From fragile to forever: TN govt’s groundbreaking initiative aims to preserve historical documents dating back to 1657

The Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research Department has adopted the Japanese-tissue method to preserve ancient historical records.

ByKV Navya

Published Aug 02, 2023 | 10:00 AMUpdatedAug 02, 2023 | 10:00 AM

Preservation of historical documents: Supported by a government grant of ₹10 crore, the Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research Department has embarked on a trial preservation project.

There’s a subtle fragrance of paper that fills the air inside the headquarters of the Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research Department in Chennai. The interiors here exude a sense of nostalgia, invoking images of yellowed scrolls, inked quills, and historical artefacts.

No wonder it’s a treasure trove of memories waiting to be unveiled. And the department is determined to cherish and protect these invaluable records.

With this purpose in mind, a momentous task has been undertaken to safeguard historical documents — some dating back to 1657.

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Preserving time

Documents exhibiting signs of wear.

Documents exhibiting signs of wear. (KV Navya)

The department has adopted the innovative Japanese tissue method, making these ancient records digitally available.

Furthermore, the texture of these aged sheets bears witness to the passage of time, with each one a delicate piece of history with its own unique story to tell.

“Some sheets, mended through the chiffon method in the early 1990s, exhibit signs of wear, hinting at their age and the need for a more robust preservation approach,” reveals G Prakash, Commissioner of Archives and Historical Research.

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The Japanese-tissue method: A ray of hope

The Japanese tissue method, a cutting-edge preservation technique, has won the approval of the International Archives Forum.

“Supported by a government grant of ₹10 crore, the department has set out on a trial preservation project. The initial results were awe-inspiring. An ancient Dutch document from 1657 emerged from the process looking as pristine as a freshly printed book,” Prakash tells South First.

The department will first preserve the documents in Stack 7, which are from 1657-1957.

This method involves delicate repairing and reinforcing of the aged historical documents with the Japanese tissue paper, meticulously restoring their physical integrity.

The time required to mend one sheet using the Japanese tissue method can vary depending on the complexity of the document’s condition and the expertise of the conservator. On average, a skilled conservator may take around 30 minutes to an hour to mend a single sheet using this method, details Prakash.

The cost-effectiveness of the process is evident. With each sheet’s preservation coming in at around ₹80, this is a sustainable and viable option to safeguard the records on a long-term basis. The chiffon-mending method, on the other hand, costs ₹130-₹170 per sheet.

The chiffon-mending method involves using thin, transparent chiffon fabric to reinforce torn or fragile areas. A conservation-grade adhesive is applied to the damaged section and then, the chiffon is gently pressed onto it. To ensure a secure bond, the repaired area is left to dry. This method allows the document’s content to remain visible while providing vital support and protection.

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Japanese vs chiffon methods

According to P Vijayaraja, assistant commissioner, “The Japanese-tissue method surpasses the chiffon method in preserving historical records due to its transparency, strength, and ease of application. Because the Japanese tissue paper is incredibly thin and transparent, it provides a visually unobtrusive mend compared to the more visible chiffon fabric.”

Its durability and pH-neutral properties ensure long-term protection, lasting up to 150 years, whereas chiffon mending may last only up to 40 years.

Additionally, the Japanese tissue method offers cost-effectiveness and adherence to conservation standards, making it the preferred choice for safeguarding invaluable historical documents for future generations.

“The weight of history bears down on the department as they comprehend the irreplaceable nature of these records. To lose them would be an irreversible loss to the cultural heritage of India,” Vijayaraja tells South First.

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Bridging past and future

The department has undertaken a momentous task to safeguard historical documents dating back to 1657. (KV Navya/South First)

The department’s commitment does not end with physical preservation alone. In addition to the mending process, the department has set its vision on digitisation.

At a modest cost of 7 paise per sheet, digitisation promises to bring records to life in the digital realm. Consequently, this makes for easy accessibility and broader dissemination.

“The Tamil Nadu Innovation Initiatives (TANII) has sanctioned ₹1.5 crore for digitising S7. So, we have stepped confidently into the digital age,” says Prakash.

The records chronicle the tumultuous times of East India Company’s rule, the rise of princely states, and the struggles and triumphs of ordinary people, shares Vijayaraja.

“We preserve these records so that the stories of our ancestors are not lost to oblivion. They enable us to learn from the past and make informed decisions for the future,” he adds.

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Preservation for posterity

The historical legacy of this period is essential to understand the roots of modern India and foster a sense of identity.

Moreover, preservation efforts are gaining momentum. Plans are underway to upload the digitised documents onto their website in collaboration with the Tamil Nadu e-Governance Agency (TNEGA).

The Japanese tissue method and digitisation are helping the department keep the legacy of the past alive.