MADURAI: A library implies an act of faith...
This statement from Victor Hugo's (1802-85) poem Whose Fault Is This? (1872) is evocative of a different era, a different paradigm. France still had its thinkers, bruised by the Napoleonic wars, cushioned from the epoch-defining belligerence that was slowly approaching the European heartland. And, these thinkers were brought up in the halls of learning Hugo so eloquently advocated, fought and pleaded for.
Cut to the 21st century. Separated from France by political, geographical boundaries, and nearly one-and-a-half century of churning, Madurai's District Central Library (DCL) belies Hugo's statements about the 'act of faith'. For a public institution that claims to be the fountainhead of 135 libraries in the district, boasts of 43,000 members and 2.5 lakh books, the DCL cuts a sorry picture when it comes to infrastructure to show for its stature. The ramshackle, decrepit two-storey building that masquerades as the hall of learning poses the question: Whose fault is this?
Prior to getting a building of its own at Simmakkal in 1970, the DCL catered to its members from a rental building near Periyar Bus Terminus throughout the 1950s and the 1960s. Slowly, it became the fountainhead of grassroots reading halls with 68 branch libraries, 65 village libraries, one library for women and children, and one mobile library coming under its ambit.
For an institution of such wide scope, the funds flowed from the Central government's coffers through the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF), the nodal agency supporting the public library services and systems. Another avenue of revenue was the Local Library Authority (LLA), which collected library cess from the urban and the rural local bodies for the upkeep and uplift of the institutions. However, LLA's contribution was too little and spread far in between.
An official from the DCL told TNIE: "The City Corporation started shelling out the library cess (one per cent of the collected property tax) on time recently. The DCL is yet to receive around `32 crore cess arrears from the Corporation. Hence, the sole source of revenue hitherto has been the RRRLF grant."
Learning entails constant update and upgrade, a facet that was largely ignored by those at the helm for nearly five years, which saw no definite cataloguing and addition to the repertoire of the DCL. It was after a five-year-long wait that the DCL received various titles worth `5 crore from over 1,300 publishing houses. However, the new arrivals have only added to the problems of the DCL, which already was reeling under staff and space crunch.
The tranche of new arrivals has no place to call its own owing to lack of any real estate. The underground portion of the library, meant for book binding, finds itself housing the new titles. This makeshift arrangement has robbed the bound books of their place to dry. The situation on the ground floor, where the lending and reading sections are, are nothing to write home about. "While a Government Order on relocating the Women and Children Library on the first floor was issued in 2015-2016 financial year, the move never happened owing to fund crunch to either rent a building or construct a new one," sources said.
The second floor is where the administrative section and the library on folk art forms are housed. The congestion would have been eased had the officials considered the DCL's plea to offer it space for the administrative section at the Collectorate, as is done in other districts. The end result: A space that must foster free, independent learning has a claustrophobic feel to it.
Till about 1994, the library had 33 regular staff. Now, it has only three in gross violation of the Schedule under Section 9(a) of the Tamil Nadu Public Libraries Act, 1948. The Act mandates the Local Library Authority (LLA) to fill up 29 posts in the DCL as and when required. The three occupied posts speak volumes about law abiding officials. "Since 1994, 30 staff have retired. The last recruitment for village librarians was in 2008. Since then, there has neither been recruitment, promotions nor increment," said the sources.
When the books arrived, the officials were hard put to accommodate and catalogue them. This is where they applied their ad hoc managerial skills and roped in 10 daily wage labourers to classify books and packing them off to the 135 libraries under the DCL.
For a facility that receives around a thousand footfalls a day, the DCL has a one toilet each for the men and the women patrons on the ground floor; similar toilet facility is extended to the patrons on the first floor. The entire premises is singularly inaccessible to the disabled as there is neither ramp nor lift. "One of our binders (of the three regular staff) is physically-challenged. He has to climb up and down a flight of the stairs to reach the binding section on the the ground floor," officials said.
At a time when countries across the globe are increasingly digitising their tomes, do you know where the DCL's antique collections end up? In the shredders. Rough estimates peg that around 1,500 treasured and priceless books end up in the city shredders every year. The in-your-face justification is made thus by the officials: "The life of a book is hardly 20 years. The pages yellow and brittle. After a proper inspection, and order, we sell those books to shredders."
Now, there are also patrons appropriating knowledge that the DCL has to deal with. There are at least 10,000 books that never found their way back to the library. "There are 5,000 tokens in the store for the books that were not returned in the past seven years. Adding to this is the current-lent list. The combined number would be around 10,000," say sources. To cut a long story short, patrons have dented assets worth lakhs of the DCL.
While the discourse was so far pegged on how the DCL was left emaciated, a side story remained nearly untouched. DCL was envisaged as a haunt of our future lawmakers, civil servants and whatnots. The State patronage for such prospective achievers meant that a yearly grant of `3 lakh was earmarked for UPSC and other government job aspirants thronging the DCL. However, the special classes aimed at honing the skills of the aspirants were stopped in December 2018. The reason: Space crunch.
Speaking to TNIE, S Suseethra (28), a patron from Manamadurai, said, "I have been coming to the DCL everyday for the past eight months to prepare for government exams as neither the atmosphere at my house is conducive for studies nor can I afford private institutions. This place is a treasure trove for those wishing to learn. We share study materials and help each other out. As the place now lacks space, we sit in the corridors and study," she said.
K Kabilan (26) is aghast that the special classes that helped him for over two years ended abruptly over space crunch. "As I cannot afford private coaching, I come here everyday to use the reference section. Most of the time, it is crowded and I am forced to go elsewhere," he said.
Now, the official statement. "We tied up with private institutions and conducted two sessions per day over the weekends. The study materials were made into multiple copies and provided to the students free of cost. At least 30 students per batch have passed exams every year. As all rooms are now occupied, we are not able to conduct the classes. There is a large number of students thronging the facility from the city's outskirts. As we have no space, we have directed them to use the space in World Tamil Sangam building."
The officials pointed out to another anomaly. "We have not been receiving Gazettes and Bulletins from the government since 2012 for reasons unknown. This despite the norms mandating a copy of each be despatched to the District Central Library concerned. There are many readers who come from far away places looking for Gazettes and return disappointed," the officials said.
DCL is not an isolated institution but a representative of those that have bitten the dust owing to a systemic apathy and sheer ignorance. A young nation aspiring for the moon unable to afford space to its future generation to sit quietly and read gives birth to the question: Whose fault is this? Indeed, whose fault?