Photo by Sophie Charlotte Belnos, public domain/CC0.

When Sen was proofreading a scanned page of Wikisource, he was inspired to find better-quality images to illustrate the word—like the one seen here. Photo by Sophie Charlotte Belnos, public domain/CC0.

I have had a penchant for enjoying books since childhood—when I was in primary school, it was not long before I had finished the works of fiction available at home, that I could lay my hands upon. Then my notice was drawn to my father’s academic collection, where there was a huge collection of Scientific American volumes, which became my next prey. I found them as interesting as mystery novels.

I still remember an article by Melvin Calvin on photosynthesis. Plants take up water and carbon dioxide and produce glucose, water and oxygen. But wherefrom comes oxygen: from water or from carbon dioxide? Calvin used radioactive tracers to identify water as the source. I was entranced with the tale, as if it were a detective fiction; I later came to know that a Nobel Prize was awarded for this discovery. I was also a regular visitor at our village’s two libraries (the public library and the library of my father’s college).

When I became older, this attraction to books did not wane.

Then one day, while searching for some Bengali books on the net, I discovered the Bengali-language Wikisource. To me, the collection seemed rudimentary, so I started contributing. After some time, my job posted me in an area without internet access. Years later, I came back to Bengali Wikisource and expanded to the English Wikisource.

I liked the English Wikisource immediately—so many books, so many subjects! Then I thought of contributing. How could I? Taking up a British or American work seemed quite unnecessary, as plenty of people were already working in that area. When I looked up the Indian collection, it seemed very meager: some books of Tagore and Gandhi and Vivekananda, the writer, politician, and philosopher (respectively), and some translations from Hindu scriptural literature. From Bankim Chandra, there was only Vande Mataram.

So I decided to rectify the situation.

Of the Bengali authors, people outside Bengal or India are generally aware only of Tagore and Bankim, but not for their literary accomplishments. Tagore is known because he won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. Bankim is known because India’s national song was taken from one of his novels. Yet few are aware that Gitanjali was not Tagore’s best work, nor is Anandamath Bankim’s best.

To help reverse this situation, I started adding works. I quickly found that the Internet Archive, the main source site of English Wikisource, was not sufficient for this purpose, so I started adding works from the Digital Library of India and the West Bengal Public Library Network. Later I added the digital collections of the Archaeological Survey of India and Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics. Although I started with fiction, I soon felt the need of other genres. I started adding works of Jagadish Chandra Bose, a pioneer in the development of radio; Prafulla Chandra Ray in science; Dinesh Chandra Sen in the history of literature; and Jadunath Sarkar and Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay in history. I have added India’s original constitution, hand-written and beautifully illustrated, as well as plenty of the constitution’s amendments. I have added India-related books in almost all spheres, which are partially listed in the India, Bengal, and Calcutta portals.

This has also been a learning experience for me. Not only procedural knowledge, but also expanding of knowledge all-around. Many times I became aware of particular books when I came across a reference to it in a work I was proofreading. When proofreading this page, for instance, I searched for better copies of the images, then finally added the whole work to the English Wikisource—I have come across books of history, science, even poetry while proofreading another work, then went in search of them. 

Moreover, while proofreading these old books, I have frequently been enriched with new knowledge. For example, what was the secret behind the claimed centuries-long lifespan of the Hindu Yogis of ancient India? While proofreading A History of Hindu Chemistry, I came to know that twice a month, they would drink a potion of sulfur and quicksilver.

You also learn the value of proofreading, such as when I found an interesting mistake in Bankim’s Vedic Literature. In ancient times, books used to be copied by hand by scribes, and sometimes inadvertent errors crept in. One such “typo” changed the compound word “yonimagre” to “yonimagne” in the Rigveda. This change from r to n changed the word agra (front) to agni (fire), which was then used as the Vedic sanction for a now-infamous Sati custom, the burning of widows alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres. This typo, possibly the deadliest in human history, led to the loss of a countless number of lives over thousands of years. This may be an extreme example—but it emphasises the value of careful proofreading, which we do at Wikisource.

Hrishikes Sen, Community member
Bengali and English Wikisource

This post has been updated with the addition of two closing paragraphs from the author.