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The lost world of libraries

Gargi Gupta & Arati Menon Carroll  |  New Delhi/ Mumbai 

The associated with the world of no longer exists
"Lebrerii?" The cycle-rickshawwallah in front of the had no idea there was a library in the vicinity, let alone three located within a radius of barely a kilometre from where he stood.
There was the some way down Chandni Chowk, the Hardayal Municipal Public Library down the lane that runs off Mati Das Chowk, and Delhi Public Library opposite the Old Delhi Railway Station. But the poor, illiterate rickshawwallah could hardly be blamed "" obviously, few people ever asked to be taken to these places.
And yet, these are among three of the city's oldest public libraries. The oldest, Hardayal Municipal Public Library, traces its history back to 1862, to the Institute Library, a reading club of memsahibs read on the voyage to India.
The Marwari Library, founded in 1915 by Kedarnath Goenka, a freedom fighter, where everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Madan Mohan Malviya came; and Delhi Public Library, inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951.
But, however distinguished the provenance of these three, as also that of the Dayal Singh Public Library in Delhi and other public libraries elsewhere in the country, they are all rather sad places today. Only PhD students come here now to trawl the dusty shelves of uncared for books, rummage through the crumbling cards and brave the apathetic sloth of the staff for the early and rare editions of novels and journals.
There's another tribe of visitors "" students and those studying for competitive exams, who are more interested in the newer stocks, the textbooks, journals, and (largly pedestrian) reference
As semi-government bodies, Delhi Public Library and Hardayal Municipal Public Library are no longer single libraries but a network of reading rooms, zonal and regional libraries spread out all over the city. But the result of this outreach has been that most of the money they get go into paying salaries with very little left for adding quality books to the collection or preserving what's already there.
A library, everyone will agree, says a lot about a city, a country, its people. And Delhi doesn't do badly on this score. As the capital city, it has a number of good libraries that showcase the range and depth of scholarship in the country, and are a rich source of material for researchers.
There are the eclectic collections at university libraries and clubs like the India International Centre and Delhi Gymkhana, more specialised ones at the Delhi School of Economics, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, National School of Drama and archival treasures at the Nehru Memorial Library and National Archives. But these, with a few exceptions, are out of bounds to the general public.
So where does someone in Mumbai who wants a book for nothing more than the pleasure of a good read go?
David Sassoon Library
152, Mahatma Gandhi Marg, Fort
This institution, in the Kala Ghoda precinct, at 161 years old, is the oldest library in the city. Having recently been restored, the yellow malad stone facade, cobbled garden (a favourite for cultural soirees) and a grand teak staircase stand proud.
The terrace adjoining the reading room on the second floor with its chaise longues and reclining chairs is a favourite among bookworms and nappers alike. Their collection is about 40,000 books strong and with a rather nominal lifetime membership fees of Rs 5,000, the library still relies on the largesse of its patrons.
Asiatic Society
Town Hall, Fort
Born as the Literary Society of Bombay, it met for the first time in 1804. Tucked into the fading grandeur of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai is a cache of antique volumes including a first edition copy of Dante's Inferno. The Society's holdings include over 3,000 manuscripts in Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Prakrit from all over India and Nepal. There is also a numismatic collection but you need permission to view this. Lifetime membership will cost you Rs 10,000.
American Center
4 New Marine Lines
This one is primarily a research and reference library that focuses on promoting American culture and politics. The 13,000 volumes, therefore, consist mainly of books, government publications and think tank reports that aid that understanding. It does also, though, have 135 magazines that otherwise may be hard (or expensive) to access. Members are charged Rs 400 for a year's access.
3 Om Chambers, August Kranti Marg, Kemps Corner
It all began in 1962, when Shemaroo pioneered Bombay's first circulating book library. It still has over 13,000 members. Their packed children and teenage library sections offer hope about the continuing relevance of literature. A lifetime membership costs Rs 800 and you're charged 10 per cent of each book's price as rental fee.

British Council library
Mittal Tower "A" Wing, 1st floor, Nariman Point
Always enormously popular with students who appreciate the modern environment and efficient services, British Council libraries are modelled on the pattern of British public libraries. The range of reading material is probably the most diverse, both recreational and professional, in addition to music CDs and DVDs. They charge an annual fee of Rs 1,400.

First Published: Sun, May 20 2007. 00:00 IST