Outside, the vast puddles of monsoon rain have reached knee level and rickshaw-wallahs threaten to go under. The library’s doors and windows are wide open, every room and dust-covered book drenched in humidity as creaking 100-year-old fans fail to make any impact. A family of stray cats weaves in and out of the shelves as a librarian sets down a giant tome on a grubby table and proudly opens it to reveal a 1677 edition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World: In Five Books.

Nearby, piled in old metal cupboards, are an original manuscript of the Mahabharat in Persian written by Abu’l-Fazl, a vizier of the emperor Akbar, ayats of the Quran written by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Travaile Begvenne’s Relation of Some Years, printed in 1634, and a series of ancient London Surveys. The books form part of a collection of over 7,000 rare books that are currently under threat at the Hardayal Municipal Public Library in Old Delhi since government funding was withdrawn earlier this year.

The collection reflects the long and tumultuous history of the library and the city in which it sits. Hardayal started life in 1862 as a colonial reading room within the Lawrence Institute (now Town Hall) in Chandni Chowk and its collection was built from books donated by the British. In 1912, the library moved to its current home and was named the Hardinge Municipal Library, after the then viceroy who had recently survived an assassination attempt by freedom fighters, led by Lala Hardayal. The library was renamed after him in 1970. A plaque in the library shows that it was originally funded by donations from Haji Baksh Elahi and royals from Kashmir and Rajasthan. Since 1942 the library’s funding has been the responsibility of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).

Staffers have been unpaid for five months. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

As the authorities pass the buck and wrangle over funding, the library staff has been left without wages for over five months and mounting bills mean that the electricity is in danger of being cut off and delivery of the daily papers will have to be stopped. Chief librarian Madhukar Rao is pessimistic: “Nobody wants responsibility for libraries," he says. He believes it is only a matter of weeks before the reading room, used by hundreds every day, is forced to close.

News of the library’s difficulties has led to an outpouring of dismay and solidarity on social networking sites such as Twitter. Distinguished academic S. Irfan Habib has spoken out in support of the library. So has critic and author Nilanjana Roy, who remembered “loving the friendliness of it, which was such a contrast to the other Delhi public libraries. They welcomed local students and made them feel that this was ‘their’ space."

On Twitter, Altaf Makhiawala spoke for many when he tweeted, “We are nothing without our histories." “Hardayal Library is one of India’s oldest libraries… and has India’s finest collection of rare antiquarian books," he says. “How can we just let it rot away?"

The campaign has so far fallen on deaf ears and the authorities continue to avoid responsibility. According to Meera Aggarwal, mayor of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), in whose geographical region the library falls, the library is just one of many requests for funding, “How can NDMC take responsibility when there are so many other NGOs (non-governmental organizations)?" says Aggarwal. The mayor says the library is now the responsibility of the Delhi state government. The offices of chief minister Sheila Dikshit have so far remained silent on the matter.

To prevent the library from being closed, and further damage to the collection, the annual, 3 crore, budget needs to be given immediately. As well as the basic funding, the library also urgently needs to conserve books for future generations. At present, valuable books are open to the elements and handled by staff without the resources to carry out anything but rudimentary lamination. The collection needs to be digitized, protected from dust, humidity, termites and fire.

Makhiawala, like Rao, believes that the situation is part of a wider problem requiring urgent action. He fears that if the authorities abandon Hardayal and its collection, more libraries will be lost in the future. “If we let go of this library, many others will face the same predicament. We must collectively raise our voice and urge our authorities to remain committed in protecting this library and keep petty politics aside," he says.

Write to lounge@livemint.com.

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