The high walls of the Victoria Edward Hall and the rustic smell of old books in the library, take one back to the days of the Raj. Ancient books clog the shelves of the room-like library which is home to over 30,000 rare books.
Madurai’s Town Hall Road, a seminal location here, owes its nomenclature to the presence of this lone hall built in 1908. From Homer’s Odyssey, important Government gazettes and bulletins, to Sanskrit and Tamil novels, this library is a one-stop shop for all regalia. However, this gem remains unnoticed by a large part of the city’s population.
“In the early twentieth century, a group of friends of G. Srinivasa Rao, an eminent personality and lawyer in Madurai, formed the Madurai District Literary Association, and established a small library on North Chitrai Street in the upstairs of E.M. Gopala Krishna Book Shop in 1902,” said S. Palanikumarasamy, former President of the Victoria Edward Hall Society, who wrote about the hall’s history in the Centenary Souvenir released in 2008. The pioneers decided that the city deserved a larger town hall and a spacious library.
To perpetuate the memory of Queen Victoria and to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII, the Society bought 1 acre and 11 cents of land for a ‘valuable consideration of ₹7,000 in 1912 and named it after the British royalty.
The Victoria Edward hall library became synonymous with the cafes of Paris. Theatre personalities, politicians, writers and the literati regularly met at the hall for stirring conversations.
The library, the oldest and the most prized possession of the city, was first started as a ‘reading room,’ explains G. Jeganathan, a former member of the society. With a large inflow of rare and important books, the library began to take shape.
The books were arranged through the ‘Colon’ system of classification. Even today, there are Catholic dictionaries, postal stamp catalogues of the British empire, gazetteers of Madurai district from 1923 onwards, books by Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, S. Radhakrishnan and several encyclopedias.
There is also a large collection of theatre plays by English and Indian authors, including G.K Chesterton, Aldous Huxley and Rabindranath Tagore. In order to keep with the times, I. Ismail, president of the society, says that all important newspapers and periodicals are available too.
“Youngsters use the library in the morning for their daily dose of news,” he says. Several books on computer coding and science have been bought too.
Despite these efforts to stay relevant, the library faces many issues. It does not have a librarian who works for fixed hours and records the total number of books. Although it has a total of 2,900 members, the library does not have many regular users. Some prominent books lie in derelict conditions and dust is omnipresent.
Through the thin walls of the library, one can also hear snippets of the songs or dialogues from the adjacent theatre.
R. Krishnamurthy, a life member and former secretary of the society, says that the library has not been classified properly. He suggests that the board members of the society take serious steps and establish a proper website with details of all the books holed up in the library. “Members should know about the latest books that have been purchased. Rare books must be catalogued in order to pass on to future generations,” he says.
P. Perumal, a retired Conservator of Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur, says that two methods of preservation can be practised — original preservation and digitization. If ancient books need to be preserved, the quality of paper and binding must be checked.
“The books must be checked for the presence of insects like silverfish and fungus. If the paper is damaged, it needs to be strengthened through a process called mending,” he says.
Dr. Perumal adds that most libraries have now moved towards the process of digitisation. With the presence of cloud computing, old and important books can be preserved and read online, he says. Though it is an extensive process, there are several agencies that help old libraries, he adds.
Dr. Ismail is looking for funding and support from the State government and other bodies as the only income for the Victoria Edward Hall is through the theatre.
“We are a charitable organisation. Though we have plans of renovation, funding would be the key factor in improving the status of the library,” he said.