Libraries

Fourth grade was an exciting time for me.  I changed schools and was now studying in the same school as my older brother.  An impressive colonial-era building, with large sprawling fields – I was fairly intimidated and in awe the first few days.  It was also the first time in my life that I had access to a library.  The library was in the basement of one of the wings of the school and was adjacent to the music room.  In fact, our music teacher, Mrs. Jagan also doubled up as the librarian for the primary school.  Now young boys have a vivid imagination and there were rumors that the music room and library had in fact been used as dungeons during WW II and Italian POWs had been imprisoned there.  Nevertheless, the library was fairly small, with bookcases lining the walls and a table at which Mrs. Jagan sat.  Friday was library day for fourth graders and I would go to the library excitedly in the morning.  If I was lucky, I would get an Enid Blyton.  “Secret Seven” and “Famous Five” novels were in demand.  “Folktales from Japan” and its ilk would have to do if I could not find any books by Enid Blyton.

As I grew a little older, I checked out books by Richmal Crompton (the William series), Anthony Buckeridge (Jennings), W.E. Johns (Biggles) and assorted books from the “Three Investigators” series.  I felt all grown up when I started reading Hardy Boys.  “The Sign of the Crooked Arrow” was my first Hardy Boys book.  Most of the books in the library were by British authors and were editions from the fifties and sixties.  We were allowed to keep books for a week, an interesting book would not last a weekend but I had to wait a week before I could check out another book.

Summer holidays meant that school was closed and I would usually go to Bombay during that time.  My uncle would take me to his library near Cafe Mysore in King’s Circle and introduce me to the owner.  The library was actually a small shack on the pavement and was piled high with books.  The owner knew where exactly each book was kept and he had a fantastic collection.  I would happily check out Tintins, Asterix and Obelix as well as books from the “Three Investigators” and “Hardy Boys” series.  If a book had been checked out, I would request the owner who would then keep it aside for me. I never had to pay, my generous uncle had a running tab with him.  

British Council – atop Koshys, Bangalore. (From “Bangalore – Swinging in the 70s” by Paul Fernandes)

It was also around this time that my brother would bring back books from the British Council.  These were usually books by Gerald Durrell or old editions of the “The Magnet” magazine that featured stories on Billy Bunter by Frank Richards.  I went to British Council very rarely and when I did, it was fairly intimidating.  With rows of bookshelves and serious adults seated at tables piled high with books, I was warned to keep my voice down before I entered the library.  British Council was located on top of Koshys on St Marks Road and across the street was K.C. Das – of Rasgulla fame.  It was a common sight to see patrons from British Council enjoying a cup of coffee and a samosa at K.C. Das while leafing through the books that they had checked out.

Seventh grade saw me graduate to the senior library.  Now, this was something else.  Mr. Alan MacBride, our librarian, could silence us with a baleful look.  He brooked no nonsense and ran a tight ship.  He was a famous hockey player in his time and also our hockey coach and coached our school to some famous victories.  The library, though, was well stocked and was much larger than the junior library.  Bookshelves lined the walls.  Encyclopedias including Encyclopedia Brittanica were available for reference.  These could not be checked out or taken home.  I was now reading amongst others – James Herriot, Gerald Durrell, Alistair Maclean, Robert Louis Stevenson and P.G. Wodehouse.  I had read Jim Corbett and Ken Anderson when my brother had brought home books authored by them when I was in fifth and sixth grade.  I now re-read those books.  The library had tables where we could sit and study.  The library also functioned as an AV room, with a projector at the back and a screen in front.  Once in a way, Mr. MacBride would play music during the lunch break.  “Da da da” by Trio still sticks in my mind!  When I look back, I realize that we were incredibly fortunate to have such a fantastic library in our school.  We did not have a branch of the state-run “City Central Library” near our house and the ones that I had visited did not carry a selection that young boys were interested in.  At an age when cable TV and the internet did not exist, these books were our source of entertainment.

My classmates at our school’s library – circa 1985 (Photo courtesy of Everette Fernandes)

My undergrad library at Mysore carried only technical books and I did not check out any books.  However, the library at my University at Clemson was truly impressive.  It spanned multiple floors and contained an impressive selection of books.  With private and group study rooms, inter-library loans and a multimedia section that included microfiche readers, this was an example of a research library.  I had never seen a library like this in India, the closest I came to was the IISc library in Bangalore where I used to go to look up University addresses in the Petersen Guide.   During my first spring break at Clemson, I discovered the section in the basement that had LP records and I spent many happy hours with a headphone listening to the Beatles.  It was customary to donate a copy of one’s thesis to the library and for a period of time, my thesis was housed in the library, I’m pretty sure it has been culled now.

