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University of Pennsylvania Libraries Will Provide Comprehensive Access to American Institute of Indian Studies Image Collection

When the project is complete, researchers will have free access to nearly 90,000 images and a wealth of searchable metadata.

Detail of a cave painting.

The University of Pennsylvania Libraries has launched a project to make the full American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) Image Collection available and discoverable online. The collection documents a range of Indian art through black and white photography, with an emphasis on premodern temple architecture and sculpture.

An initial batch of 2,300 images—featuring the Ajanta and Ellora Caves, both UNESCO World Heritage sites—is now available through Colenda, the Penn Libraries’ repository for digitized and born-digital material of enduring value. When the project is complete, researchers will have free access to nearly 90,000 high-resolution images for viewing and downloading, along with a wealth of searchable metadata.

This vast collection is important from both aesthetic and historical perspectives. Many photographs captured for the collection in the 1960s or 1970s show the original state of archeological sites that have dramatically changed over time.  

“The project to digitize this collection and make it discoverable will make a lasting impact at Penn—and to the world’s cultural and scholarly record,” says Brigitte Weinsteiger, Interim Director and Gershwind & Bennett Family Senior Associate Vice Provost for Collections and Scholarly Communications. “It is a priority for the Penn Libraries to provide resources to students and scholars who want to research and preserve the cultural and artistic contributions of people across the globe.”

Detail of a cave painting.
Ellora: Cave 16. Sukanasa-lalata-nasi, ca. mid 8th century CE. American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) Image Collection, University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Photo: American Institute of Indian Studies.

In 2022, the Penn Libraries launched the Center for Global Collections. Through collections, dedicated staff, and programming, the Center drives exploration of the histories, languages, and cultures of people all over the world. Resources like the AIIS Image Collection fuel scholarship and classes within the Center as well exhibitions, film screenings, performances, and lectures.  

The AIIS Image Collection was originally created through an initiative of the American Institute of Indian Studies’ Center for Art & Archaeology (formerly known as the American Academy of Benares). Beginning in 1965, teams were trained and sent throughout South Asia to photograph archeological sites and artifacts and to draft metadata, with the goal of establishing an archive. Eventually two versions of the archive took root: One in Gurgaon, outside Delhi; another—at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1979, through the newly launched South Asia Art Archive. Even as the collection grew, the intention was to continue building the archive at Penn as an exact replica of the archive in Gurgaon.

Portions of the AIIS Image Collection have been digitized in the past, but the current Penn Libraries project will mark the first time the complete collection is being made available and discoverable online in a comprehensive way.  

“The arrival of the AIIS Image Collection at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries in 1979 opened opportunities for enhanced research on South Asian art and architecture for North America-based scholars,” says Jef Pierce, Assistant Director of the Center for Global Collections and South Asian Studies Librarian. “Now in the digital age, the Penn Libraries—in collaboration with AIIS—aims to further expand access to users across the world. In making these materials freely and openly available to anyone with an internet connection, we’re striving to enrich teaching and learning within an increasingly global context.”

Each item in the physical collection consists of a black-and-white photograph and a square of paper with metadata pasted onto 14-by-10-inch photo cards. To kickstart the current project, staff in the Penn Libraries’ Global Studies Technical Services Department coordinated with a vendor to prepare and digitize the physical collection. They also developed a structure to transcribe the original metadata to a format appropriate for digital catalog records. The Penn Libraries’ Colenda team then designed a process to map that information to the repository’s data fields and the digital images, thereby allowing for discovery and access.  

Later this spring, the next phase of work will begin to add the remainder of the full 90,000-image collection to Colenda.

Browse AIIS Image Collection items in Colenda.

Featured image: Ajanta: Cave 17. Detail of a painting, ca. 462-480 CE, on the interior, right aisle wall, between the front and rear pilaster. American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) Image Collection, University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Photo: Walter Spink.