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City and its Libraries

By March 20, 2019No Comments

Source : DNA   –   Sohail Hashmi


Great civilisations gave birth to great cities and most ancient cities were known to have their own great libraries. Whether it was the 7th century library in the city of Nineveh, built by the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal, or the Library of Alexandria built by Ptolemy I in 295 BC or a large number of other ancient libraries including the Imperial Library of Constantinople built by Constantius II in 357 CE, the Library of Aristotle built a few decades before the commencement of the common era, the 4th century built library of Nalanda, and many of the other libraries, all these testify to the continuation of a tradition that goes back over two thousand years.

All over the world, libraries were open to those who could read or write, reading and writing were always the privileges of the elite. An overwhelming majority of slaves would, in any case, have been unlettered and even if some had acquired access to the written word, they would have been denied access to libraries. In the case of India, the “lower orders” would have met the same fate, except it was perhaps a little less complicated, the Shudras were not permitted access to texts so even if there were institutions like Public Libraries, they would have barred entry to the Dalits.

So despite a long-standing tradition of scholarship, access to the written word (whether on stone tablets, clay tablets, copper plates, papyrus rolls, parchment, banana leaf, bhojpatra or the more recent paper, that arrived in India with the Turks in the 13th century), had, till recently, been restricted to the elite.

The institution of the public library is a fairly recent phenomenon.

The Asiatic Society of Bombay with its origins in the Literary Society of Bombay set up in 1804 by Sir James Mackintosh, is the oldest of the public libraries in India. Once the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland was established in 1823 the Bombay Literary Society got affiliated to the RAS and came to be known as the Bombay Branch of the RAS from 1830. The Bombay Geographical society and the Bombay Anthropological Societies merged with the BBRAS in 1873 and 1896 respectively.

With the coming of independence the prefix Royal was dropped in 1954 and in 2002 it got its present name with Bombay turning to Mumbai. The Library has a collection of over 1,00,000 books out of which 15,000 are classified as rare aside from almost 3,000 manuscripts in Prakrit, Persian and Sanskrit.

Known as the ‘Imperial Library Calcutta’ till a few years after independence, the library was renamed ‘The National Library – Calcutta’ in 1953. When it was formed in 1836, the library was known as the Calcutta Public Library. It was set up as a proprietorial institute. Anyone paying Rupees 300 could become part owner of the Library. Rupees 300 was a lot of money in those days and so the poor and students were permitted free use for a limited period. Several individuals donated large collections and libraries such as the Fort Williams Libraries and other libraries were merged to create the library which became a true public library in 1903. The Library has 2.2 million books, rare collections and manuscripts in many languages in its collection. The Library is a holding library and every book published in India is sought to be acquired for a central repository.

The Connemara Public Library in Chennai is also a national repository. The very interesting beginnings of the library go back to 1860.  The civil servants for the Indian Civil Service were trained at the Haileybury College at Hertfordshire. Hundreds of surplus books from the college library were gifted to the government of the Madras Presidency which, in turn, gifted them to the Madras Museum. The Madras Museum was conceived on the lines of the British Museum Library and continued as part of the Madras Museum till 1890. It was in this year that Lord Connemara, the then governor of the Madras Presidency, laid the foundation of a free public library on 22 March 1890. The library was actually free, anyone could become a member after paying a small and refundable deposit. In 1948 the Library, one of the largest public libraries in India, was converted into a State Library. The Madras Public Libraries Act 1948, was the first attempt to organise and institutionalise public library services in India.

Compared to the three libraries established in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, the Delhi Public Library was a late starter. The reasons are not far to seek, the British had decided to punish Delhi for being the centre of the 1857 rebellion. They were, in any case, not interested in developing the hinterland. It was part of the strategy that Delhi was denied many educational facilities.

And so the Delhi Public Library too came up decades after its predecessors in the three presidency headquarters. The library had its beginning with the well-known industrialist Ramkrishna Dalmia, when requested by Gen Claude Auchinleck, made a sufficiently large donation to meet the entire cost of building the library in 1944. In 1950 there was an agreement and the UNESCO agreed to initiate the project. The Library was inaugurated by PM Nehru and the operations were transferred from UNESCO to the government of India in 1955. The Library stocks 1.5 million books. The Delhi Public Library, despite its 72,000 membership and 35 branches, still manages to project a seedy, dark and dingy appearance. Unlike the grand structures that house the other three libraries, Delhi Public Library is located in an entirely unwelcoming ambience. It looks more like a storehouse.

If the aim of the Department of Education is to develop a hatred for reading among the youth, they are going about it in an absolutely planned manner, by reducing the library to this condition.

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