Source : The Pioneer – ANUBHAV PRADHAN
For those who predict the end of reading culture, Delhi’s public libraries are an affirmation of their utility and enduring charm, believes Anubhav Pradhan
Virginia Woolf’s quip that public libraries are “full of sunk treasure” is apt for Delhi. Our city is a good place to be if you’re fond of reading, or planning to take on the habit. It is known for its history, for its rich built heritage of monuments and the symbols of a long, millennial power. It’s also known for its brashness and aggression, a rushed ruthlessness that answers to no one but itself. But amidst these divergent, varied realities, Delhi is also a very vibrant hub of education and of literacy. Not only is the city home to some of the best universities and colleges in India, and base for major research academies across almost all disciplines, it is also the nation’s publishing and media capital. Given the needs of all these institutions and authorities, it is natural that Delhi has an extensive network of some of the most well-stocked and well-maintained libraries in the country.
The credit for being the oldest of all of these goes to the Hardayal Municipal Heritage Public Library (HMHPL). It has 28 branches spread across the North, East, and South Municipal Corporations; its headquarters are situated just off Town Hall, the former seat of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. It began as an exclusive reading room a few years after the First War of Independence in 1857, part of the erstwhile Lawrence Institute.
Recovering as the city was from the confiscations and demolitions, which followed the war, the emergence of the institute and its library were among the first signs of civic normality returning to the city — albeit in a form vastly different from what its residents were then familiar with. Known variously as the Delhi Public Library, Hardinge Municipal Library, Hardayal Municipal Library, and finally Hardayal Municipal Heritage Public Library, its varying fortunes over the past century and a half of its existence are reflective of Delhi’s modern history. Delhi’s rise to prominence as a major commercial and industrial entrepôt, its metamorphosis as the epicentre of national politics, and its recent aspirations to willy-nilly remould its patrimony by world-class and global benchmarks, all are mirrored in the HMHPL’s own history.
Most visitors to old Delhi, however, are more likely to stumble upon the main branch of the Delhi Public Library (DPL). Located on SP Mukherjee Marg right across the Old Delhi Railway Station, the DPL looks drab in comparison to the HMHPL’s colonial façade. But once inside, the old adage about appearances becomes quickly apparent. Not only is the DPL maintained much better than its understaffed cousin, it is also stocked better across disciplines and genres. This is not surprising, considering it is one of the four depository libraries in the country along with the National Library (Kolkata), the State Central Library (Mumbai), and the Connemara Library (Chennai). Simply put, this means that the DPL is obliged to receive a free copy of every book published in Hindi, English, and all major Indian languages from all registered publishers as per law. Publishers, of course, are known to default, and the DPL itself takes a lot of time to process all that it receives, but a visit to the Chandni Chowk branch is guaranteed to satisfy; it is home to a healthy, eclectic holding ranging from the esoteric to the pedestrian, something for everybody. With a complex hierarchy of branches all over the city and with subscription as affordable as just two rupees for two years, it’s no small wonder that the DPL is one of the busiest public library networks in India.
One of the best and busiest academic libraries in India, however, has to be the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). Slow, calm, and charged with the dim hum of a thousand ideas, it is that scholarly beehive which attracts social scientists from all over the world. While both the DPL and NMML are autonomous, central sector organisations and both owe their genesis to Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision for Delhi and for the country, they are poles apart. The DPL seeks to fulfil grassroots needs for reading material and strives to promote reading amongst the general public, while the NMML serves as a prestigious, unparalleled hub of the study of modern Indian history. Over the past five decades, almost every South Asianist worth his/her salt has been associated with the NMML.
Similarly, the first wish of every respectable HUMSOC (humanities and social sciences) publisher is for their books to pass through its selection committee. The NMML, however, is not strictly a public library; its portals are open to all bona fide researchers, students and/or teachers, from all universities, colleges, and institutes of higher education in India, but not really to members of the general public. Yet, working for a thesis or a paper in the NMML is an experience satisfying like few others. Cocooned from the cares and noise of the city at large, it is the ideal academic heaven to immerse oneself in for long bouts of reading and writing.
Writing and literature have found a better home in the Sahitya Akademi (SA), though. Occupying cosily cramped quarters in Rabindra Bhawan, right off Mandi House, the Akademi is to the litterateur what the NMML is to the social scientist. State patron to all our primary mother tongues, the Akademi is the first port of call for scholars of languages and literatures across the country. Of course, its extensive holdings also contain ample shelves on the social sciences, and the scales at any given time are tipped in favour of English than Indian languages. But where the NMML leads with its atmosphere of quiet rigor, the Akademi wins with a dynamic commitment to linguistic plurality. This does not mean in any way that the Akademi does not have a strong research mandate — it does, and since its formation in 1954, it has been at the heart of many major studies of and compilations and translations of Indian languages. In fact, the Akademi does a better balancing act between scholarship and accessibility than the NMML and similar institutions. Membership, significantly, is limited not just to scholars and students, but is open to all bona fide Delhi residents at affordable terms.
