I have now experienced that the archival process goes through the following stages: (1) labeling, (2) dating (3) sorting, (4) identifying the writers/senders and recipients, (5) cataloging (6) scanning, (7) deciphering the handwriting and typing/transcribing, (8) editing, (9) categorizing, (10) contextualizing, (11) interpreting, (12) presenting in videos, (13) compiling in book form, (14) writing novels or chronicles, (14) producing movies…
During the lockdown, we were spending more time at stages 1-4. Having completed the first pass of cataloging in 2021, and by 2022 we were spending more time on stages 5-7. Remember, we are working with thousands of documents and we are continuing to improve and refine different stages for different documents. It is an iterative process with several passes.
During editing, we have moved deeper and deeper and have begun to understand the context, issues, content of the letters, and their connection with what was happening at that time. This often reveals that our initial estimation of dates and even identification of names needs to be verified, improved, corrected, and cross-checked, triangulated with other observations in the text of the letters. This is an extremely interesting experience of how understanding develops, how history reveals itself as the researcher deciphers and interprets from primary documents and artifacts and an outline of ideas starts emerging.
Systematic History Chronicles
The genesis of the Project
The project initially started as transcribing these letters and converting the chronicles of Austin into book form. During my studies and stay in the USA (Austin, Tx) from 1987 to 1995 January, I was communicating with my parents primarily through letters, and they were also regularly sending me letters in reply; exchanged primarily through post-offices and also by hand through my fellow students traveling to and from Karachi. During those times, telephone calls were too expensive and international calls were prohibitively expensive. Especially for a student subsisting on a stipend like me who was is also supporting a wife and two kids, and was also sending around $100 per month to my parents. The international call rate to Pakistan was $2.75 for the first minute and $1.2 for each subsequent minute. My monthly budget was $30 for telephone calls, and I had to cut off the calls because it was impossible for me to pay for longer calls as the expense would rise up to $100 in no time. This could not be understood by the new generation who have grown with free WhatsApp and other internet calls.
When I returned to Pakistan, I was pleasantly surprised that my father had meticulously preserved all the letters. My father said that these have been preserved because they were worth publishing in book form. Hence he is the motivator for this project. He was also photocopying the letters that I used to send to other relatives. This was because I used to make sure that I write on different topics relevant to the person to whom the letter was addressed. Mostly there were no repetitions, and each letter had different information. I had become aware that often when my letters reach home, typically in a bunch to save costs, the relevant family members would come to pick up the letters, and this would become an event where they were read together and shared and these meetups turned into events resembling get-togethers. Hence, I was careful not to write too much personal information or on personal issues and would stay on general interesting subjects. I also made an effort to write something different for everyone. I still recall the letters that were published in Dawn around 1985-86 from a relative of mine who was also at UT Austin, Mr. Shehryar Burney, whose parents worked and contributed to Dawn on a regular basis.
Furthermore, just as my father was preserving my letters in Karachi, I too was preserving the letters that I was receiving in Austin. There were approximately 6 to 12 letters getting exchanged every month. My friends used to tease me that I always seem to be writing letters!
Phase-1, 2006-2008: Organizing and Composing:
The year after my parents had departed to the hereafter, I was organizing all the old stuff. I found many of these documents and letters in cellophane shoppers, envelopes; big and small, files, small boxes, big boxes, folders, bags, suitcases, etc. My initial focus was on the letters related to my USA stay. I separated them and put them in files. The rest of the letters and documents were put in cartons. One of the decisions that I took during this time, which I regret often, and which tremendously increased my organizing task difficulty was my decision to take out the letters from their envelopes, and throw the envelopes away. I had found it difficult to organize the letters because they were in odd-sized envelopes and could only be stored in boxes. Furthermore, to identify a letter or read it, one had the box, open it, take out the envelopes one after the other, and from the envelope take out the letter to read and identify. I had not realized then that I need to label the documents and store them chronologically. This realization came through with experience as mentioned below. I did that also because it was much easier to file when they are opened and could easily be filed. I should have stapled the envelopes with the letters as is done in office files. I had no idea about the scope and immensity of the project at that time. I did that because my letters and my parent’s letters always had the date on the letters. However, I realized later that many writers of the letters did not take the trouble of writing the dates on their letters. I didn’t realize then that valuable information about the date was lost, and not all letter writers took care in writing the date in personal letters. The date or year is often visible from the stamps by the post offices when they dispatch the letters. Of course, the writers of the letters had never thought that anyone would be reading and enquiring about the date of these letters about half a century to a century later.
