I’ve done more than 90 posts with the tag “BritIndia”, with links to passages from books that were published in the 19th century. The material came from free e-books accessed through Google Books. The books helped me gain a new perspective on British rule in India. I realised that our history books have given us such a one-sided narrative of events that unfolded in that period. It was true that the British ruthlessly crushed any rebellion and did not hesitate to exercise their authority in every manner. But, equally, there were British officers, engineers, generals, administrators who made genuine attempts to improve the quality of life here.
It is often said of the British that they introduced Railways not with the comfort of the natives in mind but to move goods from hinterland to the coast and then on to England by ship. I did not find any evidence of this intention to use Railways to plunder the country. Every piece of communication conveys a desire to build a transportation system that was reliable, safe and profitable.
Similarly, we’ve been told that the British brought in their system of education into the country with the sole purpose of indoctrinating the natives and bringing them in line with their methods. This is an unfair accusation. There’s enough material in Google Books to show that their intentions were honourable and stemmed from a genuine belief that ignorance and superstition had to be stamped out so as to liberate the natives from the poverty and squalor that marked their lives.
Thus, I’ve spent many hours with Google Books and learnt quite a bit in the process. I’ve enjoyed my role as an armchair historian.
A writer, Paula Findlen, seems to have had the same experience. In a recent article, she notes:
Thanks to Google, 21st-century scholars are becoming far more accustomed to reading 19th-century books, simply because, being out of copyright, they are online. The digitization of the long 19th century (materials published between the late 18th and early 20th centuries) has made accessible and searchable scholarly work that has been neglected because it was considered too dated and too unreliable. It was the last thing many of us looked for in the library.
This rediscovery of the 19th century as an open-source reading experience is accompanied by a subtle appreciation of the era’s intellectual merits. Consider the quantity of material—obscure novels, local histories, antique catalogs, minor journals, a sea of biographies, and those vast and terrifyingly erudite bibliographies that were a specialty of that age of scholarship. Work that fails to enter a canon—literary, historical, or otherwise—tends to languish on the dustier shelves of college libraries. Digitization allows a new generation of scholars to look at them with fresh regard. This represents a significant change in the way we think about scholarship.
Google Books is a kind of Victorian portal that takes me into a mare magnum of out-of-print authors, many of whom helped launch disciplines. Or who wrote essays, novels, and histories that did not transcend their time. Or who anonymously produced the paperwork of emerging bureaucracies, organizations, and businesses that, because printed, has been scanned and, because scanned, is now available.
I am not a scholar of the 19th century but have found its digitization to be one of the most fascinating new resource for understanding the centuries that precede it.