Digitizing 100 years of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society

 

[This is the first of a series of posts on the Digitization of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History.]

On February 18th (2009), at the Indian Institute of Science’s  J N Tata Auditorium in Bangalore, the DVD of the first hundred years of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS) was officially released. Here’s a small picture from the DVD release ceremony that I pulled from the www.bnhs.org site:

From left to right are: Dr. Asad Rahmani (Director of the BNHS), Prof. C.S. Yogananda(H.O.D., Dept. of Mathematics, SJCE, Mysore), Prof. D.N.Rao (Chairman, Division of Biological Sciences, IISc), Kumaran Sathasivam, myself, Mr. J C Daniel (Hon. Secretary of the BNHS), and Ms. Vibhuti (Publications department, BNHS) 

What am I doing in this picture? That’ll become clear as you read on. It is an interesting story of a wonderful publication (the JBNHS) and of the value of persistence and collaboration in getting something significant achieved (the digitization of the entire journal, all 80,000 pages of it.) Besides myself, Kumaran Sathisivam, Prof. Yogananda and Diane Lancaster are key contributors to the project.

The release was on the occasion of the “International Conference on Conserving Nature in a Globalising India”, 17-19 Feb. 2009. The conference itself was wonderful. Much of it was a sobering-bordering-on-depressing account of the decline of bio-diversity worldwide, but there were inspiring tales of heroic dedication and a few success stories as well. I’ve saved a copy of the program schedule here, in case you are interested in the talks. I wish the content covered in the conference was part of mainstream dialog, but that is wishful thinking. At some point I will summarize my takeaways from the conference.

The conference was organized by the Bombay Natural History Society (www.bnhs.org). From their site:

The Bombay Natural History Society is today the largest non-government organisation (NGO) in the Indian sub-continent engaged in nature conservation research. In the 125 years of its existence, its commitment has been, and continues to be, the conservation of India’s natural wealth, protection of the environment and sustainable use of natural resources for a balanced and healthy development for future generations. The Society’s guiding principle has always been that conservation must be based on scientific research – a tradition exemplified by its late president, Dr. Sálim Ali.

 

You can find a bit about the fascinating origins of the BNHS here, and on their current research focus and collaborations here.

The Society has many activities and publications, but their most influential publication is the Journal of the Bombay Natural History (JBNHS). The first issue came out in 1886. Since then, every year, including during WW-I and WW-II, they have put out 3 to 4 issues, continuing to this day.

Now, as to why I was in that picture, in the kind words of Dr. Asad Rahmani, Director of BNHS:

After more than ten years of persistence by two of our members, Mr. Joseph Joy and Mr. Kumaran Sathasivam, spending long hours in various libraries, and scanning of more than 80,000 pages, a DVD covering 100 volumes of JBNHS was released during our International Conference. The final stages of the DVD production and other technical aspects were taken care of by Prof. Yoganand[a] of the Mysore University [from Dr. Rahmani’s March –April, 2009 BNHS Newsletter].

The project goes back over a decade, and in subsequent posts, I will give a roughly chronologically ordered summary of events that lead to the eventual publication of the 100 volumes as a DVD.

Origins

My friend, Kumaran Sathasivam, had the original idea of digitizing the Journal. Kumaran and I were classmates at IIT-Madras (1981-85). We were both avid birdwatchers and nature lovers during our time at IIT-M. Incidentally, Kumaran wrote an award-winning short children’s book on our exploits while at IIT-M, called “A Forest in the City”, unfortunately out of print, though I may put a scanned copy of it online at some point – it does brings back memories.

 I clearly remember one trip we made to the Bombay Natural History Society’s head office in Mumbai (then Bombay), called “Hornbill House,” sometime in the early 80s. It was amazing to be there in person, to let some of the history of the society seep in, and to look through their enormous collections of specimens of fauna — some 26,000 birds, 20,000 mammals, 7500 amphibians and reptiles and 50,000 insects. ( See here for some information on these collections.)

Later, after we graduated from IIT-M, Kumaran stayed closely in touch with wildlife studies (he has published a book on Marine Mammals of South India – more on that here). Kumaran had been perusing certain early issues of the Journal, (which are very hard to come by, and usually in poor condition), looking for references a particular species of mammal, and realized what a wealth of information lay in the pages of the journal, while at the same time how painfully slow it was to try to wade through the dusty volumes in the corner of some university library.

So Kumaran brought up the idea of digitizing the journal, and I was immediately caught up by his vision. It was a large and ambitious project to take on (especially before 2000, at the time when large scale digitization of books had not begun happening), and at the time I was looking for something challenging to take on (outside of my work) that clearly had some benefit to humanity and all that. What a journey it has been!

[Continued in my next post, "Digitization of the JBNHS: Getting Started"]

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2 Responses to Digitizing 100 years of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society

  1. George says:

    Nice to see you start documenting the story of the BNHS Journals. Look forward to its continuation.

  2. Anna says:

    So those were the dusty volumes that seemed to follow you everywhere!Good to finally see the results.

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