Two registers lay open on the front desk with a blunt tipped pencil tucked in one of them. Visitors are required to enter their names in it. Many walk by without a second look. Two women manned the baggage counter, deciding in a seemingly random fashion, bags that must be tagged with a number and bags that should be left on the floor, in a corner. My bag didn’t deserve a tag. Back volumes section on the first floor resembled a wastepaper dealer’s store room with bundles of old newspapers and periodicals tied in strings, lay coated in a thick layer of dust. Back volumes of journals, or what one may call as archives, is what I had gone looking for. The library opened in 1915 and one expected a rich list of journals and periodicals from pre-independence era being subscribed to. Did the library have subscription of the journals I was looking for? The staff at the lending desk had a serious difficulty in understanding what ‘journals’ meant. There was no hint of familiarity with this word. She pointed to the same store room on the first floor where I knew the state of affairs. There was repeated use of ‘general’ books in her conversation. In that moment, I abandoned the search for ‘journals’.
The paradox that hits a visitor standing in the middle of the large circular hall, encircled with shelves of books, in two levels, is whether to be glad or sorry. Glad, for the State Central Library (SCL) still exists. That it retains some of its original architectural character and that it appears to be in good health as far as the building and its upkeep goes. Or sorry, for the shelves that hold nothing of the past. The library has no archive. It seems to have done away with the past that once stood on its shelves. For a public library that opened in 1915, SCL has frightfully few books from the early half of twentieth century. A few odd late nineteenth century publications remain tucked among the latest books, as survivors of the purge. There is irony in this report from a newspaper on the reopening of library after renovation – ‘The State Central Library is ready to play host to a new generation of bibliophiles’. The new generation of bibliophiles are civil services aspirants pouring over books that are relevant to the UPSC examination, the grand test that leads up to the portals of modern Indian empire.
For the rest it is an empty shell. It should have once contained within it accounts of past years, stories of those before us, pictures of a world that was and millions of conversations from a world that can be known only through the books of those times. Those books and journals were our only chance. This library sits lifeless for the history seeker, having done away with such records of the past.
Now the city strings it like a treasure to display and entice the tourists who walk by marveling at the setting – an expansive, green park, a pretty red coloured building set within it and pruned gardens around, in which they are likely to take a seat when the park tires them out.
Digital revolution won’t kill the libraries. Government will. Celebrating the structures and gloating over founding dates is all that we are capable of.