Romain Rolland Library has preserved rare collection of books

A lock on the book indicates that its publisher did not want it to be accessed by everyone. It is a part of a French three-volume series on medicine, likely dating back to the 18 century. “It may have been under lock because the book has diagrams relating to gynaecology,” contends Kota Noble, photographer in the microfilm section of Romain Rolland Library here.

This and almost 2000 other rare books and documents have been preserved for posterity by the microfilm section over the last three decades. The library which opened in 1827 has enviable rare collections, a large chunk of which are books by the French on India.

The microfilm section began functioning in 1980s and though the Carl Zeiss microfilm camera processor is now outdated, preservation work has continued. “We have to preserve the film in 18 to 20ºC, dust-free, fire-free, check the film at constant intervals and repack them,” says Noble. Microfilming is done on film rolls in three sizes: 70 mm, 35 mm and 16 mm. Once filmed and processed, the film can be preserved for almost 300 years, says Noble. “In the last 25 years, I have seen that the film has stayed as it is, despite Puducherry’s humidity,” he says.

The processed films are stored in cans, each can holding almost 2,400 pages. Mr. Noble says 2000 books that they have microfilmed can fit into two boxes. The processed film can then be read, using a microfilm reader, and projected on the wall for a larger audience.

The unit also has a collection of photographs, letters and lithographs, including a photo of Nehru signing the treaty of cession with France in 1956, which led to Puducherry being ceded to India and a letter by former French Governor-General Dupleix. Scholars interested in the history of Puducherry and French rule are frequent visitors to the microfilm section.

Digital makeover

The library’s microfilm camera processor stopped working around two years ago. “We used the processor to its maximum. We used the processor in its automatic mode and then even used it in the manual mode. Getting its spare is difficult and it could cost Rs. 5 lakh. We are planning to move to complete digitisation soon,” says Noble. The digital scanner which the library wants to acquire costs Rs. 28 lakh. The government is considering their proposal, says Mr. Noble.

However, going digital does not mean end of the road for microfilming. “In international archiving, they preserve the most important documents through microfilm and digital scanning. While the microfilm is stored, the digital format is used for research as it is easily accessible. In fact, we are planning to digitise microfilms as well and preserve them on hard disks,” he says. Digital scanning means easier access; but there is a risk of hard disks getting corrupt.

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