December 7, 2021 3:33:10 pm
Jubilee Garden in the heart of Rajkot is a relief from the snaking lines of vehicles on the surrounding roads and hustle and bustle of the city life. Tall Ashoka trees keep the noise and pollution away and lawns make the garden a soothing place. The imposing trees keep from full view the historic Arvindbhai Maniyar Hall (formerly Connaught Hall) building standing on the eastern side of the garden, as if they want to guard the building and its Victorian architecture against forces of the post-modern world.
The grand building, which is around 150 years old, has Arvindbhai Maniyar Hall in its central part. Sadly, garbage can be seen accumulating in front of the gate of the hall, which once used to function as the Assembly House of the former state of Saurashtra. The venue has had few bookings in recent months thanks to the ban on large public gatherings owing to Covid-19 pandemic. The historic Watson Museum in the northern part of the building, too, is receiving visitors few and far between.
But there is a trickle of life in the building’s southern wing which houses Shree Arvindbhai Maniyar Pustakalaya (AMP), one of the oldest public libraries of India and popularly known as the Lang library. Elders keep trudging in and out of the tree-shaded majestic entrance of this library while a handful of young students, most of them aspiring bureaucrats, keep warm some of the chairs in the reading room on the first floor these days.
This library was established in 1856 by Colonel William Lang while he was serving as the British political agent to Kathiawar. Col. Lang, who advocated for the education of the girl child, had established the library in a room of the English School (which later came to be known as the Alfred High School, the alma mater of Mahatma Gandhi). It was moved to Col. Lang’s Bungalow in 1864, before eventually finding a permanent place in the Connaught Hall of the Jubilee Garden in the 1890s. Having been previously known by names like Gun Grahak Mandali, Vidyavardhak Mandal, Kathiawar General Library, Kathiawar General Lang Library, it was christened Lang Library to acknowledge its founder’s services. After the building was damaged in the 2001 earthquake, it was renovated, restored and rechristened Arvindbhai Maniyar Pustakalaya in memory of Arvindbhai Maniyar, the first mayor of Rajkot city.
A large part of its collection of books in English, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Persian, Sanskrit and so on was donated by then rulers of erstwhile princely states of Kathiawar, the present-day Saurashtra region of Gujarat. Approximately 3,000 of the total 1.08 lakh books in this library with a 176-year-long history, are more than a century old. They include collections of history books, albums of erstwhile princely states, grammar books, travelogues and biographies which are out of print or whose copies have exclusively been preserved in this library only. But several books are aging, forces of weather having made their leaves pale, stiff and delicate. The Lang Library Trust (LLT), the charitable organisation that manages and maintains this library, has tried many things to conserve them—giving the books heat treatment, covering them in plastic films to storing them in weather-proof vertical carousel and compactor storage systems. But the decay persisted and eventually, the library had to turn to the modern technology—of scanning the books and digitising them. Over the last four years, the library has managed to digitise 4,500 books and the work to digitise 2,500 more is in progress.
“We can’t let this institute with such a rich treasure to die just like that. It is true, this library is past its glory days in terms of members and readers who used to visit it and that generating resources is also a problem. But we are keeping her alive on doses of donations and not allowing politics to enter its premises, hoping the cupboards of books will one day draw people back here as they used to do till a couple of decades ago,” Pravin Rupani, the honorary secretary of the LLT, says.
Rupani, an educationist, further says that the library has a rare collection of maps of India. “When the issue of delineating the border between India and Pakistan arose post Partition, this library had the honour of sending these maps to the Government of India and helped resolve the issue. Also, a book on Sanskrit grammar in our collection is considered very rare,” says the 75-year-old secretary.
The library has around 4,000 active members. But Rupani says that the decline started with deeper penetration of television and the advent of smartphones around two decades ago. “But it is heartening to note that over the past five-six years, there are visible signs of the trend reversing. More people have started visiting the library and this is a silver lining for us,” he says.
The library charges a one-time deposit of Rs 150 and a monthly fee of Rs 30 from its members.
Kapla Chauhan, the librarian of the AMP, says this is a critical phase in the library’s history. “During training, librarians are taught ways of drawing people to a library. But in the face of onslaught by mobile phones and the internet, the library as an institute has suffered and the need of the hour is for the library to go to the people instead. She can do this rather easily in her digital avatar,” the librarian says, adding, “After all, these old books are links to our history and our culture and it is our responsibility that we preserve them and make them available to present and future generations in the medium which is popular.”
Chauhan says the AMP is also exploring the possibility of putting these books in a virtual library. “We are exploring the legal side of digitising vis-à-vis copyrights of these old books and ascertaining if they can be made available to the world in virtual form,” she says.
While the LLT is making desperate attempts to keep the library relevant in present times, a bust of Col. Lang by the western wall of the library keeps ardently gazing at the central reading hall sporting gothic windows and rows of wooden cupboards, brimming with books, lining the floor. He has the bust of Col. LC Barton, another British political agent after whom a library is named in Bhavnagar, and those of a few other colonial-era administrators to keep company.
For its visitors, this library is where the time slows down. “The calm and cool surroundings of the library are a rarity in the city and thanks to able administration, the reading room here is an ideal place to read for hours on end while preparing for competitive examinations. Although we have a home in the city, I can focus properly on reading only here,” says Pushpa Gohil (26), a business administration graduate who has been a regular visitor to the library and is preparing for the recruitment examination for sub-inspectors.
For Satish Bhatti (55), a tax consultant, the AMP is a place to make good use of spare time. After visiting his clients, he comes to the library every evening to read newspapers and magazines. “Many newspapers and magazines I read are available in the digital format but leafing through physical copies makes the reading experience complete. Moreover, the environment here has a cooling effect on one’s mind,” says Bhatti, who has been a regular visitor to the library for the past 15 years.
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