One hundred and forty years old Ranbir Library housed in beautifully designed double-storied architectural marvel painted red and having more than 68,000 books in its collections besides rare manuscripts is not only craving for restoration but also wants to get rid of dust and trash that, over the period of time, has taken over its corridors, stores, lawns, passages and backyards. Built during the era of erstwhile Maharaja Ranbir Singh in 1879 with a vision to give people reading and reference spaces amid green lawns and huge halls, Shri Ranbir Singh (SRS) Library is today a ‘dying structure’ that has not even been declared as ‘heritage’ despite it being centuries old.
This is the reason aesthetics of this iconic library built by erstwhile ‘King’ stands spoilt by ‘subjects’ (read state subjects) by constructing a new staircase right in front of the iconic building, raising three new modern day blocks on its front, back and side lawns besides abandoning old artistically designed almirahs, damaging lamps, staircases, chairs and tables of that era. Today books locked behind shabby almirahs besides dust and trash scattered all over corridors, beneath staircases, passages, rooms and corners of the library greet people while officials claim to be waiting for an action on their proposals of redoing entire complex.
Strangely, department of libraries & research in Jammu and Kashmir is manning about 140 libraries scattered all over the state out of which 81 are in Kashmir division and 59 in Jammu but more than 100 such literary places are functioning from rented accommodations. Though the department claims to be shifting many of its libraries into its own buildings, the pace is dead slow. The only silver lining visible in SRS library is its reading room housed in new building which is air-conditioned besides having all amenities and offers its readers about 16 daily state as well as national newspapers, 15 magazines besides books for preparation of NEET, JEE and other competitive examinations.
A quotation on the website of department says “A library is a place where history comes to life ” but contrarily history of SRS library itself is getting buried deep into concrete structures that have come up around it. While Hindi section of library is having pitched darkness in couple of its rooms, state of Urdu section too is pathetic. Employees have constructed wire bridges in almost every room and made lamps hang from ceiling to illuminate the sections on temporary basis. Similar is the condition of main entrance where old wooden almirahs are dumped in corridors and worn-out electric fittings besides uprooted circuit boxes send shivers down the spine of visitors.
Library, according to those who man it lacks proper almirahs to house books that are added to it yearly. Poor infrastructure is adding woes to the visitors but nothing has changed in decades thereby making employees work in most shabby environment. Old and abandoned stuff is either to be repaired and restored or auctioned but lack of decision on this front has turned library corners and corridors into dump yards. Left side lawn right at the entrance of the building is filled with weeds and not so well painted building is wearing such a worn-out look that those who visit it can tell that it’s a library not others. This is the reason that out of about 13,000 enrolled members about 1000 are active today. Strangely this all is happening in the heart of city and few yards away from civil secretariat, the highest seat of power.
According to Renu Kumari, deputy director, department of libraries and research, the SRS library, on an average adds 2000 new books to its collection annually which include best sellers, books by local authors and competitive examination books. These books, she added help students prepare for their examinations in most conducive atmosphere provided in the reading room which is well illuminated and having all amenities needed for studies. To add more facilities to the readers, proposals of renovation stand submitted which once approved will change the outlook of library, she said.
Renu Kumari also informed that National Informatics Centre is putting in its best efforts to computerise the library by feeding data of available books. Maximum work, she added has been done to facilitate people but till then work on issuance and maintaining records of books is going on manually. Giving details about people who visit library for reference she said that it’s because of rare collections of manuscripts, encyclopaedias, census reports, royal albums, 18th and 19th century books besides religious books written by different authors that PhD scholars and research fellows throng SRS library.
To encourage readers and inculcate reading habits amongst students the SRS library, according to Renu Kumari, also organises seminars, celebrates world book day and holds other events annually. Referring to rare manuscripts that have been very recently preserved in new forms by treating them and wrapping in new clothes as ‘golden collections’, she added that they also attract visitors and scholars to the library. The department she added does anti-termite treatment and also seeks guidance from experts to preserve and protect what she termed books as treasure.
However, the prevailing state of affairs is not as healthy as projected. While footfall in state owned or state run libraries are declining many new libraries in private sector have started coming up in Jammu and Kashmir State to cater to the needs of readers and especially students. These libraries especially SRS library is yet to be computerised and put on Koha – an open source integrated library system used world-wide by public, schools and special libraries. Reliable sources said that library sometime back had also proposed using Radio-frequency identification (RFID) system to identify and track books.
It was proposed to tag all books containing electronically stored information so that microchips are read by RFID reader or scanner and books issued to individuals or schools could be tracked for their return well within the time frame. This could also have stopped stealing of books but nothing productive has been done in this front as well. If implemented, library staff could have been able to handle issuance and return of books quickly and made circulation tasks efficient. The staff could also have spent time on customer support and other library services thereby improving stacking, locating missing items, compiling weeding reports and checking that items are correctly shelved.
Still shocking is that just a handful of 13 member staff is managing SRS Library. Jammu province according to reliable sources has 170 posts out of which about 70 are lying vacant but stand referred to SSRB for filling up. The situation is so grim that at many places orderlies are running libraries located in peripheries just because the posts of librarians are lying vacant since long. Whatever development has been carried out on old structure of SRS Library can very well be termed as vandalism in the name of repair or renovation.
The condition of children section and reference section too is not that good as most of them lack proper ventilation. A room on first floor of main library has been converted into store where all the carved wooden almirahs and other stuff stand dumped. While the first public library in Jammu established by the then ruler, Maharaja Ranbir Singh in 1879 is craving for attention SPS Library set up at Srinagar way back in 1898 by Maharaja Pratap Singh is considerably well maintained and deserves accolades. Though the department claims to have moved about 25 public libraries into its own buildings yet majority are still housed in rented accommodations where the department cannot spend more money.
Still worst is the condition of original grand counter located at the entrance of main library that boasts of majestic architecture of the Maharaja’s times. Crumbling walls, dust-laden books, and rickety chairs with seats hanging loose and book shelves with broken glass panes make a mockery of the locks guarding shelves. Entire electric fittings in all sections of the library need fixing, walls need fresh paint and ceilings which are made of brick arches and lime need restoration to the core.
Though department claims to have made massive plans to bring to life this historic library but till those sketches are translated into actions all we can say and conclude with are few lines from film maker and writer Gulzar’s poem ‘Kitabeen’ which go like this:
Kitabeñ jhañkti haiñ band almari ke shishoñ se
badi hasrat se takti haiñ
mahinoñ ab mulaqateñ nahiñ hotiñ
jo shameñ un ki sohbat meñ kaTa karti thiñ, ab aksar
guzar jaati haiñ computer ke pardoñ par
(Books, now peep through closed windowpanes of almirahs..
Look at with desires..
Months pass by since we meet..
Evenings that were spent in their company..
Now pass by in front of computer screens…)