Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The magic of libraries

The Tech Centre at the Boston Public Library

The entry hall in Harvard's Widener Library

I'm carded!

A sampling of riches
One of my favourite childhood memories of summer in Secunderabad was being able to go to the City Central Library branch near Clock Tower and borrow books, week after week. The selection of children's books must have been minuscule compared to the wide range available today, and Young Adult was a category yet to be invented, but even so, I was happy enough with the rows of mystery books and school stories and the odd Ruskin Bond, all covered in an indestructible green rexine. And the library was a reasonably friendly space--at least that's how I remember it. Apart from this, if we wanted books, and if our parents could afford it, you went to Kadambi Bookstores or the small but busy Sri Rama Book Depot and picked up the latest Enid Blyton for Rs 2.50 or a Children's Book Trust publication for a couple of rupees. And there were the circulation libraries that lined the Station Road where you could rent an Archie comic or a Richie Rich or Phantom for ten paise a day. If you belonged to the Secunderabad Club (or had a friend who was), you were among the privileged few who had access to a pretty good library. In the mid 1970s, a new kind of circulating library came into being, with a place called Rithika in Maredpally, which had the latest best sellers and some literary fiction, a few chairs to sit on and a chatty proprietor who offered suggestions--and this soon became wildly popular among the literati of that part of Secunderabad. It was still fairly expensive, with rents ranging from Re 1 to Rs 2.50 per day depending on the popularity of the book. So if you wanted to take your time over Colleen McCullough's The Thornbirds or James Clavell's Shogun, both well over 600 pages, you might end up shelling out a good twenty five bucks (a lot of money in those days when a masala dosa cost Rs 1.50!).

That Secunderabad Branch of the public library no longer exists, and the City Central Library's main branch in Hyderabad is no place one would want to take a child to...and I must confess I haven't been back to a public library in the city in four decades. Apart from the stacks in the University, that is, where I still enjoy, on occasion, losing myself among the dusty volumes.

One of the great pleasures of life in the United States (and perhaps in some other countries of the 'one-fourth' world) are the public libraries. For academics, the University libraries are a veritable fantasy land: electronic journal databases that are up to date and multidisciplinary (not just science and technology), inter-library loan that works, books on shelves where they should be, with all the pages intact, and reserve systems that are honored.  Even the smallest town has a public library, with programs for children, the elderly, and, very often, other vulnerable groups such as immigrants and persons with disabilities. My children spent many happy weekday mornings at a toddlers' story time at the public library in the small southern campus town where I was studying. We borrowed videos and audio storybooks for free, resources which I could never have bought for them on the graduate student's assistantship that I had. The town of Somerville, where I am staying, has an impressive stone building topped with what looks to me like lamps (symbolizing learning?) adorning the roof.

So like a greedy child, I made sure I got library privileges to as many libraries as I could easily access here in Boston. My host institution, MIT, has a network of libraries of which the Hayden Library, with wide glass windows looking out on to Memorial Drive that runs along the Charles River, is the one that I know I will spend many hours in. Last weekend I found Boston Public Library and acquired a membership there. Walking through their wide airy corridors, I found a huge selection of non-English books, including several shelves of Chinese and of course an entire section of Spanish. On a Saturday afternoon, the armchairs and computer stations were mostly occupied by people of all ages. Of course I had to borrow a book, never mind that I already had three that I had brought with me from India, still unread, several half-read ones on my Kindle, and the many I had already checked out from the Hayden Library and which needed to be read if I were to justify my academic position here.

Today, as I walked through the neighbouring campus of Harvard, I just had to go into the Widener Library, the massive columns and wide steps of which have been featured in many a Hollywood movie. As a visiting researcher, when I fancy a change of scene or if I want to spend time in the reference section, I learned, I can use this library too. So I added that to my set of cards, and proceeded to spend the next two hours sitting in one of their quiet reading areas and...well, reading.

Libraries are where you feel the most humbled and the most stimulated. There's the excitement of finding row upon row of books that you can touch and feel and leaf through, representing the knowledge of the centuries. And the thrill of knowing that however much you read, there will always be more--more to make you laugh, cry, wonder at, and just burrow into.

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