Competitive exam books now lifeline of Bengal’s Renaissance-period libraries | kolkata | Hindustan Times
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Competitive exam books now lifeline of Bengal’s Renaissance-period libraries

Bengal’s Renaissance-period grand libraries are now a pale shadow of their former selves, kept alive by a handful of readers drawn by books on competitive exams.

kolkata Updated: Apr 02, 2017 12:35 IST
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
The students’ reading room at the Serampore Public Library & Mutual Improvement Association was established on 1871 at Serampore, Hoogly Dist. West Bengal. This library with other district library are facing an acute staff shortage.
The students’ reading room at the Serampore Public Library & Mutual Improvement Association was established on 1871 at Serampore, Hoogly Dist. West Bengal. This library with other district library are facing an acute staff shortage. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)

Layers of dust have covered bound volumes of Bengal’s important 19th and 20th century books and periodicals on the first floor room that is hardly opened. On the ground floor, in the room designated for the librarian, shelves are full with publications from the 18th and 19th century, printed in India and abroad. The collection even includes ‘The General History of the Mogol Empire: From its Foundation by Tamerlane, to the Late Emperor Orangzeb,’ printed in London in 1709.

But the members hardly have access to these gems in Serampore Public Library. Established in 1871 at the heart of the town that played a crucial role in Bengal Renaissance during the 19th century, it is run by a lone Group D staff, as the positions for the librarian and two library assistants are lying vacant for years.

The only room full of readers was the students’ corner that houses text books and those on competitive exams. Ironically, books on competitive exams are keeping alive the trickle of readers to these once-grand repositories of knowledge.

The scene is no different in Konnagar and Mahesh Public library, both about 150 years old and trying to keep their head above water by attracting students aspiring to crack competitive exams for jobs.

The Konnagar Public Library & Free Reading Room was established on April 01, 1858 at Konnagar, Hoogly district. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)

“Footfall decreased over the years due to change in reading pattern but we still attracted about a hundred people daily. Presently, though, there is only a Group D staff and people are not getting service. Students help themselves to find out books stacked in their room,” said Chapal Chakraborty, a member of the managing committee. Members of the committee volunteer for the library in their spare time.

Chakraborty was not exaggerating as it is impossible for a Group D employee to identify books and suggest them to potential readers.

Ironically, these are the very institutions that acted as repositories of knowledge and nurtured the Bengal renaissance that is regarded to have flourished between Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).

The books and the public library movement were integral to Bengal Renaissance. It picked up pace in the 1850s in the immediate aftermath of the enactment of the Public Library Act, 1851, in the UK, and a series of public libraries and free reading rooms came up in the first decade itself.

“Many of the libraries established around that time are still operational. But all of them are struggling to attract readers due to lack of staff and poor service,” said Ashok Basu, secretary of Bengal Library Association.

Uttarpara Jaikrishna Public Library was established on 1859 at Uttarpara, Hoogly district. This library is also facing an acute shortage of librarians. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)

According to government records, there are more than 3,000 vacancies among the 5,520 sanctioned posts for about 2,000 functional public libraries.

Among the libraries founded in Bengal in the 1850s are Rishi Rajnayaran Basu Smriti Pathagar in Midnapore (1851), founded byRajnayaran Basu, a prominent face of the Renaissance, and Uttarpara Jaykrishna Public Library (1859), founded by Jaykrishna Mukherjee, another celebrated personality. Other libraries include Hooghly Public Library (1854), Krishnanagar Public Library (1856) and Konnagar Public Library (1858).

Jaykrishna Public Library was patronised by luminaries of Bengal Renaissance, including Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar (educationist, social reformer), Michael Madhusudan Dutt (poet, pioneer of Bengali drama), Keshab Chandra Sen (Huindu philosopher, social thinker) and Mahendralal Sarkar (who founded Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in 1876 that is one of the country’s oldest research institutes). It is one of the three ‘Grade A’ libraries in the state. Prominent personalities, from linguist Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay to former chief minister Jyoti Basu, demanded that it be declared a library of national importance because of its rich heritage and exceptional collection of rare and old books and manuscripts. Of the 1.65 lakh books in its collection, more than 60,000 are considered rare.

ONCE A VAST REPOSITORY OF KNOWLEDGE

Sl no.NameSet up inDistrictNo of booksPresent staff/ Sanctioned strength
1Rishi Rajnayaran Basu Smriti Pathagar1851West Midnapore35,0002/4
2Jaykrishna Public Library1859Hooghly1.65 lakh8/24
3Hooghly Public Library-HooghlyClosed now-
4Krishnanagar Public Library1856Nadia30,000+2/4
5Konnagar Public Library1858Hooghly40,0002/4
6Mahesh Public Library1869Hooghly25,0001/4
7Serampore Public Library1871Hooghly40,0001/4

“Jaykrishna Public Library has 24 sanctioned posts but is presently being serviced by only eight people, half of who are group D staffs. There has been no librarian for months,” said a library assistant.

“We are already struggling to provide service to the hundred odd people who visit every day, but the district magistrate has instructed to open a students’ corner focusing on books on competitive exams,” another staff said.

The district magistrate’s order to Jaykrishna Jaykrishna Public Library came following state library minister Siddiqullah Chowdhury decision to revive these age-old libraries by changing focus.

“We have asked the libraries to increase importance on books and journals on competitive exams and strengthening career guidance units to keep the libraries relevant,” Chowdhury told HT, without committing anything on filling up vacancies. “The vacancies were created during the erstwhile Left Front regime,” he argued.

The Midnapore library has two staff members instead of four and at least five thousand books from its collections, including rare and old ones, have been damaged due to lack of maintenance. Konnagar Public Library and the one in Krishnagar are in similar state.