What are the challenges that Asiatic Society faces today?Well, for starters, most of our members are from an older age group and not too many youngsters come forward to become members. Those that do are students or research fellows who retain their memberships only for a limited period of time. Another thing that is working against us — and other libraries — is that because of the internet, there is plentiful information that we are all flooded with on a day-to-day basis and people do not find coming to a library to be of much value.
There are also many who are not aware that one can become a member of such a historical place at a reasonable cost (Rs 1,500 per year for an annual membership and Rs 15,000 for a life membership). The vibe of the place is amazing and we keep rare and old books, documents, manuscripts and archives of old newspapers that cannot be found anywhere else. The other challenge we face is that of funding, as we are working hard to ensure we move with the times and digitise all of our books and archives besides having structural restoration work pending.
What is your main source of funding?
We are funded by the Ministry of Culture but for reasons best known to them, funding historical libraries like ours is not on the list of priorities for the government. Five years ago, however, as part of the budget, Rs 5 crore was sanctioned for us but the money came in bits and pieces. Besides that, we are being helped greatly by the Rotary Club of Bombay. With the help of funding, we launched a web portal last year called ‘Grant Sanjeevani’, where users can enrol by paying a fee to access all the material we’ve been digitising, which includes old newspapers. The Bombay Chronicle is quite popular. Presently, it’s a read-only site but we are hoping patrons can download content too in the future.
Are you making efforts to attract potential younger members? What are the criteria for membership and what does a member get access to?
Yes, we are reaching out to youngsters via our handles on social media. We realised it is important that we have a presence there and we have set up Facebook and Instagram pages. Anybody above the age of 18 can apply and we have also simplified the membership process. Earlier, we had this process of anyone interested in gaining membership having to be proposed or recommended by a current member. However, those from outside the city or those who did not know any existing members would find it difficult to secure membership and hence we did away with the whole process. Now, all one has to do is fill in the form available at the Asiatic Society office and submit their Aadhar card and other details, before a panel verifies and approves the membership.
Members get access to more than 100,000 books, old manuscripts, archives, periodicals and much more. We have a dedicated reading room and research room where there are research tables that are allotted to members annually. We also have events such as book readings regularly.
What are some of the rare books, archives and relics at the library?
We have archives of old newspapers and periodicals, several of which date from more than a century ago and a few from nearly two centuries ago. They include newspapers such as The Bombay Chronicle, The London Times, Bombay Courier (1811-1842), Indu Prakash (1883 to 1895) and The Economist. Currently, 138 periodicals are subscribed to. We also hold over 3,000 manuscripts in Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Prakrit from all over India and Nepal. They are mostly on paper and some are on palm leaf. One that stands out is Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s manuscript, which is one of three in the world.
We also have rare coins and a collection of 12,000 coins that includes a 5th-century gold coin of Kumaragupta, a very rare gold mohur of Akbar and coins issued by Shivaji Maharaj. Besides that, we have old maps dating back to the 18th century and many were acquired when the Geographical Society of Bombay merged with the Asiatic Society in 1873.
Lastly, we have a collection of Soprara relics that the Bombay government presented to the society in 1882.
Do you think libraries are dwindling in importance?
With the kind of lives we lead today, taking time out to visit a library seems like too much work for some. However, I hope people understand the value and importance of this place and that we receive enough funding to complete its structural restoration and digitisation of all books and manuscripts