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More rare Indian books in major UK digitisation plan

world Updated: Dec 17, 2016 20:25 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times
British Library

An image of Nathaniel Halhed's book on Bengali grammar published in 1778.(Courtesy: British Library)

After the British Library’s 2015 announcement that 1,000 rare books published in India between 1713 and 1914 would be digitised, new funding is making it possible to digitise 3,000 more such books from its large collection.

The project, titled Two Centuries of Indian Print, is unlocking material that includes one of the very first Bengali cookbooks, an early railway book containing rules and etiquette for travelling in steam trains, an early copy of the New Testament translated into Bengali by a British missionary, and one of the earliest translations of Shakespeare’s plays in Bengali. 

The project has benefited from an additional donation of nearly £500,000 from the Newton Fund, which will allow for the digitisation of the South Asian Vernacular Tracts series, of which the library holds approximately 6,000 volumes. 

Watch | How the British Library is digitising two centuries of Indian printed books

The library said the books are rare and fragile publications, many of which do not survive in other library collections, meaning they are hugely in demand by researchers. This new funding will digitise more than one million pages.

The project is being undertaken in partnership with the School of Cultural Texts and Records of Jadavpur University, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology and the School of Oriental and African Studies, working with the National Library of India, National Mission on Libraries and other institutions in India.  

Many books to be digitised were published in colonial Calcutta, which emerged as the largest centre of print culture outside Europe and north America by the early 19th century.

The library said demand for early Bengali printed works in its collection is particularly high. The project will make them available to researchers beyond the library’s reading rooms, giving global access.

Roly Keating, the library’s chief executive, said: “By digitising some of the riches held in our South Asian printed collections, we want to enable people all over the world to appreciate India’s great cultural heritage in new and innovative ways."  

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