Asha Sridhar visits the oldest existing library in Chennai which once had Annie Besant, Subhas Bose and Dr. S. Radhakrishnan as its members

Like a defiant chain unwilling to let go, the roughly 80,000 books at the library of the Madras Literary Society rest on each other in 20 back-to-back stacks that extend from the floor to the high ceiling of its heritage home. At some places, though, you spot gaps, which are inevitable, considering that the library is 199 years old. Today it lives in the shadow of its past glory, stocking both bestsellers as well as books such as Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

“We delivered books to our members' homes on a bicycle. Today we do it on a moped,” says Mohan Raman, who has been the honorary general secretary of the Madras Literary Society since the year 2000. Started as an auxiliary of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1812, the Society was part of the College of Fort St. George, located at present day College Road. It was where the East India Company's employees stationed in Madras were trained in administration, languages, law, religion and customs.

It was a learned body, whose papers on science, geology, manuscripts, archaeology and anthropology among others became the start-up assets of various universities and museums such as the Madras University, Connemara Library and the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department. Today, the 199-year-old library has around 200 members and scant funds.

Weighing the challenges it faces today, the institution is walking the fine line between being a library with a sublime past and one that takes into account its readers' changing preferences. “We cannot have a foot each in two worlds. Once we started stocking fiction, the library lost its earlier purposes,” he says.

The character of the library, says Mohan, cannot be changed in four or five years. “It has to happen over 40 to 50 years.” If made into a popular lending library, they would not only have to give away old and rare books but also have a large number of borrowers to be financially sustainable. To become a reference library, on the other hand, they will have to specialise in certain areas, acquire new books and be unique. “We stock books whose value increases with time,” says Mohan.

Of these vintage books, Uma Maheshwari, the librarian and only full-time employee of the library, has brought down around 200 for restoration.

But with restoration of each book costing around Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 3000, it is not always feasible to do so with the meagre funds that come from membership and some government grants, laments Mohan. “When I look at the old minutes of meetings, I find that they were complaining about not having enough members. The number of members was as low as 50.” The number may have increased to 150 over the decades, but it has done little to improve the state of the library.

The library, in fact, has lost quite a few 19th Century books which it could not restore. “The paper in the books produced in the 19th Century was highly acidic and hence over time it turned black and crumbled,” says Mohan. The library is in the process of classifying the books according to the Dewey Decimal System and computerising the catalogue.

When asked about its distinguished members in the past such as Annie Besant, Subhas Bose and Dr. S. Radhakrishnan among others, he affirms calmly that it is the books that are central to the library, not its members. Glory may be ephemeral, but once it starts to wane, decades can be spent in its restoration. Some of the remnants of the past glory are still there to see: laid out on a teak table are Aristotle's Opera Omnia dated 1619, a letter by Subhas Bose and a board outside that announces ‘Founded in 1812'.

Some Others

The Madras Club which was started in 1832 has one of the earliest private libraries in the city. It was in 1848, that the formation of a library that stocked books, newspapers and journals among other things was authorised. Other than a smattering of colonial furniture and rare books, the library today caters largely to what its members want to read. Other than titles in fiction, non-fiction, biography and history among other categories, the library has a collection of war books which are unique to it.

In the old block of the 115-year Connemara Library, you don't have to imagine what it would have been like back then. The towering teak stacks, lush vermillion carpeting, kaleidoscope of stained glass adorning the roof, and the original marble flooring are still intact. This block has books which were published before 1930 and is not open to the public. It is the new block, inaugurated in 1973, that attracts over 2,000 visitors every day. With more than 7 lakh books, the Connemara Public Library is one of the four national depositories in the country. “In United Kingdom they recently celebrated the completion of 400 years of the copy of the Holy Bible they had. When a Britisher came to this library and saw that we had a Bible that was printed in 1608, he was astonished,” says P.A. Naresh, former joint director, Directorate of Public Libraries. This is one of their oldest books.

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“We only circulate books that were printed after 1950. We do not have to worry about the condition they will come back in because the members are very careful. Some even cover the books in brown sheets while returning.”

Uma Maheshwari, Librarian at MLS since 2001