What better place is there for a citizen to find books to read, to absorb, to act on, than in a well-stocked public library? In this bustling metropolis there is now a world-class public library that faces the spectre of being shut down, shunted out, subverted.
The Anna Centenary Library, established in 2010, has since been threatened by closure, by conversion into a hospital, and by use of its public space and auditorium for unrelated activities such as a wedding reception, a result of what is apparently a political and administrative tussle. That events have come to such a pass in Tamil Nadu is ironic, for it was here that the first Public Libraries Act of independent India was enacted in 1948.
Today, more than two years since its establishment, the Anna library still does not issue books and has no members. No books leave its doors to grace the favourite reading corners in the homes of its citizens.
The nine-storey building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and holds a collection of over 500,000 books and subscriptions to dozens of newspapers and periodicals from all over the world. The library is air-conditioned and well lit, with large rooms and spacious shelves, seating and writing spaces in each room, and comfortable sofas along the tall windows overlooking the city and gardens. The library carries a gold rating in the LEED green building certification system, becoming apparently the first such library in Asia, and currently employs 96 professional librarians and over 100 staff for security and housekeeping.
The Tamil section on the second floor has over 25,000 titles with four copies of most books: clearly the library is prepared for lending, despite this not being implemented yet. A selection of books from other languages—Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, and Kannada—also caught my eye. I drifted through the other rooms and floors, scanning categories and titles, exhilarated at the spectrum of choice. The English literature section alone would bring me here again, besides the sprinkling of translated works from Indian and foreign languages.
As a scientist, I was also impressed by the collection in specialised fields of science and medicine, including my own field of wildlife ecology along with traditional subject areas of botany, zoology, and life sciences.
Clearly, this is a library with the potential to provide an energising public space to revitalise cultural and intellectual life in Chennai and an even wider role to play as an asset to civil society in the country.
Yet, there is an urgent need for additional attention and impetus for the library to achieve its full potential. On my visit, I could not find some recent titles from 2012 and wondered whether procurement of books has stopped while only subscription to periodicals continues. If so, not only should book procurement be renewed, but the list of periodicals should expand to include international editions of major newspapers and other national and international magazines.
One wishes that the Anna Centenary Library is also included as a national depository library mandated to receive copies of books and newspapers published in India under the Delivery of Books and Newspapers (Public Libraries) Act, 1954 (amended 1956). Currently only the National Library, Kolkata, Asiatic Society Library, Mumbai, Delhi Public Library, New Delhi, and the Connemara Library in Chennai are depositories.
Citizens can be involved more closely by opening up membership (including issue of books for which the infrastructure and systems are already available in the library), starting book clubs, readings by authors, and volunteer programmes, accepting donations of books and subscriptions, making the catalogue of publications available online, and implementing book loan and exchange arrangements with other public libraries.
Bringing access to e-books and online membership will also allow the library to cater to citizens anywhere in India, besides opening a revenue stream. The auditorium, amphitheatre, and seminar hall could host literary and other cultural events related to the library.
And not to be overlooked, the library must develop the food court for lunch, snacks, and beverages; the space is already available but is yet to be made fully operational.
Whatever be the reasons the extraordinary potential of this library is currently stymied, one hopes that the administration, politicians, and civil society will rally round to rise above the present stalemate.
With the case in court, one hopes the wisdom of judges will rescue the library from its current crisis and return it, entire and enhanced, into the domain of the reading, thinking, and feeling public.
(T. R. Shankar Raman is a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation and lives in Valparai (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).