A Requiem for Lost Libraries

Right through the last three months of lockdown the one ‘unlocking’ that I was looking forward to, was that of my local British library. The once-a-month visit to the library was an outing that I enjoyed, with its comfortable ritual of collecting the books to return; the short trip to reach the library; the leisurely browsing of shelves to select the next batch to issue, and the spending of some quiet time among fellow readers perusing the newspapers and magazines.

A couple of weeks ago I got a mail that this library was shutting down it physical space and transactions, and turning completely digital. Among the many changes that the world is seeing, and will see, in the age of Corona, this was one of the most upsetting changes for me.

As I have often shared in these columns (lately A Browser Laments) libraries and bookshops have sustained the bibliophile in me all through my life. These have been integral parts of my learning and becoming, and much more than a collection of books. As E B White, described much more eloquently than I can:

library shelves.jpg

“A library is many things. It’s a place to go, to get in out of the rain. It’s a place to go if you want to sit and think. But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your questions answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people — people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”

A library is not only a sanctuary, it is also an invitation to explorations that lead to serendipitous discoveries of new authors and titles. It is a place where the solid physicality of books creates the intellectual space to freely roam across historical ages, geographical boundaries, and labels of colour, language and identity.

The library has been the mainstay, the beacon, the support, and the sustenance for readers through history. Yet today, libraries themselves are in danger of becoming history. We are told that the library is being reinvented in the face of budget cuts, new technology, and changing needs. The age of internet has brought unimagined sources of information and knowledge at our fingertips. There is an increasing transformation to digital libraries.  To ‘browse’ has taken on an entirely new connotation.  The voyage of discovery is now marked by keywords–we reach for what we know to reach for. More than anything else this has transformed the library experience which was marked by a special sense of community into an individual and isolated exercise.

I mourn for these losses, as I apprehensively search for replacements.

–Mamata

Ode to Libraries

As is probably, by now, evident, the Millennial Matriarchs are bookworms. We grew up with books, and we need books just as much, or more, as we grow older.

The enervating summer afternoons bring back so many memories of the joy of discovering, devouring, savouring, hoarding, exchanging, borrowing, and drowning in books, and more books. And, libraries were the dream destination of summer holidays.

Sharing some eloquent words that describe the power (and perils!) of libraries.

 Don’t Go Into The Library

The library is dangerous–

Don’t go in. If you do

You know what will happen.

It’s like a pet store or a bakery—

Every single time you will come out of there

Holding something in your arms.

Those novels with their big eyes.

And those no-nonsense, all muscle

Greyhounds and Dobermans,

All non-fiction and business,

Cuddly when they are young,

But then the first page is turned.

The doughnut scent of it all, knowledge,

The aroma of coffee being made

In all those books, something for everyone,

The deli offering of civilisation itself.

The library is the book of books,

Its concrete and glass and wood covers

Keeping within them the very big,

Very long story of everything.

The library is dangerous, full

Of answers, if you go inside,

You may not come out

The same person who went in.

Alberto Rios       Contemporary American Chicano poet

–Mamata

 

Of Libraries and Books

We lived in a government colony in Delhi. A library van used to visit every week. Come Friday, without a doubt, the van would be at the end of our street. We would queue up, return our book, get into the van, choose another book, have it stamped and come out. A lot of strategic planning was involved. Like ‘You take this book, I’ll take that one. You finish by Tuesday and we will exchange.’ Or hiding a book you wanted (next-most after the book you took) behind a pile of other books in an obscure stack, in the hope that it would remain hidden till the next week when the van returned.

These vans were run by the Delhi Public Library system. I marvel today at this amazing service. I am not aware of any such today, that too run by any government system.

A second mainstay of our reading was our school library. We had a library period every week, and it was compulsory to borrow a book. Occasional book report requirements were put in to ensure we did read them, though for at least half the class, this wasn’t necessary.  As I recall, the borrowable collection was mainly fiction. (For some reason, our school was paranoid about our bringing ‘non-authorized’ books into the premises. There would be random surprise checks and any such book would be confiscated! Considering how innocent we were and how little access we had to unsavoury reading material, this seems rather excessively zealous. But those were different times!)

And last but not the least, the neighbourhood ‘lending library’. This we were allowed to visit only during the long breaks (summer and winter holidays). And were given a limited budget, which usually stretched to one book and one comic a day. Going to the library also involved a daily outing and a walk of 20 minutes either way. But while this was good exercise for the body, regrettably, it was not great exercise for the mind, as we raced through upwards of 50 M&Bs and 50 Archie comics during a typical summer break—with an occasional Alistair Maclean, Nevil Shute or latest bestseller thrown in. But well, it helped improved our reading speed (because we used to try to finish a book overnight and swap, and try to finish another one a friend had borrowed before it was time to walk to the library).

As we grew older and more independently mobile, it was of course the BCL and the USIS. These were usually fortnightly outings in small groups from college.

How many children or adults are members of libraries today? I know a lot of people read. But it seems everyone just buys each and every book they want to read. But the excitement of reading is also partly in looking for and stumbling upon books in a library; it is yearning to lay your hands on a book, and conniving and strategizing—from reserving it in a library to striking complex deals with friends.

20180518_135152_resized

I don’t want to buy every book I want to read. I have no space. I don’t want to spend that much. And I do want to stumble upon books. Not in a bookshop setting, where books are not arranged as I like them, but in a library-like situation.

As of the last few years, ‘Just Books’ has been my library. I have to admit, since I am a ‘deliver to’ member, I don’t have the pleasure of browsing. But I do browse through their huge online catalogue and put books on the waitlist. There is a little thrill in not knowing which two books will land up at my door in a particular week, out of the 50-60 on the waitlist. It is a low-risk option—I put likely looking books on the list, and if I don’t like it, I just abandon it after the first 30-40 pages. And my shelves are not heaving with the addition of more and more books.

If you don’t know about Just Books, do check it outback (www.justbooks.in). It is a network of about 700 neigbourhood libraries, with a holding over about a million books, in English and most Indian languages. And it has an option of home delivery of books.

Happy reading!

–Meena

Bibliophile’s Supermarket

Know the feeling you get when you walk into your favourite store with gift coupons to be spent on whatever takes your fancy! The delicious sense of anticipation, the excitement of browsing the shelves, the difficult decision making…should you get clothes? Something for the house? Toiletries or accessories? You spend a happy time wandering and comparing before you make up your mind. You go home happy with a bag of goodies–an afternoon well spent!

That is just the feeling I get when I go to a library! Faced with an array of books, what could be more fun than to browse? What do I feel like this month—something light and happy? Something thrilling and gripping? Something serious and profound? A favourite familiar author? Best seller or Booker winner? Decisions, decisions!

This wonderful feeling has been a part of my life ever since I fell in love with books. The B.C. Roy Children’s Reading Room, more familiarly known as Shankar’s Children’s Library—a haven through the hot Delhi summer vacations; Grover’s hole-in-the-wall lending library in the neighbourhood market where one graduated from Archie comics to Mills and Boons! The American Centre library where one discovered the classics and the contemporary.

Moving cities, the first thing one looked for was the nearest library. In Nairobi it took the form of the next-door neighbour’s collection of crime and detective fiction which kept the suspense going! In Ahmedabad it was Raju’s circulating library that provided a menu of “time-pass” options. And now the British Library beckons every month. At the rate of 4-5 books a month, I seem to be running out of books to borrow. Panic!

But till then, every day is World Book Day for me!

–Mamata