Despite the digitization of books, libraries continue to hold a special place for book lovers.

When I was a child, I lived with my mother and my grandparents in a tiny, 400 square feet flat. There was no television and no one had heard of personal computers. School work was light. My evenings stretched ahead of me in limitless fashion. I had all the time in the world to do what I wanted— which was to read. Story books. Books of poetry. Even my English text book. There was one small problem, though. I didn’t own too many books. And, there was no question of a quiet reading corner in a flat as tiny as the one in which we lived. What saved me was the school library and a small book store whose owner very kindly looked the other way as I stood there reading books from cover to cover.

Cut to the future

As an unemployed adult and mother of a baby desperate for quiet time, I turned once more to the library. This time it was a public library two streets away from mine that saved my sanity. Things have changed now. I teach in an institute which, incidentally, has a large library and I have the money to buy books. I can even order them online!

My road to books has never been easier. My cupboards are overflowing with books. I have my very own personal library. Paradoxically, I have less time to read and am confronted with a stressfully long list of books I ought really to read, but haven’t managed to. However, that’s another story.

Despite this “excess” of books, I continue to fantasise about spending a whole day in a library in the company of books and other readers. Sometimes, bang in the middle of a hectic semester chock- a -block with classes, meetings and administrative duties, a need to escape to the library overwhelms me.

I would like to believe that I am not alone in this need for a library with real, physical books even in these digital times when much of our reading is done online. A recent trip to the amazing Anna Centenary library in Chennai confirmed this. The children’s section was full of keen young readers who turned noisy, even raucous at times. But, that was okay. The “own books” section where students preparing for an exam bring their books and the Braille section (which made a great impression on my children) were just as crowded.

A library that every body, irrespective of who they are and how much they earn, can go to. A public library with a collection that stands up to the best in the world. My only quibble was the fact that this library did not issue books , though I can see that it might not be easy to do so either.

Jo Knowles, formerly the librarian of a tiny public library and now a writer, describes what it was like to introduce children to books:

I waited and made piles of books I thought each kid would like. I’d hand them over and sometimes help with homework. I’d give my library “shush” when they got too loud. But they didn’t mind. They were at Hogwarts and Terabithia and Narnia. I knew, the books, would change and shape their lives just like they did mine. All for free. Sometimes they didn’t return them on time. Sometimes they’d come back smelling like peanut butter and jelly. Sometimes like cigarette smoke. Sometimes I’d cringe. But, I’d still be so glad to know that the words of that book are now in the soul of that child. That child that probably didn’t own a single book, and yet, owned thousands.

(http://savelibraries.org/2010/04/save-libraries-by-jo-knowles)

Silent teachers

A society that takes education seriously will take its libraries seriously. Libraries, like forests, slow you down in a good sort of way. They are wise and silent teachers, the best in the world and teach you even after you are done being a student in the formal sense.

A library with an inclusive access policy can act as a social transformer, bringing peace, ideas and education (in the broadest sense of the term) into the lives of people who will benefit most from them. The Biblioteca de Espana in Medellin, Colombia, for instance, is located in an area notorious for its violence and drug trafficking. This library is part of an initiative to reach out to the city’s poor.

Libraries all over the world have kept pace with today’s technology, digitizing their material and making their catalogues available online. And yet, when it comes to cuts in budget, they are the first to be affected for they are perceived to be non-essential.

A library is more than a building that houses books. It is an integral part of a society’s intellectual life.

The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras.

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