How neighbourhood libraries manage to survive in the city?

There is something about a library that induces instant relaxation. Be it the large District Central Library in Simmakkal or one of the few remaining neighbourhood libraries scattered across the city, the moment one enters one puts all worries on hold.

And yet, despite India's rich library tradition since the late 18th century and despite the city's reputation in the promotion of literature, small private libraries here are disappearing.

Just 10 years ago, says Usha Shenbagaraj, owner of the Dheepam Library on PT Rajan Road, there were at least half a dozen more libraries in various parts of the city.

“But over the course of the last few years, I have seen at least four libraries close down. The reason primarily, I think, is that it is just impossible these days to earn a living and support a family solely out of a library.”

The Dheepam Library is one of maybe four or five private libraries that still exist in the city. It was started 39 years ago, and its then owner managed to make a living and support his family, all with fewer than 100 library members, said Shenbagaraj.

Today, she has close to 600 members on her books, but the money she makes is only a supplement to her husband's income. “There is no way my family could live on the library's income alone,” she said.

Romance novels are piled high at Dheepam, and one corner is reserved for Tamil books and magazines. “Ninety-eight per cent of my customers are women, and ninety-five per cent of them go for romance novels,” said Shenbagaraj.

Wedged between a grocery store and a video rental place in KK Nagar, Arun Books celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010.

Owner S.K. Dwarakan says that running this library is more of a service than a business. “I have over 25,000 books, and customers come from as far as Virudhunagar and Theni. But unless you do something else along with the library, to sustain it is very difficult. I think of it as a service to people and since I love books and everything about them, for me it is a pleasure,” he said. Dwarakan delivers books and magazines at the doorstep for a number of customers in the vicinity of his library, and this both endears him to existing customers and gets him new ones.

In metropolitan cities the advent of e-books and of websites where books can be ordered and delivered at home, and the wide range of cheaper pirated books may cause libraries there some palpitations. In Madurai, penetration of technology is still low and people still want to borrow and read books. Still, there are myriad problems with running a library.

“People expect a library to be open all day, every day,” said Dwarakan. “They expect punctuality in opening times. With most small libraries being one-man operations, this becomes very difficult.” Any emergency that takes the owner away entails closing the library and disappointing regular customers.

Another problem is cost. “We charge 10 per cent of the cost of the book as a fee and while this may not seem like a lot, some customers think it is still too much,” said Shenbagaraj.

A two-week return policy is the norm but many times customers do not return books for weeks, even months. “I had a customer once who would not return a book,” said Dwarakan. “It had been almost a year and after repeatedly asking him to return it or pay its cost, I told the police! The police called in the man and told him to pay up. Immediately afterwards, he came in and gave me the money.”

Librarians regularly buy new and second-hand books and attempt to keep their collection up to date. If a customer wants a particular book, says Dwarakan, he makes an effort to get a copy for him or her.

At the Jonathon Lending Library in Anna Nagar, the focus is mainly on children's books but owner Surya Preethi has expanded its range to include poetry, cookbooks and self-help books. “We opened this library mainly to increase the reading habit in Madurai. Every three years we change the stock and get in the latest books,” said Preethi.

Can libraries be more than just repositories of books? Preethi thinks so. “In Chennai, for instance, libraries have innovated. They hold story-telling workshops, have children's games and activities, all in an effort to bring in more customers. In Madurai, however, that sort of thing does not work,” she said. As her library is an enterprise of the Turning Point Bookshop on Town Hall Road, it is kept well-stocked, but otherwise, Preethi said, it is very difficult to make a profit.

Shreemathi Selvaraj, a boutique owner, has been coming to Dheepam for close to eight years now. “I normally borrow romance novels and thrillers, about six or seven a month,” she said. Like many other customers, she has passed on her love of books to the next generation: Shreemathi's 15-year-old daughter, too, now borrows regularly.

While crowds are thicker at the District Central Library, which has around 3,000 active members, the fate of smaller libraries seems uncertain. A few months ago, a long-established library on 80-feet road in KK Nagar shut down, replaced by the office of a mobile network. But a base of loyalists has kept the few going and will hopefully continue to do so. Says Preethi Muralai, a 22-year-old student and ardent library fan, “I tried e-books for a while but I just didn't like them. There is something about the feel and smell of a book, the excitement that comes with it that cannot be replicated. And that's why, even though I buy books online, I continue to visit the library.”

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012