Digitisation throws up Kannada lit mystery

Literary hunt

Precious works of around 3,500 writers from Kannada literature may have been lost forever, according to a team of Indo-US scientists and bibliophiles, who have embarked on an ambitious digitisation initiative to preserve Kannada literature.

The project — which aims to digitise out-of-copyright Kannada-language publications — was kick-started earlier this year.

Eight months later, the team — which operates out of
the Indian Academy of Sciences (IASc) — has been
finding it difficult to track down old Kannada-language titles, with works of about 3,500 authors remaining untraceable.

“It has been challenging to find these out-of-copyright titles, that is, works published before 1969. We are not sure why,” said N Maheshchandra, Executive Secretary of IASc.

In February 2019, the IASc was given the use of a special book-scanning machine designed by Carl Malamud’s Public Resource — a US-based non-profit dedicated to making out-of-copyright books available free of charge.

Since then, the $13,000 unit has been in near-continuous operation, digitising an average of 2,000 pages per day. Staffers then add character recognition (OCR) and metadata to the completed books before uploading them to US digital library, Internet Archive.

Exploring the unknown

Maheshchandra said the project, originally limited to Kannada, later branched out to other languages.

“There no lists to show how many Kannada-language books exist. There are no lists of titles, there are no lists of publishers. In fact, we don’t know what we don’t know. However, works of 3,500 authors born between 1820 and 1947 have not been found by anyone yet,” said Omshivaprakash H L, an IT professional who works closely with Malamud on the project.

As of Thursday, the number of scanned books stood at 1,272, out of which only 457 were Kannada titles, according to Yoga Narasimha, an IASc staffer involved in the project.

Among the historically important books digitised by the team is a 1917 first edition of Bhumi-Shastra, which deals with geology in the state.

“Over 735 books scanned so far are in English, followed by about 50 in the Sindhi language and about 20-30 in Malayalam. Kannada-language books are becoming difficult to find. We suspect that many of these historically valuable books and magazines have been destroyed because people don’t realise their value,” Narasimha said.

“A sustained search of book shops in Chickpet, Jayanagar and other areas of the city has yielded nothing,” said Praveen H L, a project volunteer. 

Omshivaprakash said efforts were underway to secure books from private and collegiate holdings.

The project recently acquired copies of 98-year-old 'Kasthuri' magazine from a private individual and is working to save the collection.

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