It is all about comfort, speed and time-saving in the modern-day libraries. Visit the ones at British Council or the American Consulate, and you get to check out stacks of well-organised books in air-conditioned halls. The musty odour of old books mixed with the strong inky smell of the new ones can tempt the firmest of hearts. And once a book has claimed you, you can be out with it in no time.
But, it is a different world altogether at the Adyar Library. Here, inside the Theosophical Society, time seems to have come to a standstill.
Learning begins even as you enter the library. Everything about the places teaches you something. The long rectangular steps, the lawn in front of the building, the colourful butterflies, the ample physical space, the tall evergreen trees, and the ancient solid architecture — all are awe-inspiring.
As you walk up the stairs and enter the hall, you will not see Stephen King, Harry Potter or Wolf Hall. All books, except magazines, are hidden from sight. There is no air-conditioning. But you won’t need one for the bountiful trees provide relief from the hot Chennai weather.
Inside the library, on the left side of the hall you will find wooden chests with lots of drawers containing small cards arranged alphabetically with names of the authors, book titles and synopses. There are clips containing small slips and a pencil tied to them. Visitors are supposed to write the code pertaining to a book and leave it for the librarian outside the hall to fetch it.
Here the real process begins. Having taken your slips the librarian puts them under the paperweight, till an assistant comes and takes care of them. In the meantime, you have the option of either sitting in the hall and reading magazines or taking in the grandeur of the place from outside.
After some twenty minutes, only a few of the books you had asked for, will land in your hand. Just when you think you can leave with them, there might be another hitch in the road: if the books you have chosen have photographs or were printed some decades ago you will not be allowed to borrow them.
Now begins the most tedious yet ceremonious process of all. In a card that belongs to you, the librarian will write down the name of the book, the date and other details. And in the card attached to the book will be written your name. Then you will be asked to sign in a register. The book will then go to the chief librarian who will give the final go ahead. Sometimes even here the fate of your book can be decided.
Once I took two books of Quest publications and the chief librarian vetoed against one. In the solid one hour or more you spend at the Adyar Library you learn something which no book can teach — the importance of patience and taking it easy once in a while.