Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Requiem for a revered cultural institution

AFTER a glorious innings of 44 years, the British Library at Thiruvananthapuram closed its doors to the public on Feb.29. It was a sad occasion for its small staff and an even sadder one for its 6,000 members.

The library, which opened in 1964, was under the administrative control of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations since there is no British diplomatic mission in the city. Officials, professionals and students were among those who used its services.

"Our network of 11 libraries provides you with access to a vast array of resources," the British Council said at its Indian website. "You can use our library for learning, research, professional or recreational needs. At our Library you can borrow books, access an increasing electronic resource collection, get information about studying in the UK, apply for a scholarship programme, or network with other professionals in your area of interest."

Over the decades, several thousand people had made use of these facilities. Citizens of Thiruvananthapuram came to revere the library as an institution that contributes to their educational, scientific and cultural advancement.

The British Council's decision to close down this library, along with the one at Bhopal, came as a rude shock to its beneficiaries, past and present. They raised a hue and cry. They also mounted a vigorous campaign, mainly through the Internet and the local media, to save it.

Booklovers signed online petitions and poured out their agony in blogs. The newspapers joined the campaign. Well-known personalities from many walks of life acknowledged the debt they owed to the library.

A post-doctoral student of the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Sciences and Technology wrote that the library network had supported his life in many ways-by lending books, biding time and being a place where he could go on Saturday evenings.

A lady, who gave expression to her feelings in verse, ended with this wrenching line: "If the Library goes, I'll be torn apart."

A special attraction of the library was its children's section. A sixth standard student wrote: "Since the vacation of 4th standard, I have been a regular reader and fan of Wonderland. I have read about 200 books from your library and I am simply attached to those books .The language, grammar and humour of those books made me more imaginative. My language and grammar improved. So did my imagination." She requested the British Council not to close the library which was giving children like her lots of information and fun.

The British Council authorities in London did not change their mind. They explained that closure of two of the 11 libraries in India was part of a scheme to use IT tools and reach out to wider audiences than was possible through a conventional library.

ICCR officials, too, were unmoved. However, the campaign evoked an immediate response from Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. He informed the British Council that the State government was willing to set up an autonomous body to run the institution. The Press Club of Thiruvananthapuram offered a floor in its building to accommodate the new institution.

The British Council agreed to hand over the library's collection of 28,000 books, DVDs, magazines, and the infrastructure to the entity to be formed by the State government.
This is expected to be done before March 31.

There is no word yet on the composition of the autonomous body. According to unofficial estimates, it will need an annual outlay of Rs10 million. It is not clear how the government proposes to find the money.

The British Library closed down on the eve of the birth centenary of PN Panicker, who is considered the father of Kerala's library movement.
Panicker's tireless efforts had resulted in the emergence of a vibrant library movement in the 1940s. The network is still in place but it has ceased to be the intellectual driving force that it once was.

People familiar with the decline of the library movement are not very optimistic about the success of the new dispensation. They point out that the State has big libraries but they are no match for the one that has closed shop. Two factors set the British Library apart from the other such institutions in the State. One was the continuous process of renewal of stocks, which made it a repository of uptodate information. The other was the high degree of professionalism of its small staff. --Gulf Today, March 3, 2008.

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