A library can transform your life, as long as they let you in the door

Every few years I go to New York City, and one monument I visit each time is the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. The grand steps at the entrance are flanked by two regal lions, and vertical banners proclaim the treasures within.

On a hot day it's cool. If you are escaping a March wind it's warm. There is usually a fascinating art or history exhibit on. It's clean. It's beautiful. And it's mine. Though I am not a member, patron, student or professor, I walk in, open my handbag to the security guard and stay as long as I please, no questions asked.

This splendid institution was conceived near the end of the 19th Century by Samuel J. Tilden, former governor of New York State. John Jacob Astor and James Lenox agreed to consolidate their already renowned collections with the new public library. Andrew Carnegie pitched in with millions to establish the branch libraries. They were all millionaires and capitalists, darlings of Lakshmi in the service of Saraswati.

In 1911, the public streamed in. For many immigrants and refugees, the library became their university, and in these 100 years they have worn down the marble steps. Yet, this edifice is only one small part of the munificent library culture of America. Every school has a solid collection, and even small towns have generous spaces in which a reader can explore the universe of human knowledge. Universities have a system of inter-library loans, so a student at any small college can request an obscure title from, say, the unparalleled Firestone Library at Princeton University. Your township library will also get a book for you from another township, even if it is just a Sue Grafton novel.

A library can transform your life, as long as they let you in. Ask and it should be given. In many of our departmental and university libraries, cases are locked and keys guarded by dour peons who, instead of dusting and organising books, simply protect them from the readers. And it's not just the books that need to be protected, it seems. Last week we read that female undergrads at the Aligarh Muslim University are kept out of the main library. The principal of the Women's College says that this is done to “protect the girls”.

That news cast me into gloom, until I saw the Anna Centennial Library in Chennai, seven glorious storeys of books, with tucks to let out as the collection grows. Windows overlook the green campuses of Anna University and IIT. Readers can spread out notes and texts on large desks. There are individual study tables and computerised catalogues. There is generous space and light. Above all, we walk in, no questions asked. In the medicine and engineering sections, readers are already engrossed at the tables, and they will be there for the next 100 years. A feast awaits. A free public library is the mark of civilisation, but in this case munificence has come to Chennai.

anantharaman.bookwise@gmail.com

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012

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