Friday, July 10, 2009

A QUIET PLACE TO READ IN - Libraries are a measure of civilization

A QUIET PLACE TO READ IN - Libraries are a measure of civilization
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, The Telegraph, 01 February 2004
Widener Library, Harvard’s premier library, is surely one of the most imposing memorials any mother has constructed for a lost child. As you come up the steps, past its imposing columns and enter through the main gate, you are simply, but poignantly, reminded of the library’s origins. Eleanor Elkins Widener had the library constructed in 1915 in memory of her son, Harry Elkins Widener, who perished aboard the Titanic and was himself an enthusiastic book-collector. The Library is now one of the world’s great libraries, comparable to the Bodleian, the British Library or the Bibilotheque National. The extraordinary thing is that the library still has open access stacks and is the largest library in the world whose books still circulate.
I arrived at the Widener after a gap of three years. The library was originally constructed by one of America’s first African-American architects, Julian Abele, and had undergone a major renovation since I last saw it. Its stacks, always a little dingy, now looked more expansive, and it has an extraordinarily plush set of reading rooms full of natural light. Coming a week after the attack on the library of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, it was difficult not to think about what this library represents. What an extraordinary ambition to create an institution which aspires to possess all thought that can be made available in print. Admittedly, it is an enterprise sustained by vast resources. Even so, the ambition itself is ennobling in more ways than one can list.
Who knows what purposes the library will be used for? What ideological causes it will serve? What humanity it will inspire? What madness might its contents incite? Although immeasurably useful, a library refuses to be instrumental to any purpose or cause. A library insistently transcends all of them: it will provide a refuge for Karl Marx as much as it will for Aurobindo Ghosh. Entering a library like the Widener is always both thrilling and humbling: you will be excited by something in every second shelf, serendipity will lead you to books that you did not think existed. And yet every minute you will feel humble and inadequate. Just how much knowledge is out there is a thought that constantly haunts you. There are few places that can elevate you and humble you at the same time. A great library is one of them.
Libraries of this scale are not so much an act of conceit as a wise insurance policy. Whatever the venality and barbarism of human beings at any given moment, whatever lapses of memory or sins of ignorance they fall prey to, so long as a library survives there is hope. Even a few surviving copies of Plato and Aristotle could rescue Europe from the dark ages; and humanity can retrieve its mistakes so long as there is some library around. This is why, perhaps, ancient kings in India and elsewhere ennobled themselves by patronizing collections of books and manuscripts. It is not an accident that barbarians ransack libraries first. It is the surest way of erasing humanity itself: its memories, hopes, aspirations, achievements and even its errors. The Alexandrian fantasy, as it is known, after the great library, founded by Ptolemy II in 286 BC in Alexandria, and which, it is said, took six months to burn, is perhaps the most extraordinary way of expressing human aspiration; and its absence is a sure sign that humanity is moribund.
So perhaps Eleanor Elkins had grasped a profound truth: a library would be a truly magnificent memorial to her son, a monument whose worth would only grow with time. And this is the truth we are forgetting every moment. The hooligans who ransacked the Bhandarkar Institute, the benighted state of Bihar that has virtually no public libraries left, the unconscionably appalling state of our university libraries, the wilful destruction of collections in possession of the state, the neglect heap- ed upon tens of thousands of manuscripts, only underscore the peculiarity of Mrs Widener’s gesture, and that of many other philanthropists around the world.
The University of Beijing recently got a twenty million dollar gift from a Hong Kong-based businessman, just for its library. How does a culture acquire the extraordinary ambition to see the creation of a great library as an achievement more ennobling than almost anything else? How do we acquire the determination to preserve human ingenuity in this form, with all its achievements and follies? How do we create a culture where a book is not a problem, but a source of hope?
Travelling across India, the absence of good libraries is striking. The issue is not lack of money. In many cases, as in institutions run by the state, there is a wilful determination to destroy even whatever little there is. I have seldom seen library-staff in university libraries who do not see books as a problem. University administrators seem to believe that you can build great universities without a great library. One seldom encounters philanthropists who think that a library might be a worthwhile bequest. It is almost as if we have convinced ourselves: we already know what is useful, and therefore we do not need to collect this stuff. There are some private collections in India that are well preserved. But these tend to be what might be called “sectarian” libraries, a collection of books on Jainism, or a collection created by someone interested in Tantra and so forth. But as useful as these are, they in some ways subvert the very meaning of a library.
A general library is peculiarly a place without authority. High philosophy and low jokes, good science and quack recipes are all marked by a call number, as if saying to the reader: you shall decide what is important. There is no prima-facie authority determining that only this form of knowledge is important. And, in a way, the great public libraries — the New York Public Library or the British Library — served as vehicles of democratization: they gave access to knowledge to countless readers. It is almost impossible to imagine the modern world of letters or politics without the culture of libraries to sustain it.
Germaine Greer once wrote of the experience of being in a library that “Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark. The pleasure they give us is steady, unorgiastic, reliable, deep and long-lasting. In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.” She might have added, for good measure, that the lack of libraries, their wilful neglect, is a sign of intellectual and spiritual impoverishment, a culture that is a prisoner of the crassest instrumentalities. The attackers of the Bhandarkar Library were not anomalous, they were merely expressing our dominant cultural sensibility: a library is a nuisance.
Perhaps more than dams or technology, if libraries had been designated as the temples of new India, made to proliferate across towns and cities, who knows how different the cultural and political history of modern India might look. India may be shining, but it is doubtful whether it can ennoble itself without the free, disinterested comforts of a library. Only in a library can individuals, or nations, come to know themselves. In an age determined to construct an index for everything, the presence of libraries may not be a bad measure of civilization itself.
[The author is professor of philosophy and of law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University]

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