Despite its rich inventory and heritage, a majority of libraries under the Delhi Public Library are creaking under the burden of neglect and red-tapism

Don't compare these libraries with American Centre and British Council library, says M.C. Raghvan, advisor, Delhi Public Library. Those libraries get a lot of funds and they charge a hefty membership fee unlike us; we are running a public library which does not run on any profits, he explains.

Delhi Public Library (DPL) is a chain of more than 35 libraries in the Capital with its head office being the Chandni Chowk Library at S.P. Mukherjee Marg. Started as a pilot project sponsored by UNESCO and the Union Ministry of Culture, the library was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru on October 27, 1951.

The library used to be a luxurious rest house of the British colonists; it even had a swimming pool in the basement. When turned into a library, Ramakrishna Dalmiya funded the construction of the library building. According to a 2011 report of DPL, the library had a whopping 73,483 members enrolled with it.

The chain of libraries boasts of more than 18 lakh books in Hindi, English, Urdu, Punjabi and other Indian languages. They also possess a rare collection of Hindi and English newspapers between 1952 and 1972, apart from a rich collection of over 4,000 gramophone records and some very rare books such as Kalhan’s Rajtarangini , Rajendra Prasad’s India Divided , Manusmriti , Chanakya Niti , etc.

But in spite of all their literary richness, these libraries are in a sorry state of affairs now. The Chandni Chowk library, which was a magnet for book lovers in the 70s and 80s, is losing its attraction among patrons. In the 80s, there used to be long queues for membership cards but the footfall is declining rapidly now, states a library staff.

Lack of cleanliness is one of the main reasons behind the library’s decay. While the boundary walls are used as public toilets, people also litter the area — thus inviting stench and flies. “We have written many times to the Municipal Corporation Department to clean the place; they responded and cleaned the area once but the situation is again back to square one,” says H.R. Meena, a senior library official.

Also being located bang opposite to the Old Delhi railway station, the area remains crowded round-the-clock and dust kicked up by people and vehicles makes the library’s condition worse. One can find a thick layer of dust everywhere in the library save the office of the library officers. The library has no air-conditioning facility and the fans are outdated. “The problem of flies and dust can be solved in a day if the main door of the library remains closed,” says Mr. Raghvan.

When asked what is stopping the library authorities to do so, he says, “We can't make even a small change to the building as it is a heritage site and we have to take permission from a lot of authorities like the Archaeological Survey of India which would involve a lot of complexities.”

Funds for the library come under planned funds from the Ministry of Culture. Under this fund, the libraries get a grant of Rs. five crore for books, stationary and computers which usually comes on time but the non-planned funds worth 12.96 crore comes in late. This fund includes the salaries of library staff, building maintenance, library vehicle maintenance, etc.

Amar Singh, library staff, says that when UNESCO funded the library directly, there were very few problems regarding financial matters but now UNESCO channels the fund through the Ministry. The library staff is still waiting for their arrear of the 6{+t}{+h}Pay Commission which came into force six years ago.

The library regulars feel that people attach little value to it since it does not charge a membership fee. The situation is even worse in the Karol Bagh library which bears a ruined look. “That library might collapse even in a mid-intensity earthquake,” states a staff of the Sarojini Nagar Library. The building is under dispute as the owners of the library premises and building had sold the land to a company which now wants the library to vacate that place. This library has 85,000 books, most of which are eating dust and 3,500 members are currently enrolled with it.

Same is the case with DPL Shahdra. Din created by vendors hawking just outside the gates disturbs the readers. “The place is too noisy for any reader to study here because the library staff speak loudly among themselves, adding to the noise of the vegetable vendors outside the library,” says Aakash Khanna, a library member.

Out of all the libraries under DPL, only the Sarojini Nagar Library is a comfort for eyes. It is fully air-conditioned and the reading room, the books section as well as the children section are well maintained. “This library is excellent as it provides good environment to do deep studies without any disturbance,” said Ashok, who is coming here for six years now.