Sept. 27, 2000

Columbia and Chicago Lead International Effort to Rescue Rare Books Damaged by Indian Flood

By Lauren Marshall

Columbia University and the University of Chicago are leading an international effort to rescue one of the world's finest collections of rare books and journals in the Urdu language from a devastating flood in Hyderabad, India.

The collection of 26,500 books and about 60,000 magazines, journals and other periodicals in Urdu, a major language spoken throughout South Asia, is owned by a consortium of American universities. Most materials date from the 19th and early 20th centuries and very few are available in any U.S. library.

The flood, the result of a monsoon, left nearly 100 people dead and inundated a large portion of the city, including the library housing the rare Urdu collection. The books and periodicals were covered in nine feet of water and mud. As a result of the international effort, the damaged books have been shipped to freezers throughout Hyderabad, where they are being stored until conservators can begin work on them. Freezing preserves the books and prevents the development of mold. The books will be dried before they are microfilmed.

In 1996, the consortium purchased the collection from a private owner and began the long-term project of microfilming the entire collection. The consortium is working to make select portions of the collection available worldwide via the Internet. The microfilm will be housed at the Center for Research Libraries in Chicago and the books will remain with close Indian collaborators in the Sundarayya Vignana Kendram building, a library in Hyderabad.

At the time a flood hit Hyderabad on August 24, the Indian staff had microfilmed about 2,000 of the rarer books.

"We are most concerned about the journals and other periodicals, which are quite rare," said James Nye, Bibliographer of the South Asian Collection at the University of Chicago libraries and Director of the South Asian Languages and Area Center at the University.

According to David Magier, director of Area Studies for the Columbia Libraries, the collection "represents a cultural treasure for the South Asian region as a whole, particularly India and Pakistan, and provides a unique window into a field of study that is central to Columbia's academic programs in South Asian history and culture, and Urdu language and literature." Columbia and the University of Chicago rank among the world's leading centers for South Asian Studies, both in teaching and scholarship about the region's heritage, current affairs and its classical and modern languages.

Among the 26,500 damaged books are volumes invaluable to scholars, including histories of India and government records. Additionally, there are 12,000 titles alone that deal with the literature and development of the language. Books on religion and biographies also are included in the collection.

"The periodicals cover a wide range of topics, going back to about 1850, and are an invaluable source of information for anyone studying Urdu and the region," Nye said. The periodicals cover traditional medicine, culture, and other aspects of life throughout South Asia.

"We are determining which books might have duplicates elsewhere and concentrating on saving those that are most rare," Nye said. Assisting local experts on book preservation is a team of conservators who have worked on previous projects, such as the rescue of material from a 1966 flood in Florence, Italy.

Urdu, also known as Hindustani, is spoken by more than 56 million people worldwide as the lingua franca of northern India during most of the 19th century, used by both the Muslim and Hindu communities. In addition, Urdu was the primary South Asian language used by colonial rulers for administrative purposes during that early period. It is usually written and printed in the Perso-Arabic script.

Columbia's tradition in the languages and cultures of the region goes back 150 years. Currently, the School of International and Public Affairs fosters advanced studies on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. (Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Father of the Indian Constitution and renowned champion of human rights, studied at SIPA, and received his honorary law degree from Columbia in 1952). Columbia's Southern Asian Institute brings together scholars who study the heritage and current significance of this important world region. The Institute was founded in the early 1950's, and coincided with the creation of the Pakistan Studies Center at Columbia. The Urdu language has been taught at Columbia since 1952.

In addition to the University of Chicago and Columbia, other institutions involved in the consortium are the universities of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, California at Berkeley, and Texas at Austin, and the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. Further information concerning the rescue and preservation efforts is available at the web site