It is the oldest Government archives in the world and boasts of records pertaining to transactions in the Madras Presidency dating back to the 1670s. In any country such a collection would be considered a treasure trove and its contents would be made available to research scholars, both of the academic and amateur varieties. Not so it seems in our Madras that is Chennai. Gaining access to the records and papers in the Tamil Nadu Archives is an arduous and frustrating exercise as many a researcher has discovered. There are also several complaints about the way in which the archives are maintained and run.
Till a few years ago, the Tamil Nadu Archives was easy to get into. All that was needed was a letter of introduction and then following the payment of a fee you became a member and could carry on your research. Then the rules were changed and it became compulsory that any researcher wanting to gain access had to be affiliated to an educational institution. That meant that serious scholars outside of the education system were denied access. A recent instance is that of an author who was consistently denied admission till he managed to get one of the highest authorities in the state to call the officer-in-charge of the archives. Even then, the introducer was asked to send a letter along with the applicant and only then was admission given. It is not clear as to what the Archives hope to achieve by allowing only selective access.
Once inside, research scholars discover that matters are not made any easier. Accessing files is a slow process, with the Archives being chronically short-staffed. The files and the magazines are not digitised with the result that researchers are allowed to handle original documents that could crumble at a touch. The pace of digitisation is very slow. The cataloguing of books and periodicals too is always backlogged resulting in search and access being painful exercises. Copying facilities are frequently out-of-order and so it takes time for students and others to get what they want. Also the staff is not knowledgeable about content. Thus if a file is marked ‘confidential’ in the 1920s it is still considered top-secret! There was a time when the Archives had a full-fledged archivist as the head and that resulted in pioneering research and publishing efforts. Today, heading the Archives is more of a punishment posting for bureaucrats and that has its own de-motivating effect.
Given these difficulties, it is no surprise that most researchers prefer working with either the Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi or the British Library in London. In both cases there is the additional cost of travel and stay in distant cities, not always affordable by scholars who work on shoestring budget. The British Library also charges a hefty fee for any material that is to be accessed. This too may not within the means of researchers. It is rather ironic that Chennai-based scholars have to travel to distant lands to access what is also available in their own backyard.
It is necessary that the Tamil Nadu Government wakes up to the fact that it possesses a storehouse of information. At a time when Universities abroad are scanning and uploading rare and out-of-copyright books on to the internet, the Tamil Nadu Archives must realise that it gains nothing by being secretive about its contents.