The bullock-cart beginnings

Eighty years ago, the stall that the Madras Library Association (MALA) had at the Park Fair Exhibition featured a drawing of a bullock-cart loaded with books and magazines parked in the village square near a temple.

Around it was a crowd of villagers. The Founder-President of MALA, S.R. Ranganathan (SRR), hoped the concept he was promoting, that of a travelling library, would become a reality. But before that happened, he had to take note of what a visitor had to say on seeing the drawing: “Who is the fool who designed this vehicle?”

The ‘fool' introduced himself and asked the visitor what was wrong with his design. Kanakasabhai Pillai, a sub-engineer in government service, was not only pleased to expound on the design, but, struck by Ranganathan's idea of helping improve rural education, offered to design and construct a two-bullock-cart for a travelling library if Ranganathan would stock it suitably for use in his (Pillai's) home-town, Mannargudi, near Tanjore.

This was South Asia's, some say the world's, first mobile library. It was an idea that was to spread throughout the Madras Presidency and catch on in the rest of India.

That same year, 1931, “The Father of Library Science”, as SRR was to become known as, came out with the first of his classics on the subject.

His Five Laws of Library Science expounded on the following: Books are for use (Note: If not used, they are useless); Every reader his book (Note: Every person has the right to information); Every book its reader (Note: Marketing the information to the reader); Save the time of the reader (Note: Make accessibility easy); A library is a growing organism (Note: A library cannot remain static).

1931 was also the year the University of Madras became convinced that it should host the School of Librarianship that SRR had started with MALA in 1929. Today, it is the Department of Library & Information Science.

MALA, South Asia's first librarians' association, was SRR's brainchild, but it was an idea pushed at the All-India Public Library Conference held as one of the supporting events during the 1927 Indian National Congress sessions in Madras. Its staunchest advocates were Sushil Kumar Ghosh of Calcutta, a school teacher, Ayyanki Venkataramanaiah, an Andhra landlord, and K.V. Krishnaswamy Ayyar, that leading lawyer with a finger in every ‘do-gooding' pie in the Madras of the day.

Of their efforts was born MALA on January 28, l930.

....of information science in Madras

‘The Father of Information Science' came to what he became world-renowned for through a bit of serendipity. S.R. Ranganathan was born for Mathematics and it was teaching the subject at the then-elite Presidency College, he led a team of negotiators from the Indian staff seeking an improvement of the emoluments they were getting which were only about 10 per cent of what the British staff was getting.

A disappointed man when the negotiations failed, he was seeking employment in a different field when a colleague pointed out that the University was advertising for a new post, that of a librarian. Not daunted by knowing nothing about librarianship, he applied for the post.

The interview in 1923 led to his appointment from January 1 the next year to a job he had to learn from scratch — yet he was charged with the responsibility of starting from nothing a library fit for a major university. Fortunately, with the post went a training stint in Britain. And there he spent nine months, returning to Madras in July 1925 to get started the library that was to make his international reputation.

During the voyage back from Britain, he set himself goals: To exploit the potential of libraries to educate citizens; To popularise libraries in India and set up a nation-wide library system; To realise library service as mass education instead of the restricted education potential in a college class; To this end, it must be in a building with a proper ambience and kept open long hours every day right through the year; And in such a library, accessibility to its wide variety of offerings must be made easy. The ambience he got when what was, when built, a magnificent library building with special furniture designed by SRR and made at Curzon & Co. (whose specialty became library furniture) was opened in l936, 75 years ago this year.

It was to ensure ease of accessibility to the large holding, for which this modern Indo-Saracenic building was built, that SRR used his mathematical skills to develop the Colon Cataloguing System for which he is best known and which is still followed in many parts of the world. He was so enamoured of this system that he gave all the members of his family — his wife, son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren — ‘classification numbers'. As for himself, he was always ‘2wl', the 2 being the Colon Classification number for ‘Librarianship”.

SRR's son Yogeshwar in his biography of his father — S.R. Ranganathan — Pragmatic Philosopher of Information Science — states that long before the era of supermarkets his father was using the supermarket approach to stocking a library, promoting the stock and making that stock, the invaluable world of information, easily available.

He was years ahead of what Google felt the world needed.

Resurrecting Pulicat?

Many moons ago, INTACH-Tamil Nadu, now INTACH-Chennai, was requested by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department and the Cultural Affairs section of The Netherlands Embassy, New Delhi, to take a look at Pulicat and suggest how it could be revived as a Heritage Town and made a tourist destination. INTACH's report, perhaps one of the first in India to look at teaming Heritage Tourism with Eco-Tourism, has since been gathering dust in some bureaucratic pigeon-hole. To judge by a slim book of the coffee-table book variety that landed on my desk recently, there appears to be some interest in the subject again. The Dutch, I understand, are interested in helping with the revival of Pulicat as a Heritage Town if the Tamil Nadu Government decides to take up the project. Meanwhile, to help all concerned to get an idea of the significance of Pulicat, the Dutch commissioned this book which is a brief survey, in word and pictures, of the town as it is today. The book takes an even-briefer look at another former Dutch settlement on the Coromandel Coast, Sadras.

What interested me in the present book is the picture it paints of a Pulicat that has changed from the time I visited it a decade or so ago, at the time INTACH's report was being prepared. Most of the Dutch residences have vanished and the majority of the traditional Hindu and Muslim homes are undergoing modifications.

Preserving many of them and converting them into home-stay accommodation was one of INTACH's recommendations that envisaged getting the locals involved in preserving the historic town. The Our Lady of Glory Church dating to l5l5 is no more; on its ruins, a new church is to rise. The Old Cemetery, with the oldest Tamil tombstone (l758) in the town, is so overgrown, entry is impossible. And, every day, the moat surrounding the mound that was Castle Geldria gets more filled in with growth. The Hindu shrines dating to the Chola period are in ruins and the Samayaeswarar Temple of the same period and the only slightly-newer Adi Narayana Perumal Temple are getting there. The Periya and Chinna Pallivasals of the Muslim settlers from the 8th Century alone are in good shape, their temple-style granite pillars still as handsome as ever.

Pulicat was the chief of Holland's Indian settlements from 1616 to l689 when the Dutch shifted their Indian headquarters to Negapatam. In its heyday, Pulicat, whose major exports were handloom textiles and gunpowder, was considered the left arm of Holland's Asian commerce, and the Moluccas the right, for without exchanging the textiles of the Coromandel for the spices of the East Indies,

The Netherlands' trade would never have flourished, according to economic observers of the 17th Century.

Pulicat's role in all this is what needs to be remembered — and making the narration of that history more easily digestible for visitors are sand dunes, the lake-lagoon, the backwaters, the beaches and the flora and fauna of an area awaiting development as an Eco-Tourism destination.