Wednesday, December 12, 2007


My letter to the editor, unpublished. Firstthev original article anthen my reply.

A living testimony to human endeavour Where on earth have all our libraries gone? Swanky malls, glittering multiplexes, savvy IT hubs and cyber cafes, relaxing resto-pubs with chill-out zones sprouting up all around us epitomise the state of contemporary culture, economic globalisation and consumerism. In the fast-paced world that we inhabit today have libraries become passé? Will the digitisation of books and written material stored in retrieval systems spell doom for the old-fashioned repository of books? If books can be accessed through the worldwide web in the privacy of one’s home or the comfort of one’s workplace, will checking out a book or reference in the library become anachronistic? These are pertinent queries in an Indian scenario where public libraries lie in a state of neglect, rare private collections are by and large dissipated, digitisation is still in a nascent stage and new libraries outside the ambit of educational trusts and institutions are no longer being set up. A library is more than just a repository of wisdom and knowledge. It encapsulates the spirit of peoples, cultures and civilisations. In Asia, as in Europe, libraries were invariably though not always, intrinsically linked to centres of learning and monasteries. The libraries of Nalanda and Vikramsila were very much part of renowned centres of Buddhistic learning. The ravages of time, natural disasters or acts of human vandalism have destroyed libraries all over the world. Defacing books and libraries is a form of repression and when books are banned or censored, fears of fundamentalism, autocracy and fascism resurface in civilised enclaves. Such deliberate acts of vandalism apart, all over India, we are witness to passive acts of violence against books when these lie mutilated, un-preserved or in various stages of disintegration due to wilful neglect or indifference. Such acts of negligence are acts of violence against a past that is indeed symbiotically linked to the present and the future growth of cultures and civilisations. In India, the first public library opened at Esplanade Row in March 1836 under the “proprietorship” of Dwarakanath Tagore who appointed Pyari Chand Mitra as the first librarian. This remained a private one-off phenomenon until the concept of the public library was officially popularised in India by the British in the mid-nineteenth century. For decades, public libraries played a crucial role in the spread of education, information and knowledge. By 1903, when Dwarakanath’s library had become almost defunct, it was given a new lease of life by Lord Curzon who bought its rights and merged it with the East India College Library and other departmental libraries to create the Imperial Library which was then opened to the public. Post-Independence, the library was housed at Belvedere, the residence of the Governors-General, and was renamed National Library. In the presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, public libraries were systematically established for European members and the bureaucracy. Tucked away in some obscure corners of old cities, libraries like the Baghbazar Public Library, Calcutta, or the Connemara Public Library, Madras, or the public libraries of Bombay, are relics of an era when books were the only communicators of knowledge. In independent India, education featured in the State List of responsibilities as a concurrent matter. The Public Libraries Act was adopted by different states at different points of time, Tamil Nadu leading the way by incorporating it as early as 1948, followed by Andhra Pradesh in 1955. In West Bengal, it was adopted in 1979. With a growing population of literate and educated citizens, the Sarva Siksha Abhijan and other literacy missions, documentary knowledge resources still remain relevant in what may today be seen as a predominantly information society. The penetration of public libraries in India is yet to reach a target of at least one government-aided library in each village and district town. In West Bengal, the apex body is the State Central Library that presides over a hierarchy of district level libraries. Several such libraries have become more of text-book libraries catering to students of the area and civic authorities pay scant respect to the upkeep of such institutions. The Jai Krishna Public Library at Uttarpara, for instance, is the only free library run by the state government. Built in 1869 on the banks of the Hooghly by the local zamindar, the library can boast of the best collection of nineteenth century vernacular journals, a collection of 50,000 rare books and manuscripts. Though the Union human resources development ministry releases grants for the preservation of books from time to time, these are hardly adequate for library collections of this stature. The UNESCO defined a public library as a vital force that imparts popular education to one and all by rendering services to all classes of society without discriminating between caste and religion, sex and age, economic and social inequalities. In a very recent welcome move reported in newspapers, the NCERT has appealed to the Union education ministry to mobilise funds so that all schools can have access to their own library collections. In a general environment of rote learning, libraries in schools and colleges can be a veritable life-line to encourage creative thinking and research interests. The technological revolution of the late