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The Delhi Public Library (DPL) was the busiest in all of South-East Asia," says Raghurao Singh. It sounds like a tall claim for the library situated across the road from the Old Delhi railway station. Perhaps Singh’s association of over three decades with DPL has something to do with the conviction with which he makes this claim? But he is quick to allay any such misgivings—for one thing, he points out, he is referring to the DPL library system, which in addition to headquarters includes the four branches, sub-branches and the mobile libraries, all of which together cater to the residents of the nation’s capital. “It was and continues to be the busiest in South Asia—there are facts and figures to prove it," Singh reiterates.

As DPL celebrates its 60th year this year, its main library and headquarters continue to occupy the same building opposite the Old Delhi railway station. “It used to be called Wavell’s canteen and before independence was meant as a resting place for soldiers in the Indian Army," says Singh. People came from far off areas of the city to borrow a book—places such as “Timarpur, Lajpat Nagar, Shakti Nagar and Nizamuddin".

For those who weren’t able to come, there was DPL’s mobile library service—which Singh likens to a DTC bus with a rack of books—that began with one bus and, with an expanding fleet, covered various localities. Besides neighbourhoods such as Kalkaji and Kidwai Nagar in the city, these libraries-on-wheels went to villages on Delhi’s outskirts, such as Bawana and Alipur. “There would be a lot of dhakka-mukki (jostling) for books in the villages," Singh recalls, and the library staff would rely on the sarpanch and pradhans to maintain order. They tended to be older and would often request books in Urdu—the language they had been taught to read and write in. They would also help in getting books overdue from “defaulters". Of course, with the fine for a late book being 10 paise per week, it didn’t really hurt much to “default".

Right from the beginning DPL has stocked books in four languages—Hindi, English, Urdu and Punjabi. Subjects ranged from general knowledge, religion and philosophy to the sciences and economics. “About 60% of the budget was allocated for Hindi books, and 50% of that amount was used to buy novels," says Singh. Novels, by far, were reader favourites—by popular writers in Hindi such as Gulshan Nanda, Dharamvir Bharati (Gunahon ka Devta) and Vishnu Prabhakar (Awara Masiha).

Unsurprisingly, comic books were favourites with children. As was the children’s magazine Chandamama. Singh also recalls how children flocked to the library for the storytelling hour, in the afternoon, when a lady librarian would narrate stories to children. Among the titles procured for them, Singh recalls folk tales they got in the 1970s from Telangana and Orissa, and the very popular Mohan jasoos detective series—Singh rattles off the names, “Mohan chor, Mohan daku, Mohan lootera."

Another indication of DPL’s popularity for Singh was the fact that he would often be recognized by people outside, for instance by university students or even police officers. He was visiting the Tihar jail library sometime around 1975 when one of the inmates caught him unawares by saluting him—the officer accompanying Singh was surprised too and checked with the inmate. Turned out he was a pickpocket who also used to borrow books from the Shahdara branch of DPL and had interacted with Singh there.

Singh describes the patrons in the later 1960s and 1970s as having become “more cultured"—they were more likely to stand in queues and return books on time. They would talk about choices in titles, come with suggestions for new titles and, as Singh puts it, “were generally more vigilant about their needs". As he sees it, there was a heavy rush of patrons right until sometime in the 1990s.

But when he stepped into the main library last year after a gap of 13 years, he was pleasantly surprised by how “posh" it had become with the marble flooring and air conditioning. He was reminded of the days when he had worked in rooms with asbestos roofs, often without electricity—a time when Internet services, DVDs and CDs, and computerized cataloguing of the books that would be accessible online would have been unthinkable. There is, of course, a flip side to all this accessibility to information—Singh says new libraries aren’t being built and “the future is in peril".

One requirement that remains unchanged after six decades is employees with a good work ethic. Singh admits he had his share of struggle too—“tackling administrative and staff problems" as well as “discrimination and nepotism". He met the current director, a young man who impressed him, and advised him to be a guide and friend to the library’s patrons, and be “free from officiousness".

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