Seran Sivananthamoorthy is only 25 years old which is why his knowledge of the Jaffna Public Library is limited to memory and anecdote. The library with some 95,000 volumes including the only original copy of the Yalpana Vaipavamalai or the History of the Kingdom of Jaffna was set alight by a mob in 1981 as tensions rose between the island’s Sinhalese and Tamil communities in the prelude to Sri Lanka’s civil war. Miniature editions of the Ramayana, accounts of early explorers in Ceylon and a trove of ancient palm-leaf manuscripts important to Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking communities were also lost in the fire.
“There are chances it could happen again,” said Seran. This is not a reference to the possibility of renewed conflict or arson, but to the fact that the integrity of such collections are threatened by a host of factors – from pests and mould to censorship imposed by casteism and patriarchy.
This was also on Kopinath Thillainathan’s mind when he, along with a friend Mauran Muralitharan, established the Noolaham Foundation that set up the Noolaham Digital Library in 2005 whose 16,000 documents now make it one of the largest Tamil digital archives available online.
A rare repository
Sri Lanka’s colonisation and subsequent political movements have been particularly effective in marginalising voices that belong to the nation’s minority Tamil-speaking communities. Outsiders perhaps see Sri Lankan Tamils as a homogeneous group but the community comprises not just the Tamils of the north and east of Sri Lanka, but Indian Tamils whose ancestors were brought over by the British from India to work on plantations, Coast Veddas from the island’s indigenous population, and Tamil-speaking Muslim communities.
The archive is funded by the community and driven overwhelmingly by volunteers. Its contents include photographs of 5,000 timeworn pages that make up 24 palm-leaf manuscripts, and books such as Yalpana Samaya Nilai or Religion in Jaffna that date to 1893. The longest documents it has stored on its servers are four volumes of Tolkappiyam, one of the oldest Tamil grammar books.
At present, the archive also collects thirty magazines and eight newspapers. This includes the regional newspaper Valampuri, which continued to report through some of the most violent years of the island nation’s civil war, as well as Paathukavalan, the oldest Catholic weekly to be published from Jaffna, which was first printed in 1876.
The library gives scholars access to documents they will not find elsewhere including pamphlets produced by Sri Lanka’s Muslim political parties and traditional documents Tamil families produce as a kind of a comprehensive obituary for their deceased loved ones.
The foundation has also started building what its members call a “biographical dictionary.” “So far we have collected details of about 2,500 personalities,” said Kopinath.
He added, “This is the first ever reference resource of this magnitude on Tamil people. We expect to document 5,000 personalities by the end of 2016 and are planning to publish print volumes as well.”
Noolaham hopes to create audio, video and photo archives too.
A passion project
Its core members make time for the foundation from their busy schedules. For instance, Kopinath, who lives in Australia, is a production manager at a factory, while young Seran has just begun to work as an engineer. Seran confesses that in many ways his heart lies with Noolaham: “I don’t want to say this archive is my part-time work. This is my spiritual work. This is what I want to do with my life.”
With three offices in Sri Lanka and working groups in the UK, Canada, Norway, Australia and USA, and more than 200 volunteers and 350 individual donors across the world, the Noolaham Digital Library seems like an extended community project. Nevertheless funding is a constant challenge as is handling copyright permissions.
An engaged community
Kopinath credits the group’s commitment to their passion project with having pulled them through a challenging decade. He judges their success by the importance the archive is seen to have among the people. A majority of visitors to the site come from Sri Lanka itself.
“Our communities are using Noolaham as a repository where they can store, preserve and retrieve their documents and knowledge,” said Kopinath, citing increasing requests for the foundation to archive personal and institutional records.
Kopinath said he feels a deep joy when he looks at the books and manuscripts the digital library has now. Born on a small island off Sri Lanka’s northern coast, he reminisced how keenly he, as a child, felt the loss of his family’s large collection of books because of their multiple displacements. After being displaced for the third time, Kopinath recalled “I had nothing in my hands.” To him and the others involved with this project, Noolaham offers a promise that such losses are not permanent. That somewhere all that lost knowledge is waiting for them to find and preserve it.