The two main libraries in Coimbatore serve readers and researchers alike, with a Rs 7 crore grant by the government aiming to further spruce up stock and enable the digitisation drive.
A muffled traffic buzz manages to intrude the ‘silent’ confines of a library on the busy Cowly Brown road in Coimbatore. The unassuming two-storey building is nevertheless the district central library, the largest public library in the city, which seems to be in a hurry to go ‘paperless’.
A register at the entrance with a pen strung to it, where visitors sign in and sign out, does not give away much about the library that provides access to about 3 lakh books of all categories for a modest annual membership fee of Rs 60, and is just a month away from implementing the tracking technology, radio frequency identification (RFID).
There are 199 libraries (including village and grade two levels) tucked away in various parts of Coimbatore. Starved of a meaningful upgrade for more than five years now, a Rs 7 crore grant by the state’s Minister for Education K A Sengottaiyan, this year, has come as a welcome move that can bring about a substantial overhaul in terms of book replenishment, says N Manikandan, district library officer in charge of Tirupur and Coimbatore districts.
For instance, in 2015-16, the central district library added 7,090 books valued at Rs 1,073,126 to its collection. While 2016-17 didn’t see any addition at all, 2,781 books costing Rs 1,195,554 were added in 2017-18.
Started in 1952, the central district library has about 62,000 members on its roll and 700 visiting it every day, which includes newspaper loyalists, while the second biggest branch library in Coimbatore’s busy Town Hall with about 80,359 books, has 230 visiting it on a daily basis.
About 110,000 visitors have used the district library in the year 2017-18, with a large proportion of them having benefited from its research material. These numbers suggest libraries have become centres of allied activities – a shift from the passive role of a book lender to engaging visitors in enterprising projects. For instance, as part of the district library’s non-customary programmes, a group of retired professors have been mentoring civil service aspirants for the past one year.
“The lectures we organise have drawn a lot of interest, and this is one way to encourage library visits,” said Manikandan, who sits at the district library headquarters in Town Hall, which also hosts the branch library.
This has also redefined their purpose, which has acquired a more academic character. A key role of the library today is to put vast resources at the disposal of students preparing for civil services and competitive examinations, which include online access to important data. He cites Megastar, an online resource platform that gives access to 250 magazines, as an example.
Though a handful of youngsters poring over bulky books and handwritten notes in the research chamber of the district library appear to recreate a classroom environment, they are a content lot. “I refer books here from morning until evening,” says Elakiya Ravindra Kumar, a civil service aspirant. Pointing to a pair of computer systems, she says they can access research material and get ready assistance from librarians to locate books and other material.
So, sceptics who are weighing libraries’ relevance in the digital age may have to settle for the truth that these repositories of books are not hastening to fade into oblivion, as the district central librarian P Rajendran vouches: “Physical books are not going away anywhere soon, though we are digitising library management at all levels possible. Our transactions, lending and sorting of books returned, are digitised, and the implementation of RFID is only going to make tracking easier and circulation operations more efficient and faster.”
RFID will also limit all sorts of losses to the library such as book theft, said the librarian. However, he said with a smile, the library treats this ‘offence’ with leniency as it’s love of books that triggers this temptation, though, he said, it will deprive an equally deserving reader of a book that has been ‘unceremoniously’ taken off the shelf.
Some limitations even with a reasonable extent of digitisation is the difficulty in locating ‘mislaid’ books. Visitors browsing through the shelves may inadvertently leave a history book in the literature section, where it will languish for years.
Every section of readers from men, women and children to the physically/intellectually challenged has a place in the library that has 60 per cent Tamil and 40 per cent English books, said Rajendran.
Stepping into the hallway of the library, the outstanding facilities for the differently-abled don’t go unnoticed. A carefully designed section is fitted out with the gear that help the blind and other physically- and intellectually-challenged visitors experience library ‘moments’.
Specially adapted computer keyboards like low vision/large print accessory, braille books, ‘magnetic minds’ for hand and eye coordination, tactile graphics for the visually challenged, specifically designed chess boards, and geometry and algebra kits are a small part of the paraphernalia helping the differently-abled readers, about 15 of them who visit the library mostly during the weekends, experience reading in a library.
Low-built shelves and a wheel-chair ramp and trained staff at the section said a lot about the thought that has gone into making the library accessible to all.
Rajendran said with the aid of the ‘read easy’ device, which supports an audio format, some of their visually challenged scholar readers have gone on to acquire a PhD. The library also arranges volunteers to assist the visually-challenged with their exams.
The colourfully designed children’s section, if one ignores some of the broken soft toys and ill-matched furnishings, stands in stark contrast to the adjoining reading room with its conventional carrels, and empty shelves waiting for ‘new arrivals’. While there is a separate book-lending section for children, next to the women’s reading section, this enclosure is used for story-reading.
“We have expert teachers volunteering to read stories to about 50 children during the weekends,” Rajendran said, adding, summer camps coordinated by the library is very popular, and about 50 to 70 children attend them on an average.
The branch library in Town Hall, though modest, is a place where neighbouring residents spend some quiet time and keep the library tradition alive. An incomprehensible combination of numbers and letters pasted on the books sitting on rudimentary iron shelves are “the codes holding the description and location of books,” explained chief librarian M Manimekalai.
Used mostly by students preparing for civil services, the library is also visited by the older generation, especially to read newspapers and know the day’s happenings, she said.
The library landscape of Coimbatore is dotted with university libraries, which of course, provide limited access to their resources. For the purpose of this article, the Bharathiar University, which has the third-largest collection of books in the state, next to only the Madras University and Madurai Kamaraj University, was selected.
With a book stock of 2 lakh, the sprawling university campus is home to one of the most technologically advanced library facilities. “We have a reading lab fitted with 40 computer systems, which the students use to read, download material from and for reference,” said university librarian Dr R Sarangapani.
“Students use internet protocol address, mostly, to access a vast source of professional journals and books for their dissertations,” he said.
A leading example of source for research was INFLIBNET, an autonomous inter-university centre of the University Grants Commission under the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). “It was available for five years, from 2012 to 2017, but now the services have been suspended. The MHRD is in talks with the government to restore it,” said Sarangapani.
Bharathiar University’s e-resources also comprise the opulent publications database built by its faculty. The university has been ranked thirteenth for research development by MHRD’s National Institutional Ranking Framework.
In order to stay relevant and more useful, libraries have indeed moved beyond facilitating reading for pleasure. Its custodian’s role, too, has expanded from just physically curating operations to managing and streamlining electronic content.
Why we need a building when the world is turning ‘bookless’ is a question that may have to wait, perhaps forever, as books emanate an energy that is palpable and libraries would remain the top-shelf option as long as there is a zeal for credibility and community.
Perhaps, this thought was on French philosopher Jean-Paul Satre’s mind when he described his library moments as a child: “I set off on incredible adventures. This meant climbing chairs and tables, at the risk of provoking avalanches which might have buried me.”
Walking through the silent alleys of the district library, I traced my fingers along the spine of the books, content to realise they will continue to serve readers through the twenty-first century, with e-books and devices supporting alongside the pursuit for limitless information and knowledge.