World Book Day Society

Chennai’s ‘old Connemara library’ opens doors on World Book Day

The centuries-old building is usually not accessible to outsiders

Faded posters on doors, announcing ‘Way to the old building’, guide the confused wanderer from the new library to the old Connemara Public Library. Follow the directions, and you will arrive at a bright red building that opens into a semi-circular hall. If you crane your neck, you get an eyeful of intricate designs on the roof. A staffer sits at a table, collecting reference receipts. On regular days, this is the only part of the old building accessible to outsiders.

Today, however, the old building will throw open its doors to the public to celebrate World Book Day. The three-day programme will let people explore the dark nooks and crannies of the centuries-old structure which was formally opened on December 5, 1896. While the new building smells of fresh paint and buzzes with the constant hum of the air-conditioner, only interrupted by the sound of turning pages or scraping chairs, the old building smells of books and aged wood.

Apart from the humongous collection of books, visitors can also adore the wood-carved archways and the stained glass windows. Conceptualised and designed by H Irving, the then-consulting architect to Government of Madras, the building follows the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture.

“If you look at the junction of pillars and the ceiling, you will see that every pillar has carvings of animals. Also, the library has 140 wooden chairs from that era that have animals carved on the armrest,” says a former employee of the library.

The building is home to books that are hundreds of years old, each painstakingly preserved, such as the Bible published in 1608 and Photographic Views in Madura published in 1858.

“The old building houses a rare collection of over one lakh books. More than 200 of these will be displayed from 10.30 am to 5 pm,” says P Meenakshisundaram, librarian. Every leaf of these rare books is chiffon-laminated to protect them from the ravages of time. “Every six months, pest control is carried out in the library to keep silver fish and other bacteria at bay. Apart from designated employees, we have workers who dust the books every day,” he says.

A team of 56 people forms the heart that pumps lifeblood into the library’s veins. Each new book or journal is first separated on the basis of language, and then sorted into its relevant section, like history, philosophy, or literature which is further broken down on the basis of geographical location and the year of publication. “It’s an efficient classification system. The library has more than 8.24 lakh books, yet any book can be tracked in 10 minutes,” explains Meenakshisundaram.

The current classification system is the third to be implemented since the library was inaugurated. “We first used the Connemara system which employed Roman numerals. Then we had the colon classification, which sequenced books according to the letters of the alphabet along with colons and other punctuations. Currently, we follow the Dewey Decimal system, which comprises numerals,” says the former employee who worked in the library for over 30 years.

Being one of four National Depository Libraries in the country, the Connemara Public Library receives a copy of every Indian publication — newspapers, periodicals and journals. Apart from this, it is also the UNESCO Information Centre, serving as a repository for selected United Nations publications.

“ It also receives 1,300 English and 600 Tamil journals a month. We receive 160 newspapers in different languages every day,” adds Meenakshisundaram.

To incorporate the ever increasing stock of books and journals, a three-storied building was constructed in 1973. Another three-storied building was built in 1999. This National Book Day, pick up a book, crack its spine and breathe in the smell. Then head over the to old books at Connemara Public Library and let them take you on a journey across the pages of history.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 4:21:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/this-world-book-day-walk-the-alleys-of-centuries-old-connemara-public-library/article23645555.ece

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