great, untapped treasure troves.
- The Punjab State Archives holds extensive Urdu, Persian and English language records. Its strength lies in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Punjab government records. The archive also holds exhibitions, especially for national holidays and commemorations, and is home to the Tomb of Anarkali, a popular tourist attraction (see figure 1). A digitisation project has also been announced which, in the absence of a digital catalogue, will help researchers search for material before visiting.
- The archive of the National College of Arts, formerly the Mayo School of Arts, one of the oldest colleges in Lahore, holds a lot of college administration documents, correspondence with the Education Department of the colonial government, and information about exhibitions across the Empire. Their collections are particularly useful for someone researching colonial education systems and exhibition cultures in the Punjab.
Picturesque libraries and a wealth of material:
- The Civil Secretariat Library is part of the Punjab State Archives and, combined with the archive, holds over 80,000 books and millions of documents. The main catalogue handbook holds a huge wealth of colonial-era English-language publications. Unfortunately, quite a few of the books listed in the handbook have been lost in transit as the library has relocated various times. However, the labyrinth library is certainly a great place to visit, browse and conduct research.
- The Government of Punjab Public Library proved invaluable; alongside books and contemporary journals, the library also houses separate magazine, newspaper and reports sections and many colonial-era journals in English and Urdu (see figure 2). The librarians were friendly and extremely helpful. However, some of the cataloguing systems are out-dated and include manual processes which resulted in not being able to locate material, as other researchers have also contended.
Challenges in the archives:
The climate of Pakistan presented its own preservation pressures. The heat and humidity, despite the use of fans (and, at times, air conditioning) as cooling methods, results in brittle paper that is prone to easy wear and tear and the rapid accumulation of dust. A few of the libraries and archives I visited did not have many handling restrictions: use of pens was not prohibited and use of fans in the heat were vital for the user but contributed to the damaging of records. The limited restrictions were also useful when viewing and handling full records and taking photographs, however in order to help maintain records for future, researchers should not take advantage of this and handle material with care. When discussing the preservation of archives in Pakistan, Saamia Ahmed, the associate professor in charge of the archives at the National College of Arts, noted that finding space was one of the biggest challenges facing small and local archives. Lastly, I observed some haphazard preservation practices which severely hampered both the work of the current librarians/archivists and a user’s search. At the Research Society of Pakistan, based at the University of Punjab, copies of multiple newspaper dailies and magazines had been stapled and bound together in the early days of the archive which meant that the current librarian struggled to locate certain items (see figure 3). This practice also meant that some records remained incomplete and the binding in some cases was also poor which resulted in material damage.
Despite some trials in the archives (inevitable for historians) the experience and sheer untapped content in the various libraries and archives of Lahore were fascinating to observe. They provide great potential for local historians of the colonial Punjab as well as researchers of Pakistan and colonial India.
Figure 1: Punjab State Archives in the Tomb of Anarkali, Civil Secretariat
Figure 2: Newspapers and journals at the Government of Punjab Public Library
Figure 3: Avadh Punch bound with other newspaper dailies at the Pakistan Research Society
Photo credits: Author’s own with permission from the stated institutions where appropriate.