( Published in Tehelka, January 2008 )
ON DECEMBER 9, 2007, BOOK LOVERS in Thiruvananthapuram woke up to a shocking news — the British Council would soon close down its library in the city. The Council’s Minister of Cultural Affairs, Rod Pryde, announced that “we are reducing our presence in the country and diverting our funds to development activities”. Decades ago, Indians had waged a struggle to oust their colonial masters; today residents of Thiruvananthapuram are doing the opposite — organising to ensure that the British Library stays.
The library, which was opened in 1964, has stopped issuing new memberships or renewing old ones. They have offered to refund the membership fee already collected. Lending will cease on January 31, other services on February 29 and the library, which the Council runs in partnership with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), will shut its door on the city on March 31, 2008.
But this is not an isolated case. The British Library in Bhopal, which opened in 1965, a year after the Council opened its library in Thiruvananthapuram, will also close on the same date. Several British libraries across the globe have been shut down. The Council says that maintenance and upgradation of the services was not possible since it required investments worth almost a million pounds.
The Kerala capital, meanwhile, has been rallying support at various levels to impede the library’s closure. Library members have started a ‘Save British Library’ campaign, and are urging others take it forward. There have also been several online campaigns that have gained momentum. The uproar drew the attention of Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan who came out in support of the campaign and said that the state government was willing to offer both land and building for running the library if the Council were to reassess its decision.
For me, the grey stone building with a collection of about 27,000 books — all of which will now be shifted to nine other British Council branches in the country — was a part of my formative years. My entire education revolved around this library — from the age of six till my post-graduation and MBA years. After I had children, they too benefited. I encouraged them to make the most of the library during vacations.
Though the city has two other libraries — Kerala University Library and Public Library — they are strapped for funds and are burdened by a bureaucratic hierarchy. The British Library, housed in the heritage YMCA building, was our only hope. And it’s dying.