I had engaged Mr. Waqar ul Haq, a distant relative of mine, to help me compose the Austin letters. He was a hafiz and in need of a job at that time. He had to first learn English typing and then Urdu typing. Then he started composing the letters from 1987-94, the ones that were mostly filed by my father in year-wise files. However, there were many letters that had not been filed or the letters that I had brought.
Initial composing was done in Inpage software for Urdu typing. I had instructed Mr. Waqar to file each letter separately and the name of the file should start with the date format of “YYYY-MM-DD From sender x to Receiver y. He typed 318 letters in Urdu into Inpage and 82 letters in English into MS Word from 2006 to 2008. Thereafter, he became admin help for the L2L school project. And the project was put on the back burner.
The credit for teaching me to use YYYY-MM-DD goes to Dr. Javed Ghani, who was at LUMS and I was in IBA. I was part of the team of IBA headed by Dr. Hafiz Pasha, and the team of LUMS with Dr. Javed Ghani, Dr. Zahoor Ahmed. We were working on a feasibility report for a project on CBR in 1996 when he instructed me to always use this date format I still use this format for organizing all my computer files. There is no other way to organize the data. I am quite strict with my research students also when they don’t organize their files using this format.
Phase-2, 2015-17: Organizing and Scanning
I again turned to the archival project in 2015, when I engaged Sohaib, a student of L2L, to do scanning of letters after school. By this time I had realized that composing and transcribing need to be done through scans, and not through the original documents. He scanned over a thousand letters over several months. However, as the scanned files or their originals were not assigned unique numbers or dates, the scans were not found very useful in sorting and organizing. The work was abandoned. Although the scans are still with me and are good enough for tracking purposes for any misplaced originals. The important lesson that was learned from this experience was the need to put the documents in chronological order as well as assigned a unique id. The unique id would remain, but the remaining information such as the date or names of sender and receiver could change. It is a stable id that is required to uniquely identify each document through its life in various forms physical, scanned images, word documents, and excel analysis.
The project was then handed over to Sameed Sb, who was assigned to convert the camcorder videos to DVD format as I feared that I may lose the videos on the old video tapes. The converted DVD files were then clipped scene by scene. Each clipped scene segment was identified by date as well as some of the prominent people in the video clips. This is also an ongoing work for restoration and archival. Some of the conversions are not of good quality and may be lost if they are not converted soon from their tapes.
Phase-3, 2018-19. Transcribing of the Post Cards and Fatima Khatoon Articles
During this phase, there were two parts to the project. One was that we started with the postcards that were easier to handle, were of uniform size and could be placed in neat photograph albums making it easy for us to handle. Their transcription was assigned to Hammad Sb who is a mufti and hafiz. He transcribed around 100 postcards. Some of these were also edited with him by me. The lesson that I learned from this lesson was that there needs to be a uniform way of handling the documents. When different size documents were put in different size files or box files, we lost the ability to chronologically store them in a uniform manner. Because some letters may be in postcard size, some in airletter size, some in A4 size, and some in other sizes. The letters of (say) February 1955 would have been in different sizes and so in different files, boxes, or box files. By storing them separately in this manner we lost the ability to follow a discussion, and also to keep track of the events as they were developing.
Hence, we had to start assigning them unique ids and also put them in a spreadsheet to keep track of which letter is in what stage of scanning, composing, editing, etc.
Thereafter, Hafiz Ismail sb who is also an Aalim took the remaining over 80 postcards transcriptions and completed that work.
Thereafter, he was assigned to work on another related project of transcription of the articles published in the monthly Ismat by Fatima Khatoon (Mrs Altaf Husain), dadi of my wife. The collection is now ready in book form. And needs to go to the publisher. Due to Covid19, this work got stopped. But, now it is time for its printing and launch. There is a separate post required on this effort.
Phase-4 Systematic Organization, Coding, Scanning, Transcription, and Editing.
During Covid lockdown, the letter archival project got into full swing. The experience of the previous three phases had taught us that the project needed to be organized systematically. The first step was the physical organization and sorting of the letters.
Physical Organization of documents
First I tried to divide the letters into families. My mother’s Shah family letters are separate from my father’s Hyder family letters. In each of the two families, I categorized the letters according to generations: I made a Shah Family file and a Hyder Family file for each of my grandparent’s generation, my parent’s generation, my generation, and my siblings and my children’s generation. Soon, I realized that this was becoming too complicated. Because some of the Shah Family members also got married into the Hyder Family, just as my parents were. In which files should I place such letters? This complicated the organization. Also, where to classify a letter sent by a Hyder Family person to a Shah Family person or vice versa. Where to classify mutual friends and family friends. Where to classify extended family members.
