The Globe & Mail has an interesting article on the Indian National Archives’s collection of Persian-language documents from the Mughal empire. After twenty-five years, the archives are nearly done cataloging the 137,000 documents of the Inayat Jang collection only to find that they are without scholars on staff to translate and interpret them.
Stephanie Nolen sets this up as a story of elegiac decline—the head archivist, Dr. Irfann, learned Persian as a child but his son speaks and studies in English—but, to be blunt, that’s a red herring. When it comes to preserving the past, the question is one of priorities not ancestry.
The study of old, specialized is known as paleography, and it isn’t easy. Nor is learning the archaic form of any language. Yes, Dr. Irfann studied Persian in school, but he also took adoctorate in medieval Persian.
Access to that sort of higher education is dwindling, though this ends up beyond the scope of Nolan’s article. King’s College London eliminated the last permanent chair in paleography anywhere in the UK in 2010 right after a government cut to university funding (though they’ve since hired a professor of paleography to work in the history department). In the United States, the study of rare foreign languages is supported by Title VI funding, which was cut by 46% in the 2011 budget.
The fact that Dr. Irfann can’t find anyone to replace him has very little to do with any sort of dying out of knowledge—this isn’t a “dying script.” It’s a dead one that requires deliberate life support if it isn’t to be lost. And you can make far more money in almost any business than as a historian or archivist.
The hard truth behind the Inayat Jang collection is the same as the truth behind the digitization of Queen Victoria’s journals and hundreds of other decisions about heritage resources: people refuse to pay to preserve their cultural heritage, then seem surprised when that same heritage ends up unavailable some time down the road. It’s too bad that the Globe didn’t connect the dots.