twentieth century has challenged the manner in which knowledge is documented and disseminated. The creation of online resources and the digitisation of books have made access to information easier and quicker. In instances where access to a public library or research collection is difficult, preliminary information that is only a click of the mouse away is certainly an efficient way of retrieving necessary facts or material. As an equal opportunity resource, the virtual library offers a potpourri of information which, however, is almost impossible to verify, classify or assimilate unless the mind is discriminatory. It is only a trained and discerning mind with a basic level of knowledge that can critically manoeuvre its way through these resources. The cyberspace library perhaps liberates one from the Dewey classificatory system, the symmetrically arranged shelves of libraries and the physical handling of books. Surfing the virtual library yields a plethora of words and images on the computer screen that appear in rapid succession but in no predetermined linear, logical or rational structure. The text may have an authoritative source but this cannot be physically checked, or its corporeal dimension cannot be verified because one is only scrolling up and down to turn the pages on several sites that offer various authentic versions of the same text. This can become disconcerting unless one has recourse to a library where the actual book or versions of a book or manuscript have been archived and can, therefore, be read, consulted and handled in the old fashioned manner. The library and library services all over the world have undergone and are still undergoing immense positive changes. Unfortunately in India the computerisation of libraries and the networking is still largely inadequate. Several crores have been spent for example for building the impressive Bhasa Bhavan to house the National Library collection in Kolkata, but modernisation of services inside the library has not been instituted as yet. And so where does that leave the Book? If one were to reconsider the aphoristic message of Sir Francis Bacon, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”, one could say that access to the cyber library is tempting for the first two categories which are books to be surfed and skimmed. Reading a book onscreen may need adjusting to a new mobile and volatile medium that does not encourage old methods of study and thought. For books that are to be “read wholly” the seductions of the screen are too distracting. Reading these in “hard copy”, as actual volumes that can be held in the hand and opened at a page allowing the eyes to linger over words and phrases and the mind to concentrate on meaning and thought is a different experience altogether. If a reader knows what he/she is looking for, is able to distinguish between facts and opinions, is quick in discerning reliable sources as against dubious ones, the Internet is a helpful way of retrieving facts, figures and information. But what is most important in the study and pursuit of the humanities and the liberal arts is developing the skills of analysis and understanding, following a line of argument and reasoning and coming to one’s own ethical and moral judgments. Such qualities of mind and thought can hardly be nurtured by the sophistication of modern day technology alone, it would need browsing in a library in close proximity to shelves of books of all shapes and sizes, ranging over different values and interests that sustain the spirit of liberal education and inspire the imaginative faculties of human beings. In this age of information technology, amassing facts has only a limited relevance as this can only be sustained meaningfully on the basis of ideas and interpretations. In the humanities, teaching-learning and research processes will be largely dependent on books and need to be complemented by upgraded library services that have been modernised by technological advancement. The multitude of books being written and disseminated in physical or e-book format will remain a living testimony to human endeavour and enterprise. One may indeed emphatically assert that it is in libraries and through books that our civilisation is going to live on. (The author is Head, Department of English, Presidency College

The Editor
The Statesman


Apropos of Jayati Gupta’s writeup on Libraries ‘A living testament to human endeavour’ in yesterday’s Statesman, the love of books is fast vanishing in our era of globalisation and consumerism. That there has been a paradigm shift in our values can be appreciated by the fact that my nephew was not gifted a single book on his ‘Upanayan’ held this year whereas five and forty years ago I had received a modest collection of books to fill up three shelves! Incidentally it will be worthwhile to know how many students, specially lady students, schooled in the English medium have read ‘Rebecca’ or ‘Fountainhead’, the two books which were frequently read and discussed during my student days. Truly, like Virgo intacta, a Bibliophile is also a rara avis. I fully agree with Ms Gupta that reading an e-book is rather taxing, which I felt to the core while negotiating James Joyce’s Opus Magnum ‘ Ulysses’ on the net, courtesy Project Gutenberg. En passant I may mention that the libraries of ancient Athens, where men like Socrates seeking respite from their shrewish wives found their repose, had a secret tunnel leading to a house of pleasure, a bordello!

Thanking you



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