In India, the public library has always been a scarce resource. Outside of academic institutions and private clubs, spaces to read and borrow books are few and far between. The country’s transition from a low-literacy, relatively poor society to a middle-income, educated one was accompanied by the rise of electronic and digital media, and browsing shelves became passe before ever really having the chance to be in vogue. Yet, as a report in this newspaper found, Delhi’s public libraries are still in use, albeit not for the purpose for which they were originally intended.
At Delhi Public Library, Hardayal Municipal Public Library and even Dyal Singh public library — the latter is one of the oldest in India — young aspirants who hope to clear competitive examinations have taken over the reading rooms. For all the sophistication of algorithms and the vast amounts of knowledge on the internet, a quiet place to concentrate still draws aspiring civil servants, doctors, chartered accountants, et al. And given how difficult it is to find space in the big city, it is likely that the libraries will survive as a much-needed public space of calm. Yet, the book lover will see this new avatar of an old building as something of a loss.
The worst-kept secret among bibliophiles is this: In libraries, bookshops and even second-hand book bazaars, the texts talk to each other. Their whispers draw you in, opening up worlds within worlds. And there are few joys greater than the serendipity of picking up an unknown, unheard of (to the reader, at least) volume, of browsing through shelves hoping that a title, blurb or even a cover “speaks to you”. No matter how hard they try, the tech giants selling books at a click can never recreate that feeling. And, while a career is of supreme importance, the young people cramming for their exams too are missing out on what their study hall used to be.