It can also be reached a little more easily than the NMML, being not more than 10 short minutes’ walking distance from the Mandi House metro station. Located bang in the heart of Delhi’s arts and theatre district and flanked by the gastronomic powerhouses of Bengali Market, it is one of the most happening and lively libraries to visit; something or the other is guaranteed to be happening in its vicinity, a play or a musical/dance performance, and a few hours spent well in its portals can be happily topped by a visit to the Triveni Terrace Café.
Talking of these major institutional holdings, it is inevitable to refer to the extensive library systems of the many public universities and colleges spread all over Delhi. The Delhi University Library System (DULS) is the most pervasive and networked across two campuses and many faculties. Of these, the Central Reference Library (CRL) is the most iconic —indeed, the symbol of DULS. Located in the Faculty of Arts Complex in the heart of the university’s North/Main Campus, the CRL exudes a level-headed stolidity, which is emblematic of the art and craft of research even if no longer of the university as a whole. Appearances, of course, cloak the truth and careful visitors will find that the CRL’s holdings are often not as focussed and curated as of even some college libraries. Despite this neglect, the CRL’s dim and musty corridors are everything a college library should be: Those who lose themselves in it seldom come disappointed. This condition is also met by the Central Library of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), whose holdings can put the CRL to shame, even though they pale in significance before the combined might of DULS. Officially Dr BR Ambedkar Central Library, this is a spine of bricks and books which towers high over the core of the academic biosphere, which the JNU is.
It has a fine balance of professionalism and fuzziness, an aura always endearing to a student — a time when the world is slow and deadlines not more than shadow lines. This fuzziness, however, is all but lost in the Zakir Husain Library (ZHL) of Jamia Millia Islamia. Like much else in and of Jamia, the ZHL is mired deep in a banal professionalism which sucks joy from the heart and soul of research. It looks hurried and uninspiring, and has sufficient number of prohibitive customs and rules to discourage the casual bookworm from forming any ties with it.
All of these libraries, however, form just the tip of the iceberg; they are major landmarks in a wider network of many smaller nodes. One of the more notable of these is Kala Nidhi, the calm — almost sedate — reference library of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). Situated within the IGNCA’s sprawling campus, Kala Nidhi is as plush and comfortable as the centre itself. It reeks of money and significance, though, to give it credit, it is also open and welcoming. This is not the case with the famed library of the India International Centre (IIC), where extensive holdings are cloistered for a membership as select as the coterie of elite intelligentsia and culturati, which forms the IIC’s home base. The only institution which leaves the IIC far behind in being an exclusive public secret is the Supreme Court’s Judges Library, a magnificent abode of deep knowledge which mere mortals seldom chance to glance upon. Just getting into it is often more difficult than getting into the Parliament Library, though the latter is supposed to be bigger and richer in terms of its holdings and shelf space. Membership to both is restricted, but the Judges Library is any day more impressive as a library, as a repository of books and knowledge, than the Parliament Library.
Of course, libraries are not just awe-inspiring seats of the sublime, they are cosy and friendly too. Not surprisingly, the smaller ones seem to be much more welcoming and hospitable than their bigger counterparts. The library of Bhai Veer Singh Sahitya Sadan (BVSSS) is perhaps the most friendly and warm of all of these. Located just off Gole Market, the BVSSS is the fulcrum of Punjabi and Sikh history and culture in Delhi. Its library is at the core of its mission, and membership is open to all Indian citizens at very affordable rates. Similarly, the Library of the Iran Culture House on Tilak Marg across the Supreme Court is both well-stocked and welcoming. Though a reference library, membership is open to all without a fee. This accessibility is what distinguishes these libraries, small and niche, from counterparts, such as the British Council Library and the American Centre Library. Both friendly and courteous, these two repositories are still not quite within the reach of the average student and citizen. Their membership fee, particularly the British Council’s, is just a little higher than what a lay reader might be willing to pay. Nonetheless, they continue to have a strong, committed base, and are hubs of activities and events which pull in other visitors as well.
For all those naysayers who predict the end of print and of reading culture, Delhi’s experience is a resounding affirmation of the enduring charm and utility of public libraries. There is no doubt that digital is the future and that reading is no longer amongst the principle leisure of the lettered classes. Local, neighbourhood level lending libraries, too, have all but died out, and bookstores are in noticeable decline. Public libraries, however, are nowhere close to extinction; they have, for the most, kept up with the times, and innovated to continue attracting readers. The moot point is not just that most visitors now wish to use libraries as dens for examination preparation, it is also that Government agencies often forget that their patronage is crucial in giving life to the quiet, contemplative habit of reading and research. In other words, those libraries which are now threatened with obsolescence, like the HMHPL, are victims of institutional apathy and inadequate funding much more than lack of readerly interest. Open, accessible, and interactive libraries have been at the heart of modern community formation, a civic sense of belonging. It is imperative that Delhi continues to honour and cherish its public libraries so that it remains true to the founding ideals of the nation: A thinking, patient, reflective community of citizens committed to the welfare and well-being of all.
The writer is a doctoral candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. He also served Primus Books as their Senior Marketing Editor. Views expressed are his own