ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

State of Indian Digital Libraries

How does one pick up a habit of reading books? Or rather, the habit of reading good books. I guess you need to read a lot of books. And that requires easy access to books. I grew up in a small Indian town. That is a nice way of saying, "I grew up in Jammu. The city of stones, monkeys and temples". My interest in books developed because my grandfather would borrow a maximum of three books every odd month from the local public library and I would get to read them for free but often after a mock fight with him over the right to read them first. Sometimes, he would take me along with him to return the books and get new ones.

Jammu Public Library

One of the first things I noticed in the public library was the way books were arranged. Countless ageing books with their tattering cover and sweet smelling brown fading paper, all stacked one over one another in no particular order but all stacks duly categorised and labeled. Books pushed, folded and stuffed into corners to make room for more books. There purpose as if only to occupy as many books in as little space. To pull an interesting book from this chaos was a tantalising and time consuming challenge.

At the end of the day, reward of the quest  maybe just as rewarding and satisfying. It is the journey that matters not the destination. To say something mind-dumbing like that would be to romanticise something that should have been a simple straight process. The access to right books should not have been such a tiring and time consuming process. But back in early 1990s that was the state of public library in my city.

My grandfather passed away last year. Last year, I read around hundred books, mostly about Kashmir, and wrote about almost fifty of them, which is to say I passed along information about them to other people.

Books hosted on open digital libraries is the primary source of my reading. If there's an old book about Kashmir that I can't find on Google Books, or, there's a good chance I would find it on In some rare cases, if the book is marked by them as 'limited view' or in some cases as 'unavailable',  I use 'proxy-server' sites to checkout the book. At those projects, based on the policy of their partner library, some books are only available in limited counties, that is to say they are definitely available in US. So I fake my country the same way that people do in countries or offices where say Youtube is banned.

Between four of them, these well funded and well executed projects are probably the biggest reserve of freely accessible digital books in the world. But, in some case, since the topics and books of my interest are Indian Subcontinent specific, even these libraries fail me. Queries like: name of the figure drawn on the right flank of the staircase to the inner chamber of the Awantiswamin Temple, Avantipur in Kashmir.

In such cases, the libraries that come to my rescue are Indian Digital libraries. Unknown to most people in India, one of the biggest library digitalisation project in the world, promising to provide free access to "all the significant works of Mankind" is a publicly funded project underway in India.

The answer to my query can be found in an ASI paper from 1913 available for free at Digital Library of India []. It is great. Yes, I found the answer at an Indian public digital library. But I am not exactly ecstatic. In fact, I am a bit saddened by the state of affairs. I have been using the service for a couple of years now. The reason for my disappointment is the number of loops I have to go through to find answers for my question when there should be no such need. The process in my case goes something like this: I spend sometime trying to find the right combination of keywords to get the right source, finally I find the right 'snippet' at Google books that after multiple queries refers to a certain old book, I find the old book over at one of those overseas 'open' libraries. The book then tosses up the name of an old Indian publication and provides exact issue number and date.  And then, finally, I which file I have to look for at the Indian digital libraries. On a good day, the process takes half-a-day. But, in most case, you do find it. It is just that the access isn't direct and simple.

The purpose of these Indian digital libraries is very noble and truly revolutionary. But sadly the execution makes it no better than an average badly managed small-town Indian public library that might be housing many literary treasures but you would have to waste a lifetime tying to find it and access it. The usability of the project is a failure. As average Indian reader will not or cannot use the recommended method of 'plugin' that is prescribed by Digital Library of India for reading the book. So a reader is left with the only option of downloading each individual page. In case of a big book, that means a whole lot of clicking. These books are not provided in 'text' or easy to download 'pdf' format when they would easily have been. Converting a 'TIFF' file to 'Text' or 'PDF' is not the challenge in digitalisation process, the manual process of digitalisation is the tough part. Since, they had already succeed in scanning all these books, why did they finish up with a lousy execution that fails the whole purpose of the exercise i.e. providing access to information with easy of accessibility. A simple indexable text format would have meant a world of difference.

Why is text format important? Almost all the old issue of major journals in the country, including EPW, are available over at West Bengal Public Library Network ( The fact that most people would never be able to use it to its full potential is obvious because even though they do give 'pdf' which makes for easy reading, the text format is again missing and there is no 'full-text-search' which means you cannot search the collection by 'keywords'. This means you either know which issue of which journal you have to look for, or you just randomly browse some old issues and hope to find something interesting. Is it surprising that our online public library seems like a clone of our neighbourhood public library?

P.S. In absence of a solution, we have Jugaad: Uploading a PDF to automatically creates a text version for free along with a bunch of other version. 

About Author

<p>Vinayak Razdan ( is a social games designer. Co-founder of a mobile technology startup. In spare time, building an online cultural archive of Kashmir. &nbsp;</p>
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