Monday, 30th October 2017

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Libraries at crossroads

With The Asiatic Society’s digital library opening in CL Block and Nazrul Tirtha set to start one with a mix of printed and digital books, Brinda Sarkar checks out reader preferences in the township

By Brinda Sarkar in Calcutta
  • Published 5.04.19, 5:35 PM
  • Updated 5.04.19, 5:35 PM
  • 5 mins read
Visitors browse the racks at the library at the Karunamoyee market complex. Brinda Sarkar

Libraries there are several in Salt Lake but recently a digital library has been inaugurated in CL Block. The Asiatic Society, the 235-year-old institution on Oriental studies that has been a landmark of Park Street, has opened a branch in CL 24, opposite CK Market. Known as Rajendralala Mitra Bhavan, the centre has two galleries and a digital library.

But in an age when book readership seems to be dwindling, are libraries still relevant? More so, in a township where senior citizens are the majority, will the digital format of books find acceptance?

Readership steady

Bela Banerjee, librarian of Purbachal General Library, says footfall is as robust as ever. “We have 600 members from Purbachal, HA, HB blocks, Mahabir Vikas and further. People donate books and money to buy books and come here in the evenings to read and meet one another. Often I have to remind them to chat softly as it’s a library,” she smiles. Most members are elderly.

The library at the Karunamoyee Municipal Market Complex too is a popular meeting point. “Many elderly people are lonely as their children live away. We have nearly 200 active members who come and spend time here,” says librarian Shyamalima Biswas.

The AK Block library has been shut ever since the demise of Umapada Chatterjee, the octogenarian resident who would voluntarily open and shut the library, but residents are now demanding it be reopened.

“Most of the block’s office-bearers have work during the day so we will have to hire a caretaker for the job. But such is the demand that we shall have to open it in April itself,” says Aritra Ranjan Sen, the general secretary of the block. Again, most members are elderly.

The youth are difficult to draw. “Time was when young readers would snatch comics from one another. Now that generation has grown up and bring their own kids to see their favourite library sometimes. But these kids are not interested in books,” says Banerjee of Purbachal.

ABCs of digital library

The digital library at The Asiatic Society doesn’t have a single book on the shelves. In fact, there is no bookshelf at all! But there are three computers that allow you to access 27 lakh pages worth of books and journals.

Digitisation is not as simple as reading the online version of a book. “The books released in the 21st century are ‘born digital’, but older books have to be ‘made digital’,” explains The Asiatic Society librarian Pritam Gurey.

The process has a few steps to it. The hard copies are scanned in a way that the printed word becomes editable text. Thereafter the material is uploaded onto the system. 

Assistant librarian Sujata Mishra browses the checklist on screen.
Assistant librarian Sujata Mishra browses the checklist on screen. Sanat Kumar Sinha
The entrance to the digital library at The Asiatic Society’s Rajendralala Mitra Bhavan.
The entrance to the digital library at The Asiatic Society’s Rajendralala Mitra Bhavan. Sanat Kumar Sinha

Readers can then browse the book on a screen.

An added advantage is the “search” option. If one were to search the name “James Prinsep” in a hard copy book, one would have to read every line. But on the digitised version, the click of a mouse would take you to every single page and paragraph it has been mentioned in the book.

Visitors at the CL Block branch of the Society can read digitised books free of cost and they are working on an interface that would make the process even more user-friendly. “We are only digitising books and journals that are our own publications or are so ancient that they are copyright-free,” said Gurey.

Post election, another hi-tech library is to open at New Town’s Nazrul Tirtha. “It will have physical books as well as those members can download on the Kindle e-reader,” says Debashis Sen, chairman cum managing director of Housing and Infrastructure Development Corporation (Hidco), that is building the library.

The entry and exit would be using some sort of gadget and in case members want to return books after library hours they would be able to deposit the same in a box outside where a censor would record the book as “returned”. “There would also be an audio-visual room for members to listen or watch films. But we shall maintain a balance of physical books and e-books since there is demand for both,” says Sen.

Faster access, least damage

The library at FE Block community hall was set up after a resident had saved some books from a fire at a government library. “So we have some valuable books like the Krittibashi Ramayana. So I urge members to handle them with great caution lest they come apart. We also have to conduct pest control twice a year,” says librarian Parbati Mitra Chakraborty. “It’s not easy to maintain books.”

This is one aspect where a digital library scores. “If readers access the books and manuscripts over computer, the fragile hard copies, some of which at The Asiatic Society date back to the seventh century, need not be disturbed,” says Gurey. “It will also be easier and faster to give readers print-outs than to make photocopies from these original documents.”

Another merit is in storage. “Well-wishers approach us to donate books but we don’t have space to accommodate them,” says Rama Mookherjee, chairperson of Salt Lake BF Block Library Committee.

Gone are the days when the most prized home decor item would be books, says Sen of AK Block. “People would buy 200 to 500 books in their lifetime but the younger generation now clears them out to make space,” he says. Sen himself donated about 150 books at the inception of their library in 2015.

Aryama Sen, a student of Jadavpur University’s Salt Lake campus, is a self-confessed bookworm but can almost hear her mother scolding her at the thought of buying more books. “I’ve got bookshelves made at home but even they have filled up. So I try to borrow from friends or the college library now,” she says.

She reads digital versions of books but only as a last resort. “For instance, I am fond of Sanskrit literature but you don’t get that easily in regular libraries. For that I have to depend on digitised versions,” Aryama says.

Smell of old books

General secretary of The Asiatic Society, Satyabrata Chakrabarti, is sanguine that the researchers as well as the elderly citizens of Salt Lake will make use of their new centre. At present, it is open to public on Tuesdays and Fridays between noon and 4pm and has been drawing visitors intermittently.

“There are no good libraries in the area and the block-level ones are not stocked with the latest bestsellers,” said Bikash Talukdar, a DL Block resident who had come to the Society on Tuesday. “The Asiatic Society journal is renowned and I would love to come over and read it off and on.”

But he would rather the library be a brick and mortar one. “Those most likely to come are retired folk, who have time at hand, and I’m afraid we are not tech savvy,” warns Talukdar, himself a retired chemical engineer.

The Purbachal library has a computer, donated by a well-wisher, but even that is hardly used. “When we administrators ourselves are not to comfortable with technology how can we expect our readers to be?” asks Banerjee.

The FE Block librarian has a Kindle e-reader, but it’s gathering dust. “I am not drawn to e-books the way I am to the smell of old books. Similarly, our elderly members don’t like watching movies on their mobile phones, let alone reading books,” says Mitra Chakraborty.

The cost of digitisation is a factor too. “Our monthly membership fee is Rs 15. Even if it is argued that digitisation would draw younger members, how would we ever afford it?” asks Mookherjee of the BF Block library that turns 25 on Poila Baisakh.

In case funds could indeed be raised, Mookherjee has better plans for the money. “Why digitisation? We would then hire a help to go door to door doing home delivery of books. Most of our members are elderly and unable to come to the library regularly. A home delivery service would be a boon for them!”

Sujata Mishra, assistant librarian of The Asiatic Society and herself a resident of IA Block, says they are overwhelmed by requests for a full-fledged library. “The digital library will remain but we might create reading space for visitors to read our own publications and journals at CL Block,” she says.

Readers browse books at Purbachal General Library.
Readers browse books at Purbachal General Library. Saradindu Chaudhury