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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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IN A STATE OF RUIN

Full marks to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee for his decision to deny the Confederation of Indian Industry the use of the National Library grounds in Calcutta. This organization can not only afford to host dozens of Indian and foreign guests in the city's most expensive hotels, it is also well equipped to meet the expenses of locating its major annual conference at some other venue so that the security requirements and other paraphernalia that have become integral features of any international conference do not inconvenience the scholars, students, and citizens visiting the library. This homage by the chief minister to the goddess Saraswati, however, carries no weight in the affairs of the National Library itself because it is controlled from New Delhi as it is an institution of national importance. The National Library, the largest library in India which has a genealogy going back to the first half of the nineteenth century, is unique not only for the purpose for which it was created, but also in terms of its survival against the odds. It is now in a state of stagnation which can only lead to its downfall unless it is given urgent attention.

Accessions to the catalogue of the National Library, still in the form of long-outdated card indices, are several years behind acquisitions. This is hardly surprising considering the fact that the library sustains about two hundred vacant posts. The Book Deposit Act (The Delivery of Books and Newspapers Act, 1954) by which a copy of every publication in the country needs to be deposited with the library, seems to be observed more in the breach than in compliance, and publishers brazenly admit that they would rather pay the penalty of a fine than take the trouble to comply. So the Act has been rendered meaningless by being flouted, with the Central government standing by idly. The multiplicity of languages complicates matters further. Among the vacant posts in the National Library are several pertaining to librarians with competence in various Indian languages.

The National Library, the custodian of the publishing industry of this country, is neglected by the Centre in the same manner as so many other national institutions that are under its charge. This is especially the case if these institutions are not located in the privileged vicinity of New Delhi. The library has too few powers, too little autonomy, virtually no protection and too much interference from the Central government. Some years ago, the relevant ministry bestirred itself and a report was produced on the affairs of the National Library. This report was not made public, and its recommendations, if any, were never implemented. The report was, in any case, not a matter that could be debated publicly. Even in the academic community, the numerous literary supplements and book reviewers care little about stimulating a serious discussion on this national asset. A relocation of the National Library to New Delhi in the hope of attracting the attention of policymakers might serve to underline its importance to the country, but this runs the risk of leading to an even more suffocating embrace by the Central government. The decentralization option, to set up regional or state-wise deposit locations in the hope that it would make compliance easier for the publishers, is also likely to go in vain.

The care of national, state or local archives and artefacts all suffer acutely from the general lack of reverence for antiquity that prevails in our country. Despite having one of the greatest and oldest cultural, linguistic and literary resources in the world, our neglect of this heritage is plain to see. How many of our manuscript or archival collections are kept in a controlled environment to prevent deterioration' How many of them are adequately protected against the possibility of fire, or water in the event of a fire being doused' A recent photograph in the press of an official of the Khuda Baksh Khan Oriental library in Patna handling a rare manuscript without gloves is only symptomatic of the malaise. Not long ago, a communication to a leading university from the Sahitya Akademi, the presumed guardian of our literary heritage, claimed that editing of rare texts and the study of textual translations and cultures in the Indian languages was not a part of its mandate. In which case, one needs to ask what cause is the organization serving and who then assumes this responsibility'

According to the Publishers and Booksellers Guild, which is unreliable as a reliable source of information on the country's publishing industry, there are 15,000 publishers with 75,000 books published annually in India. The first number is not likely to be correct, because if it is, many of the publishers must exist only on paper if on an average they produce only 4 to 5 books each per year. The second figure is also highly dubious if it is supposed to include books in all Indian languages and text books as well. There is a lack of proper statistics in this industry, despite its phenomenal growth in modern times.

Indian publishers have been among the main beneficiaries of globalization and outsourcing, and the industry hopes to attract about a quarter of the world's publishing within a decade or so. But not everything is rosy in Indian publishing. One thousand copies is the standard print run even if it is not a specifically limited edition. Advances are usually unheard of and royalties rarely accounted for. Publishers are comfortable because there are too many authors chasing the publishing houses. The result is a multitude of titles with little or no regard to quality. Frequently there is a lack of professional editing. There are no literary agents and no active search by editors for what might be original, innovative or ground-breaking. There is an absence of nation-wide distribution. Publishers in India are only interested in recovering the production costs, after which all the revenue is profit. Hardly any publishing house in India even bothers to maintain accurate records of its own back-lists. Everything in the industry has the appearance of improvisation and breakneck profit-making with no concern for building good traditions.

A book is like any other commodity that needs merchandising. Apart from the cases of authors who happen to be on their own staff, publishers have no interest in marketing a book or providing an author with the promotion required for literary success. The ubiquitous book launches, with celebrity chief guests who have not taken the trouble of reading the book in question, are no substitute for the proper projection of a title. Little wonder then that in this overall climate, the National Library lies in a state of neglect.

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