St. Joseph’s College’s Arrupe Library has started digitally scanning some of its books to preserve them for posterity and make them available more widely

In the age of Google, how relevant can a library with ink-and-paper books be? Very much so, as far as the Arrupe Library of St.Joseph’s College in Tiruchi is concerned.

The multi-storey library (named after the 28th Superior General Jesuit priest Pedro Arrupe) today occupies its own premises and thanks to its stock of 1,60,000 volumes plus 140 periodicals (it was started in 1909 with 9,000 books), is thought to be the largest of its kind in southern India.

Dr. M. Dorairajan, the librarian, has been in charge here for the past 23 years. He and his team of 10 assistants — 10 student interns — are now in the process of digitally scanning some of the rarer volumes in order to make them available to a new generation of readers.

“We have identified 5,000 books and separated them for scanning,” says Dr. Dorairajan. “The title and content details of the scanned book will be displayed on our website. Those who are interested in using the full book can approach us for an electronic copy,” he adds.

“We are trying to join the One Million Digital book project run by the central government. The Sasthra University and Saraswathi Mahal library (Thanjavur) are also part of this effort,” says Dr. Dorairajan.

E-copies of books are the most practical way to save old volumes. “The most common technique (used by the Saraswathi Mahal library) is to laminate individual pages of manuscripts and save them in loose-leaf binders. We may lose the original binding of the book, but at least we can save the document,” he says.

The digital library is to be launched in February 2014. Separate e-resources are already available in the college library, which started computerisation in 1995.

Rare books

St.Joseph’s College was established in 1844 by the Fathers of Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and is now an autonomous institution affiliated to the Bharathidasan University.

In addition to modern-day books and publications, the premises of the Rs.15 crore Arrupe Library (inaugurated in December, 2008) houses several literary works of archival value. “We have the first edition of the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary of Current English (1948), and the first copies of many international periodicals,” says Dr. Dorairajan.

Books in Latin, Greek, French and Sanskrit on a wide range of subjects are kept here. Around 90 volumes of the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi are available, as are the writings of Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill.

“The British Jesuit fathers who started the college wanted to make it a research centre. So, they subscribed to many journals for their personal use, and after completing their work, donated them to the library,” says Dr. Dorairajan. “We have over 25,000 research journals on topics such as chemistry and mathematical research. Due to price escalation and other changes, we have not been able to keep up with the subscriptions after 1990.”

Rare books are kept locked in a separate room in antique wooden cupboards that look like valuable artefacts themselves. Each volume is waterproofed with a plastic jacket.

Security cameras check the movement of staff and students throughout the building, which has separate reference reading rooms for undergraduate and post-graduate students. Sections for journals and borrowable books (called the ‘Dynamic Stack’) occupy a separate floor.

Carrot-and-stick

How easy has it been to get students to use the library? “Until last year, they were not interested in coming here because our timings would clash with their class hours,” says Dr. Dorairajan. “But then, we have spent so much money on the library, and so much more on adding books to it. So we suggested to the college management to link marks to library usage.”

In this pioneering scheme, students can add 25 marks to their overall scores (five marks for each subject), if they use the library regularly. And to an extent, the carrot-and-stick ploy seems to have worked.

“Before this academic year, we used to get around 500 students per day. Now it has gone up to 3000, and some of them are here even late into the session (the library works from 8.15 a.m. to 7 p.m.),” says Dr. Dorairajan.

“Even if he or she is coming just for the marks, how long can a student sit idle? My goal is to make them absorb the ideas of a book through reading rather than merely making notes for rote learning,” he adds.

The higher visitor numbers has meant a higher rate of damage – a full-time book binder repairs at least a hundred books everyday on the premises.

Between the lines

Library science has its own credibility, feels Dr. Dorairajan, who drifted into the field from an M.Phil in Economics, to earn a Bachelors and Masters degree in it. “It is a subject that deals with every subject,” he says, “though the general opinion about librarians is that they are simply sitting around. People don’t know that just like in cinema production, we work seriously behind the screen.”

With the number of educational institutions increasing in Tamil Nadu, he expects the demand for qualified librarians to go up – he himself has guided a few students to find employment in libraries.

Dr. Dorairajan remains wary of the internet, and feels students should not rely on electronic media alone for their academic projects.

“Even though it is easy to plagiarise information because of the internet, till date, only 30-40% of books are available online. Most of them are latest publications, and were probably born digital. But if students want in-depth information, they have to use a traditional book. Our curriculum should be structured to encourage the reading habit,” he says.