Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Intimations of mortality

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 11, 2013 19:34 hrs

As Gopal Gandhi recalled in the course of a sparkling lecture in Kolkata, someone commented when he was renovating the Raj Bhavan library that he might kill “some rats or mouses” but would create “no history of national importance”. The man should have asked how many people would use the enriched library.

I can’t differentiate between cause and effect but we live in an age when libraries are becoming as extinct as reading. If a haven of neat bookshelves, polished tables and shining rows of green banker’s lamps swathed in space and silence like the library in the film that coined the word “Gandhigiri” (not about Gopal but his grandpa) exists anywhere, I have missed it. One of Singapore’s pleasures used to be browsing in the MPH bookshop, taking the escalator to the café on the floor above, and then further up to the American Centre. MPH has gone, as has the café. The American Centre is now buried in the American embassy’s impenetrable fortress.

The BBC is throwing away 80,000 books. Britain’s bookshops have halved in number in seven years. A Wall Street Journal writer laments that far from being a refuge from the daily bustle, libraries are “awash in almost as much noise and activity as a busy Starbucks”.

So starved are we of libraries in India that I would put up with even Starbucks if it means books, comfortable (but not too comfortable) seating, and helpful librarians — not stuck-up scholars or bureaucrats with grand designations presiding remotely over a visible empire that betokens power, personnel and handsome spending budgets. Readers want trained and committed librarians who don’t look down on filing, indexing, cataloguing, issuing and retrieving books.

Although no Starbucks, Brighton Public Library mixes reading with coffee, which the Kensington and Chelsea Library sternly forbids. But K&C librarians cheerfully nip down to the stacks to get the old volumes I seek, and – pure bliss! – issue 15 at a time. Honolulu’s Hamilton Library was my favourite. I was tearing out my hair once for an old article in the defunct Illustrated Weekly of India. My friends in Mumbai couldn’t help; then, suddenly, I chanced upon an entire wall of bound copies of the Weekly.

Hamilton must also be one of the world’s few libraries to preserve Hindusthan Standard on microfilm. The microfilm readers don’t collapse from over-heating. They don’t have to be coaxed back into life like the Nehru Memorial Library’s dilapidated wrecks.

But nothing compares with the honour system in Pall Mall clubs where you help yourself to a book without anyone knowing, and return it when you’ve finished. In contrast, India’s best clubs have banned bags from libraries. Since the ban is relatively new, obviously we were less dishonest under British rule when these clubs were founded. A social elite not noted for reading prizes all forms of loot. Churchill would chuckle delightedly.

Our libraries have to cope with not only “rats and mouses” but also a punishing climate. The biggest menace is two-legged. Contrast a Manchester Central Library assistant producing her own notes on “Angry Young Men” literature when my requisitions betrayed an interest in the subject with my photocopying experience at the National Library here.

“Come back tomorrow,” the assistant said brusquely. A page will take only a minute I pleaded, pointing to the idle copiers below our mezzanine floor. “We do it the next day!” he snapped. I begged and coaxed. He relented but warned I’d have to wait till a messenger was available. The messenger was chatting nearby. He did eventually take the page down but didn’t come back. I waited in mounting alarm before hesitantly approaching the desk again. Another brush-off. Finally, I plucked up the courage to enquire downstairs.

The copy had long been ready. “I’ll take it!” I said eagerly, but no, only the Ordering department could do that. Back to the Ordering desk. “They should inform us when it’s ready” said the assistant. My telling him wasn’t enough. Down again to persuade Copying please to inform Ordering. Ritual was propitiated but the messenger had disappeared again. Another wait until he ambled back.

I could have made the copy myself in a few seconds at the British Library or London’s Colindale Newspaper Library. National Library readers must suffer nightmares.

The system is delinquent. It’s also systemic that innovations seldom survive innovators. History of some, if not national, importance might have been created if, sadly, the library occasional papers (a treasure trove of information) Gandhi started hadn’t ended with his departure from Raj Bhavan.  

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