While I was classifying the letters in the files above, I was writing the date Year, Month, Day whatever was available on each of the letters. Each letter was marked with the date in YYYY-MM-DD format. If the date was not written on the letter or could not be ascertained then an estimated date and if not possible, an estimated year were assigned using the following clues. If the letter mentioned Islamic date, I used the online Hijri to the gregorian calendar converter to identify the date. Islamic events such as eid and March could also be approximated to the nearest year. Other clues included the death of some relative, birth of a child, marriage, etc. These were clues to the identification of the date. Similarly, other clues such as moving to a new city, visit of a certain relative, moving to a new house, graduation of children, or news about someone’s promotion to a new grade were used to ascertain the date from a relative who could tell the details.
I was also writing the names of the sender and the name of the receiver. This was necessary because the name of the addressee or sender was understood and not explicitly written on the letters. Or the letter would simply say from mother or mamoo, or khaloo, or addressed to dear bhai jan, or dear sister, or dulhan (bahu) or would use some nicknames which my generation may understand but my later generation would not be able to decipher. So, I had to write down the proper names. This conversion of nicknames to actual names is done in the text during editing in square brackets to properly identify the referred person.
Hence, I had to switch from the family/generation type of filing to the chronological filing according to the date sequence. I simply sorted the letters according to year, and in each year according to month, and in each month according to date. I took the help of my son and daughter in this sorting effort. Once we had sorted this, I got protector sheets, which are cellophane sleeves to put in the letter so that it can be inserted in folders. See the pic.
I got several folders (files) as shown in the picture in which I started inserting each of the protector sheets with letters in date sequence. If the count of letters in a given some years is less, a folder can span several years. For example, 1933-46 folder contains letters from several year. On the other hand if the count of letters in a given year are more than there can be several folders for that year. For example. some years (1990, 1989 etc) have two folders; Half in one folder and half in another. Some years (like 1991) have four folders.
The physical letter is annotated with from/to sender/receiver info as well as a unique id of the letter. The unique id corresponds to a unique row in the Google Spreadsheet. The row also contains various statuses. Status of transcription/composing is indicated by either WR (written in word file), or NW(not written in the word file), status of scanning is indicated by SC (scanned), or NS (Not Scanned), and once the transcribed word section for the letter has been editing, the flag ED is put.
It also contains the current physical location of the document, i.e. name of the physical file. Also, which documents are sent for scanning, which are sent for composting to whom, and when they are received. and changing their statuses accordingly.
Coding for Identifying the Documents/Letters and Tracking
1946-10-21 From Waheed Uddin Hyder To Ahsan Hyder u2725-2, WR, SC, ED
There is a google spreadsheet row with an entry like the first line here for each uniquely identified document/letter. This contains the meta-data about the document. Corresponding to each row in the spreadsheet, there is a Heading3 in a Word Document for each uniquely identified letter/document.
1946-10-21: All letters have this date format. YYYY-MM-DD. In letters for which the year is not written or can not be deciphered, I have to make an educated guess of the decade and then a particular year. In such a case, the date becomes (say) 1965-MM-DD. Please note that the letter/document has to be sorted chronologically. I have explained above how I arrived at the chronological ordering solution. I then realized that I am not just trying to compile a transcription of old letters, but actually doing work similar to what a museum curator does with historical artifacts when received. They first try to determine the date and uniquely identify the item, before storing it. This connection made several things easier. The date also helps me identify the physical folder where the document may be found. The physical folders are identified by year (or months if there are several folders for the same year).
From/To names. On each of the around 5000+ documents, I have written From whom the letter/document was sent or written. The To field contains the identification of who the receiver or addressee was. In case, if the name of the writer or the addressee is unreadable or is not mentioned, or that part of the letter is torn out or missing, I simply write xyz. Later during the editing phase, these xyz’s are deciphered with reference to the context, or by comparing the handwriting. There are several letters, where there is no way of knowing who the addressee was or some nickname was used which is no longer identifiable.
There are also several documents that are not letters. These are notes, personal diary pages, poetry, recollections, receipts, etc. Typically, in such cases, the writer is known, but there is no specific audience to whom it is addressed. For such cases, I have collected the documents according to the sender and have so named the collections. The To field then contains the name of the Diary or Collection. I have collected such pieces of documents in separate folders. For example, there is my Mother’s Diary, my Dadi’s Diary (paternal grandmother’s), and my diary and notes (SIH Diary). There are also poetic collections of Ikram Hyder (my grandfather’s father) which I have named as Ikram Hyder’s Collection and the collection of my mother’s maternal grandfather Shah Abdul Shakoor Faridy which I have named as Faridy’s Collection.
u2725-2 is the unique ID of the document. It is like the accession number of library items. It is simply a sequential number which is a unique id associated with each document/letter. This is unique id is generated each time a new item is entered on a new row of the spreadsheet. Hence, the presence of this unique ID indicates that the letter/document has been entered into a spreadsheet. Also, the unique ID is mentioned on each letter/document. The suffix -2 indicates that this letter/document has 2 sides. This uniquely identifies the scan of each side of the page. For example, there is a letter that has 5 pages and 10 leaves. Each one of the leaves is uniquely differentiated in the scan by the suffix ranging from 1-10.
flag shows that letter has been scanned. NS
flag indicates that the document has not been scanned. The flag is written on the document as well as the spreadsheet.
