The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 27, 2003


Library or graveyard of books?
K. R. N. Swamy

The National Library of India at Kolkata
The National Library of India at Kolkata

THE National Library of India, the apex library of 65,000 libraries (public and private in India), is observing its centenary year from January 30, 2003, to January next.

Its forerunner, the Imperial Library of India was officially opened by Lord Curzon on January 30, 1903. In fact, historians trace its beginning to the Calcutta Public Library, started by one physician of the English East India Company Dr F.P. Strong in 1835! In 1948, as suggested by the last Governor-General of India, Rajaji, the Government of India decided to hand over the Calcutta residence of the former British Governor-Generals to house the National Library. This grand historic mansion was built in the 1700s by the Nawab Azim-uz-Shan of Bengal. Today, the National Library housing more than two million books in all main languages of India and English (three fourths in English) and thousands of periodicals has a carpet area of 345 thousand square feet (including the annexes). Its 700 plus library staff look after the needs of the scholars (on an average 1000 per day). Another huge six-floor annexe called the Bhasha Bhavan is being built at a cost of Rs 65 crore.

The initial years, with such intellectuals as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as the Minister for Education and Dr B.S. Kesavan as the Chief Librarian (1948-63 & 1970-71) were the halcyon years for the National Library and its growth was phenomenal. But, according to library scholars, as on date, it has not even succeeded in 20 per cent of the task as India’s National Library, and is unable to cope up with demands of modern times. At the time of establishment, in terms of the size of book collection, it ranked 55th in the world. Today, its ranking would be much lower. In Asia, the National Library of China has eight million books, four times as our library, and the National Library of Thailand (a nation with one sixteenth of India’s population) has 2 million books, almost as many as the Indian one.


In the past decades, many eminent research scholars have pointed out the defects of this premier national institution. The greatest cancer is the trade union rivalries. In fact in 1990, an agreement with the Library of Congress, USA, to make microfilms of all books on India in Indian and US libraries had to be scrapped midway as the unions refused to cooperate with the library. In fact a few years ago, the Director-General of the National Library of Iran had come to visit the library. As the then Chief Librarian was showing him around the premises, a group of "union ruffians" waylaid them inside the library and began to attack her! The Iranian visitor ran away, shocked at this "welcome".

Bureaucracy is at its worst in this ‘graveyard of books’. The official sanctioned strength of staff is 781, of whom 57 are gazetted officers. At any point of time, at least 60 of these posts are vacant and it took 22 years to recruit a Gujarati-speaking technical hand for the care of Gujarati books.

The constraints of finance are the greatest handicap. Some years ago, an eminent Indian librarian disclosed, that the expense per capita in India for library services was just one paisa, as compared to 350 paisa in the UK and 450 paisa in the USA. (The gap would be considerably more now).

Another problem is that rare books are not properly cared for. In the rare book section, there is a set of the complete works of Shakespeare dating back to 1623, based on the bard’s original manuscript; the script of Goethe’s Faust bound in original Morocco leather with gold tooling and a silver allow medallion-studded cover, the Persian manuscript of Abul Fazl’s Akbarnama dated 1556 and a 17th-century palm leaf manuscript of the Kamba Ramayana.

But sadly, eminent Indian writer, Amit Chaudhuri found a 1790 copy of the newspaper Calcutta Gazette dumped near a toilet, whereas any book/journal more than 100 years old, must be always kept in the rare books division.

Extremely priceless and rare books are being ripped apart, page by page in the name of digital scanning and the original copies are being dumped like waste material. The microfilmed copies are also out of focus, having been copied by unskilled staff.

The authorities claim that in 2002, in the National Library, everyday 6000 pages were being digitalised. Modern science has not been able to decide, as to the life of the compact discs in which the books are transferred. As on date, the CDs last for 50 years. This means that the books digitalised in 2003 may not be readable in year 2025, unless like a museum, we preserve reading equipments also. There is no alternative to preserving the original printed book but ironically this is a task for which the Indian National Library is ill-equipped.

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