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Over the phone in his office, Prof. Swapan Chakravorty is telling a colleague to ensure the newly acquired books reach the shelf quickly. In the same breath he urges that the availability of the books should reflect on their website immediately.

As director general of the National Library of India in Kolkata—the apex institution in the country’s library system—Prof. Chakravorty has overseen the growth of Web use and the digitization process at the library. Even as we speak, rare reading material is being given new life at the National Library; this year alone, two million pages will be digitized, 3.2 million pages from 9,141 rare and old documents have already been digitized.

To add to this surge in digitization and ICT (information and communications technology) culture at the 176-year-old institution, the National Library has recently taken up a project to prepare a directory of online resources and e-books author index, a dynamic website which gives access to the library catalogue, and launched the Indian Library Review, an electronic compendium of news on Indian libraries, librarians, users and scholars.

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Inside the present-day library. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Yet no other library in India deserves a thrust as much as the National Library, and Prof. Chakravorty explains why.

As India’s biggest and only Category 6 library (the highest level), with a collection of over 2.4 million books and reading material, the National Library is among the four depository libraries in India where publishers are obliged by law, under The Delivery of Books And Newspapers (Public Libraries) Act, 1954, to supply books published in India, by Indians abroad or any title that might be of interest to Indians. It is also the only repository library in India; all books, publications and official documents like gazettes have to be kept in the library’s custody in perpetuity.

It is not like any other library. The National Library is also a public library where anybody can walk in and use the library free of charge, except some paid services.

Spread across 30 acres in the verdant Belvedere Estate in the Alipur area (the Archaeological Survey of India currently looks after the majestic Belvedere Building in the campus), the National Library emerged from a widespread move towards education in the early 1800s in Bengal. After it was established as the Calcutta Public Library in March 1836 at 13 Esplanade Row, British viceroy Lord Curzon would later merge the collections of the Calcutta Public Library with those of the Imperial Library. The Imperial Library was opened to the public in 1903 at Metcalfe Hall, Calcutta. After independence, the library was accorded special status as an institution of national importance by the government of India, its premises were shifted to the current Alipur address, and it was rechristened the National Library.

The setting up of the Calcutta Public Library in 1836 had a snowball effect on the library culture in Bengal. Over 100 public libraries were soon set up, according to the Bengal Library Association (BLA), a body that was set up in 1925 to organize and create awareness about libraries (Rabindranath Tagore was its first president). As of 2010, BLA figures show, there were 2,800 government, government-sponsored or government-aided and community libraries-cum-information centres in the state, making the public library system in Bengal one of the most developed in the country.

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Director Swapan Chakravorty. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

In March, the Mamata Banerjee government in Bengal banned all English-language dailies and a couple of Bengali newspapers, all seen to be critical of her politics, from all state government owned, aided and sponsored libraries. Chakravorty refuses to comment on the issue of State controlling reading habits at libraries, saying the National Library, under the Union ministry of culture, has “no truck" with the state government.

A student of The Calcutta Boys’ School, Presidency College, Jadavpur University and Oxford University, from where he completed his DPhil, the director general has been known as much as a professor of English at Jadavpur University as the academic mind behind over half-a-dozen books. His subjects have ranged from the history of books in India to the works of Thomas Middleton and Tagore and discourses on English literature by Bengalis.

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Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Currently serving a three-year contract with the National Library, Prof. Chakravorty today is a man in a hurry. The 58-year-old moved to an administrative job primarily because, he says, he grew up in an era when public duty overrode academic research by an individual; the names of administrators like Satyen Bose, Tagore, P.C. Ray and P.C. Mahalanobis come up. “Now administration has become a dirty word. But it wasn’t so."

Though work is currently on to shift all the rare books and materials to a completely fireproof “Reserve Bank kind of vault", as the head of the National Library, Prof. Chakravorty admits to some of the failings. He is pushing harder to plug the gaps. More needs to be done for disabled users. Fire safety measures have to be enhanced (“I think God is Indian, considering no disaster has happened yet," he says). Stock-taking of books has to be completed. The workload has to be rationalized across departments, the canteen has to be overhauled, there should be less dependence on other government agencies to get work done—and so on.

The library culture is also possibly up against other odds. Some reports suggest that an average Indian reads only 320 pages annually compared to the 20,000 pages read by an American, and a 2009 National Book Trust survey among youth in India found half the respondents admitting to declining reading habits with the advent of the Internet and electronic media, while only 39% are members of public libraries.

“At our children’s library we hold regular events like reading sessions, film shows and jugglery to entice young readers," says Prof. Chakravorty.

The staff are doing their bit. In 2003, a report in The Times of India, titled “National Library Staff Forsake All in Rare Mission", mentioned how 60-odd employees of the National Library had volunteered to work overtime, without extra pay, to clear the workload of the understaffed institution (there are still around 200 posts lying vacant, according to Prof. Chakravorty). “There is a boy called Sheik Alimuddin who will spend nights to digitize documents; there is a lot of passion among the librarians and the lab and reprographic staff," he says.

At the National Library, they are among the people who work silently, constantly, for the sake of the published word.

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