Paper work

The Herald: August 2011

Paper work

The challenges in documenting and accessing historical records in Pakistan

“How much has India paid you to get this information?” asked a librarian at a government archive when a private archivist Ahmed Saleem attempted to access documents for his research into Sikh history. Saleem laughs as he recalls his (mis)adventures in Pakistan’s provincial and national archives. “Staff members at the archives would have a number of excuses for my request to access files,” he says.

During the course of his research into Partition, Saleem was often told that the material he was seeking was classified as it posed a potential threat to ‘Pakistan’s integrity’. He believes “the chief secretary of the Punjab Archives keeps all records of Bhagat Singh’s trial in a drawer in his desk and if you ask for these files, he questions whether you are working for India.”

Saleem’s assertions echo what researchers in Pakistan have been saying for years: government archives are rich repositories of information for those researchers who manage to whisper the right words to open these veritable Solomon’s mines of historical records. With provincial archives slowly transferring data from outdated microfilms into computerised systems, these records are largely well preserved, though poorly organised. As one former archive director says, “There is no shortage of funds — that is a myth.” The problem, he believes, lies within the administration, failing to employ professional, well-trained archivists who are able to handle the material in their charge.

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