Click here for more...

(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 22, March 1-15, 2011
Secrets of Tamil Nadu's Archives
(By The Editor)

It is the oldest Government archives in the world and boasts of records pertaining to transactions in the Madras Presidency dating to the 1670s. In any country, such a collection would be considered a treasure trove and its contents would be made available to research scholars, both of the academic and amateur varieties. Not so it seems in our Madras that is Chennai. Gaining access to the records and papers in the Tamil Nadu Archives is an arduous and frustrating exercise as many a researcher has discovered. There are also several complaints about the way in which the Archives are maintained and run.

Tamil Nadu's Records Office and Archives.

Till a few years ago, the Tamil Nadu Archives was easy to get into. All that was needed was a letter of introduction and then, following the payment of a fee, you became a member and could carry on your research. Then the rules were changed and it became compulsory that any researcher wanting to gain access had to be affiliated to an educational institution. That meant that even serious scholars outside the education system were denied access. A recent instance is that of an author who was consistently denied admission till he managed to get one of the highest authorities in the State to call the officer-in-charge of the Archives. Even then, the introducer was asked to send a letter along with the applicant and only then was a limited admission given. It is not clear as to what the Archives hopes to achieve by allowing only selective access.

Once inside, research scholars discover that matters are not made any easier. Accessing files is a slow process, with the Archives being chronically short-staffed. The files and the magazines are not digitised with the result that researchers are not allowed to handle original documents that could crumble at a touch. Digitisation has begun, but the progress is very slow. The cataloguing of books and periodicals too is always backlogged resulting in search and access being painful exercises. Copying facilities are frequently out of order and so it takes time for researchers to get copies of what they want. Also, the staff is not knowledgeable about content. Thus, if a file was marked ‘confidential’ in the 1920s it is still considered top secret! There was a time when the Archives had a fullfledged archivist as the head and that resulted in pioneering research and publishing efforts. Today, heading the Archives is more of a punishment posting for bureaucrats and that has its own de-motivating effect.

Given these difficulties, it is no surprise that most researchers prefer working with either the Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi or the British Library in London. In both cases there is the additional cost of travel and stay in distant cities, not always affordable by scholars who work on shoestring budgets. The British Library also charges a hefty fee for any material that is to be accessed. This too may not be within the means of researchers. It is indeed ironical that Chennai-based scholars have to travel to distant parts only to access what is available in their
own backyard.

It is necessary that the Tamil Nadu Government wakes up to the fact that it possesses a storehouse of information. At a time when universities abroad are scanning and uploading rare and out-of-copyright books on to the internet, the Tamil Nadu Archives must realise that it gains nothing by being secretive about the contents of its records. And that it owes a duty to researchers, academic or otherwise.

In this issue

Secrets of Tamil Nadu's Archives
No photographs, please, this is Chennai
Bins of cruelty
New uses for old buildings
A Home for ­Music
Masters of 20th Century Madras science
Why does Tamil Nadu keep failing?
Other stories

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Dates for your diary


Back to current issue...