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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Mumbai: Facing severe funds crunch, 130-yr-old library appeals for aid

The People’s Free Reading Room and Library was a coming together of likeminded people who wanted to provide free reading services to Indians.

Written by Benita Fernando | Mumbai |
Updated: December 10, 2021 2:18:53 pm
In 2000, the Fort building caught fire and the collection permanently shifted to the Framji Cawasji Institute, from where the library operates till date. (The People's Free Reading Room and Library)

One of Mumbai’s oldest libraries has sent out an appeal to the public for financial assistance to prevent it from downing shutters. The People’s Free Reading Room and Library, a 130-year-old institution in Dhobi Talao, is facing a severe shortage of funds and needs support for a revival plan costing approximately Rs 60 lakh.

The People’s Free Reading Room and Library was a coming together of likeminded people who wanted to provide free reading services to Indians. In 1891, a merchant named Damodardas Sukhadwala established the library, which grew over the years and merged with the Students’ Dyanaprasarak Library, Bombay Native General Library and NM Wadia General Library.

The library operated from Fort and a second branch opened in 1925 at the Framji Cawasji Institute in Dhobi Talao. In 2000, the Fort building caught fire and the collection permanently shifted to the Framji Cawasji Institute, from where the library operates till date.

During the examination season, it was common to see a packed reading hall with students poring over books.

The library continues to offer free membership for access to its collection of 18,000 books — mainly fiction and some dating back by a century. Harsha Parekh, managing trustee of the library, said, “As a free library, we are not allowed to take fees from members. The corpus of the library is very small.”

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A “students’ corner”, for which visitors have to pay a monthly fee, generated some income for the library. During the examination season, it was common to see a packed reading hall with students poring over books.

However, that students’ corner and the library as a whole have been affected since the start of the pandemic, with no new memberships on record during this period, Parekh said. This is concurrent with troubling times for colleges and schools during the pandemic, with most education services going virtual. The library has at present 300 members and 200 student members.

Parekh is also the chairperson of The Bombay Community Public Trust, which supported the library from 2018 to 2020. In 2018, the library issued an appeal for donations amounting to Rs 1.2 crore. Parekh said they received about Rs 40 lakh, which has been used to catalogue books and renovate the library. The library’s collection was trimmed from 75,000 to 18,000, Parekh said, after tattered books were disposed of. The current appeal will help hire additional staff as well as
pay salaries for existing staff, among other things.

“People now want to read electronic magazines and newspapers. If we get a substantial donation, we could start with that,” Parekh said. Donations to The People’s Free Reading Room and Library can be made via cheque, drafts or bank transfers, and donors qualify for section 80G of the Income Tax Act, 1961.

Author Jerry Pinto, a trustee of the library for the last five years, sent out an appeal this week for supporting the library. He stressed the need for places where the young can study undisturbed. In his appeal he stated, “Other students have often told me about how they have no place to study because work is happening at home or someone refuses to turn off the television…This is a place where every day 200 to 300 students come and study. They get a place of quiet and peace, where they can actually think and work. But like all institutions we are running a tight ship, where we are coming close to the point at which we will run out of money to pay salaries.”

The institution’s challenges come at a time when bookshops and libraries have had to contend with digital content and e-commerce giants. Pinto told The Indian Express that Mumbai’s public need to start going to libraries, become members and introduce their children to the library habit. “It is good for children to know that they can enjoy a book without owning it,” he said, adding that even though his personal library amounts to 5,000 books, he is also a member of three libraries, including The People’s Free Reading Room and Library.

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