After I graduated, I lost my reading habit for a few years, until I got married.  My wife wanted to check out books and so we started exploring the local library.  Each town has its own local library funded by local tax dollars and they are indeed impressive.  With books spanning multiple topics and dedicated library staff, these libraries also boast of children sections that I would have given my right arm for when I was growing up.  We found this most useful when our daughter was born.  We started reading to her when she was about two years old and it became a happy tradition to visit the library over the weekend and check-out a couple  dozen books with large print and attractive pictures.  I read the stories aloud to her each night and we settled into a pattern where I had to read a minimum of two books with voiceovers for the different characters.  My daughter would chortle with glee and I would have to re-read her favorites each night.  Good memories indeed and the start of a reading habit for her that has lasted several years now.

A library that stands out in my memory for its scale though is the British Library in London.  This library is not on the itinerary of most tourists but it is a most interesting place.  I happened to visit it last month and it was a treat.  Located a very short walk from the St Pancras train station, it is not exactly known for its architecture. However, its contents more than compensate for that.  The largest national library in the world, it was part of the British Museum and became an independent library in 1973.  It is a veritable museum in its own right with its Sir John Ritblat Gallery.  I could write an entire blog on the exhibits that are displayed in the gallery.  It has original music scores, manuscripts, religious texts, scientific literature, maps and of course a copy of the original Gutenberg Bible.  

Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library, London

Here are some of the salient exhibits that come to mind. Original scores by Mozart, Haydn, Debussy and Mahler.  Handwritten lyrics of the Beatles “Michelle” and “A Hard Day’s Night”.  Michael Palin’s sketches, notebooks and diaries from his Monty Python days.  Jane Austen’s writing desk, Emily Bronte’s “The Gondal Poems” written in small text to save paper as well as to prevent adults from reading her poems.  Oscar Wilde’s letter from prison as well as a letter by Michelangelo.  A world map showing America for the first time by Francesco Di Lorenzo Rosselli as well as Buddhist world maps.  Hebrew bibles, a 13th century Quran from Spain, the 10th book of Bhagvata Purana and a 17th century  “Pancaraksa” from Nepal.  Two (of the four) surviving copies of the Magna Carta and Shakespeare’s folio.  Of particular interest to me was the first volume of the Akbarnama by Abul Fazl and a series of paintings commissioned by the prince Dara Shikoh including paintings of himself and his sister Jahanara. Photography is not permitted within the gallery.

I had other places to visit and as I left the exhibit reluctantly, I chanced to see a sign for a philatelic exhibition.  I was short on time but I got to see a few original “Penny Blacks”, the first postage stamp issued in 1840.  A bonus was one of the presses used to print the Penny Black.  I quickly walked around the library, I could not enter any of the reading rooms since I did not have a reading pass.  As I left the library, I stopped by the sculpture of Issac Newton in the courtyard.  Called “Newton after William Blake”, it shows Newton crouched with a compass.  The sculpture is based on a painting by William Blake whose religious views put him at odds with Newton’s concept of the universe and he could not reconcile science with spirituality.  Ironic indeed, given that the Gutenberg bible that I had seen in the library was produced by the technology that made it possible for large swathes of people to read the religious text.  Advances in this technology allowed for the mass printing of books and in turn give rise to libraries that allowed for the free dissemination and access to knowledge.  The rare manuscripts that I saw inside, painstakingly written were probably the privy of the clergy, royalty and nobles.  The common man had no access to them.  The printing press changed that and that in turn gave rise to all the libraries that I have been privileged to have access to over the years.

Newton after William Blake – The British Library, London

I would be remiss if I did not mention a library of different sorts.  My cousin in Bombay, who by far, is the most widely-read person that I’ve met has an eclectic collection of books that could be considered a library in its own right.  He, in fact, has converted a balcony in his house to serve as a library, but the books spill out of it into various bookshelves around the house as well as onto the dining table.  The amazing part for me is that he remembers all the books he has read over the years!  I’ve spent many happy afternoons as a young boy, reading commando and Mad comics, books on cricket, the World Wars, Hollywood and Bollywood.  I am also now the lucky recipient of gifts in the form of selected books that span the gamut of history, movies, cricket, fiction and other myriad topics whenever I visit him.

Libraries for me are not just about books.  They are about the memories that are associated with them.  An intimidated shy boy in the seventies in a big school, a carefree boy on vacations that never seemed long enough, a stressed graduate student trying to complete his thesis. A newly married man checking out recipe books and spending happy hours in the kitchen trying out new recipes with his wife.  A proud and affectionate father reading out stories to his young daughter and then recommending books to her as she grew up.  I continue to check out books from my local library, so many books, so little time!


Cover Picture: My town’s library

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