If ever there was a book mausoleum, this is it. More than 50,000 volumes, all in the half-life, the 'bardo' - no longer living but not yet reborn.
The Madras Literary Society claims to be India's oldest lending library. It dates back to 1812. And a band of committed volunteers is trying to breath new life into this venerable institution.
On Saturdays, they gather to catalogue the holdings - some on shelves which stretch up twenty-five feet or so - and create a digital record of the library's books. There's a Facebook page to stimulate more interest and awareness.
Membership, at 450, is steadily increasing - and older members can have the titles they request delivered to their home. An adopt-a-book scheme, seeking donations of up to Rs 15,000/- (that's about £175), will pay for one of the rarer volumes to be fully restored. I was told that the library's oldest title, in Latin, dates from 1619,
But the library has the unmistakable air of benign decay. It is woefully underused. I turned up at 10:30 this morning, and I was the only person there apart from the hugely helpful and well-informed librarian.
Uma Maheshwari told me something of the history of the institution and the steps being taken to ensure its survival. The Literary Society hopes to become 'a leading resource centre for studies on the colonial period'. It's a worthy aspiration.
The library was initially in Fort St George, the nerve centre of colonial Madras. In the 1890s a splendid new public library, the Connemara, was built in Egmore - it's still there alongside the museum and gets (or should get) a copy of every book published in India. This is reputed to have a marvellous manuscript collection in many languages. The Literary Society shared that Egmore site, but in 1905 or thereabouts moved into the purpose-built premises it now occupies as part of a campus on the appropriately named College Road.
The Literary Society, as far as I can gather, has always been more a lending than a research library. Many of the volumes on display are potboilers and popular fiction. It has a section of children's literature and of books in Tamil.
The building is remarkable - basically single storey though with height at its centre for the stacks of books which are reached by fairly precarious metal stairs. It seems to have the same red brick, Indo-Saracenic style frontage on all four sides.
The building was restored a few years ago, but still comes across as dilapidated - not helped by the adjoining wasteland and derelict campus 'television studios'. The main entrance is not a door but a drape of heavy transparent plastic - a long way from ideal!
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