Lecture focuses on preserving stories in the digital era

Samip Mallick

A postcard for “A Night in India,” an Indian-American banquet that was held in Phoenix in 1951, showed the cost to attend was only $1.50. The postcard, which is in the South Asian American Digital Archive, is more than just a postcard. It is an artifact that helps to tell the story of South Asian Americans in Arizona at the time.

The archive, which was established in 2008 by Samip Mallick, includes thousands of artifacts telling the stories of people with roots in places like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives, as well as people with South Asian backgrounds who came to the U.S. from other locations, such as Fiji, Singapore, Guyana, Uganda and the United Kingdom.

Mallick, the archive’s co-founder and executive director, will speak in a lecture titled “Community Archives in the Digital Era: Creating the South Asian American Digital Archive,” at 6 p.m., Oct. 21, in the Marston Theater on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. The lecture is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

The lecture is co-sponsored by Barrett, the Honors College, and the Public History Program in the School for Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at ASU.

Mallick said he was inspired to create the archive, which is an independent, nonprofit organization, when he realized materials related to South Asian American communities were not being systematically documented and collected by any traditional repositories. “We felt that these histories were being over looked, and over time, in danger of being lost,” he said.

The archive uses a post-custodial, digital-only model in which community members, organizations and institutions provide access to materials that are relevant to the South Asian American community, and the materials are digitized and made available online.

The archive now has thousands of stories and artifacts, which have been used for individual scholarship, documentary films, lesson plans, research, blogging and creative works, Mallick said.

According to Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, honors faculty fellow in Barrett, the archive is a prime example of how technology is being used to keep the stories of South Asians in the United States alive.

“It includes the stories of everybody from prominent elected officials and recording artists to taxi cab drivers and migrant workers, as well as the history of South Asian visitors to the United States. It is an inclusive community and it is defined by what people choose to document. It is about communities harnessing technology to define their own histories,” she said.

Also among Arizona-related artifacts in the archive are a Certificate of Naturalization for Phoenix resident Jiwan Singh, dated Nov. 19, 1956, along with Singh’s family photos, an article about the significance of India in World War II, printed in Editor & Publisher in 1952, and a photo commemorating the Indian General Counsel’s visit to Phoenix in 1952.

These artifacts take on particular significance given the growth of the South Asian American population in the Grand Canyon state, said Bhattacharjya, who is also co-chair of the archive’s Academic Council.

The South Asian American population in Arizona is rapidly growing, as indicated by the 2010 U.S. Religious Congregations & Membership Study, she said. According to the study, Hinduism is the second-largest practiced religion after Christianity in Arizona, and there are nearly 33,000 people who belong to the approximately 35 Hindu congregations throughout the state.

South Asian populations in the U.S. are not as well documented as some other immigrant communities because of their comparatively late arrival, so having the archive is particularly important.

“The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 did away with the national origins quota system that had severely limited South Asian immigration to the U.S. from the 1920s onward. Before 1965, we have only sporadic examples of South Asian settlement in the U.S., and the fact that documents from before 1965 have been consolidated in the archive makes it all the more valuable,” said Bhattacharjya.

The First Day Project, part of the archive that invites people to submit their own stories through various formats, including transcriptions, photos, videos and audio recordings, documents people’s first impressions of life in the United States.

Bhattacharjya interviewed her parents for the project. Her father tells of coming from India to Boston for a position as a hospital physician. He had $7 and resided at the hospital until he could find other housing. Her mother recollects snow in Boston that gave the city a fairytale-like quality, and a welcome party that included ice cream and coffee as refreshments.

“If you look carefully, you’ll find people who narrate their histories in sign language, as well as the first days of everyday people. It is one of the most interesting things about the archive,” Bhattacharjya said.

Mark Tebeau, director of the Public History program and associate professor in the ASU School of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, lauds the archive as “one of the most innovative community curated public archival projects.”

“(The archive) is a crowd-sourced archive, drawn from multiple diaspora communities, whose narratives are not commonly connected together. It mines family histories and experiences to begin the process of developing a rich social history of global migration. As a non-profit that asks the communities involved to sponsor artifacts and stories, SAADA (South Asian American Digital Archive) also has embraced an interesting strategy for sustaining culture – by asking communities themselves to invest in the preservation of their history,” he said

For graduate and undergraduate students in history and public history – a field that explores how humanities and historical research are put to work in the world to engage broad public audiences – the archive offers an innovative model of how entrepreneurial community organizing can transform the process of historical research and exhibition, he added.

Katherine O’Flaherty, an honors faculty fellow who teaches an honors course called Immigrant America, said the archive will be of interest to students who are conducting their own research on immigration. Students in the course come from a range of disciplines, including nursing, journalism, criminal justice and kinesiology.

“It will be useful for students to hear about how this archive is constructed, maintained and expanded, and how they might utilize archives like this in their own work. I think that many of them will be particularly interested in the process of creating, cataloging, preserving and sharing information digitally,” she added.