WR flag indicates that the letter has been transcribed into the word document. NW flag indicates it has not been entered in the word document. The objective is that the text of the document/letter should be in a computer-readable format, typewritten and word-processed in the MS Word Document.
ED flag indicates that WR flag document has now been edited and proofread by me and another aalim (who has knowledge of Arabic and Persian) to decipher the old Urdu documents and writings.
I have now a team working to assist me in various parts of the project.
Synchronization of the records and Meta Data Repository
Mr. Hanif since 2021. He works part-time after office hours. He has the synchronization task to keep (i) manual files containing the original paper documents, (ii) the google spreadsheet containing the list of all uniquely identified documents, (iii) the computer folders containing the scans of all the documents, and (iv) the word documents containing the transcription and composed documents all aligned and synchronized with one another. The name, date, and location of each type of document must be synchronized. That is, the physical file of the year containing the original document in the protector sheet should be in the same sequence, as the corresponding spreadsheet row containing the metadata of the item, which should be synchronized with the multiple pages of scan files in the correct year folder, which should be synchronized with the correct subsection heading of the word document in the current word document. Note that the word document gets updated to a new version each time new transcribed material gets entered. This is a complicated task and requires consistency of nomenclature and metadata flags.
Physical Files containing the Letter Manuscripts
Summary obtained from the pivot table of the google spreadsheet containing the index of all the documents and letters
Physical Files containing Documents, Memoirs, Diaries and Poetic Works
Mr. Fayyaz is a hafiz, whose part-time task is to scan the documents and name the scanned picture files appropriately to correspond to the google spreadsheet row as described in the coding section. There are year-wise folders on the disk. The scan file names contain the unique identifiers with which they link to the corresponding metadata row in the google spreadsheet. Each time the physical file goes for scanning unique identifier of the letter is written on the physical paper. A suffix of sub-page number is written on each side of the page. Please note that one metadata row of the spreadsheet may correspond to multiple scan files, one for each side of each page of a multi-page letter.
Transcription and Typing:
Mr. Nouman who is now part-time working on transcription, typing, and composing the material in the Word Document. He gets the scanned documents and then types them in the master MS Word document. Previously this work was done by Mufti Hammad Rasheed, and then Mr. Ismail. After them Maulana Sajid Jameel was transcribing but when his editing work increased, the task of composing and typing was given to Mr. Noman.
Editing and Experts
When postcards were being transcribed by Mr Hammad, we did some editing together. Since 2021, Dr. Sajid Jameel who is also an aalim, knows Arabic and Persian. He has done wide reading and academic work. He sits with me on weekend mornings to have a joint reading and editing of the typed content to verify whether the material has been correctly typed. During these meetings, we review all the possible alternatives that can be recognized from imprecise handwriting with each person having his particular style of making words with shortcuts. I had initially underestimated the issues related to editing the handwriting and had not given enough time. However, when we started reading the transcriptions, we realized that this requires help and brainstorming also. The problems that need resolution are (i) deciphering the handwriting, each person develops one’s own short hand codes, and of course (ii) there is khat-e-shikasta deciphering where the dots and crosses are dispensed with, (iii) deciphering whether the word is a nickname, name of a place, or something elese. Only a person who knows the family can identify the nicknames and also identify the names from the shorthand for the names. (iv) identifying the dating of the document from clues and annotating them, (v) identifying the words in English, Arabic, and Persian, especially the archaic words, (vi) deciphering the words that are no longer used or are no longer used in the previous contexts. (vii) Contexts, usage, spellings, and constructs have changed over the last hundred years.
Ms. Afshan is managing the logistics of handing and receiving of all these documents to various people, keeping track of the documents and keeping their hours, and ensuring their timely payments
Video and Graphics:
Mr. Shuja Omar is working part-time in making videos for my youtube channel and making graphics for some of the content. He is an Associate producer at GTV. This is a developing area and soon the focus will move to these areas from scanning and composing. He would be instrumental in developing video interpretations of these documents.