This is as much about the Rs. 170 Crore public library in Kotturpuram as it is about me, a resident of Kotturpuram for almost all my life now.
To introduce the inanimate first, the Anna Centenary Library was inaugurated in 2010 as an ode to renowned political leader Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai, more famously called Arignar Anna. The Anna Library is an imposing nine-storey structure with an expansive campus of around 8 acres of land around it, located right next to the grounds of the Anna University. The library has more than 5.5 lakh books and can accommodate more than 1250 visitors at a time. It has also set a record for the largest order given to the Cambridge University Press by an academic library in India.
Now to the animate part of this post. I’m a 90’s kid who has spent most of his time in and around Kotturpuram and an alumnus of Bala Vidya Mandir, a school in the immediate vicinity in Gandhi Nagar. Having seen the Anna Library as a kid when it first opened to the public, I still remember my initial visit wherein I realized how huge the place was and how lost you could get among the infinite bookshelves. Rather than search for something specific, I loved to pick a floor and explore the sections at random. Each floor would have a list of disciplines listed like History, Geography, Psychology, Computer Science, etc. It was a time when the entire building was shiny and new, and my horizon was full of possibilities on what I could read. I distinctly remember the time when I happened upon a book that talked about the influence of a person’s genes and their environment on their identity (i.e., the nature vs nurture debate). I later realised that I had been in the Sociology section, looking up random titles when this caught my attention. As a person just looking around for the fun of it, you never really know what you could end up reading at this library.
As I grew up, the Anna Library turned into a landmark and became the identity of Kotturpuram. I am glad to say that I was able to spend some time at the library enjoying everything it had to offer. The fact that the library was air-conditioned and had comfortable seating was a bonus since they were not so common at the time. The next time I was in the library was for my CA exam preparations in 2012. The library had introduced an ‘Own Books Reading’ section by then. The whole ‘Bring your Own Book’ approach was pretty cool at the time and I did not know any other place like it back then. However, we were restricted from entering the main section of the library since we brought our own books. Still, just to soak in that atmosphere of students preparing for their competitive exams was an elevating experience, resulting in heavy competition for the seats in that section. Personally, I realised that people studying around me induced me to absorb at least some bit of what I read. Despite all the stress of my exam preparations, the library always brought a sense of serenity and tranquillity to my mind.
After clearing my CA finals, I was fortunate and quite proud to be invited as a speaker for a meeting with fellow CA fraternity at the library auditorium. The fact that the auditoriums were designed well in terms of acoustics (you really did not need an audio system/ mics) was pretty amazing. Entering the main section of the library, carrying my bag of reference books and laptop, letting the security guard know that I needed to be on the 2nd floor for a meeting as a speaker (normally, I would be stopped at the entrance for carrying all that stuff) and just walking in was quite a petty rush.
In a sense, I have grown with the library. From being the nerdy and quiet school kid to a more confident and somewhat capable grown-up, the library has been a witness to my journey, and I witness to its journey; although there has been no significant improvement in the library right from its inauguration in 2010 to this day in 2020. I believe that this was more a case of stagnation and deterioration. Caught in a politically motivated government initiative in 2011, to convert the library building into a pediatrics specialty hospital, the library has fought back from the brink.
For keen followers of contemporary history, the library opened its membership registers only once in 2010 (the first and only member being then chief minister, the late M. Karunanidhi), and then there were no more. Neither was there much improvement in facilities or major purchase of books for quite a few years. Due to protests by the library staff, the students, and other library users taking to demonstrations, the plight of the library made the newspapers. However, it was a legal petition before the Madras High Court, initiated by a lawsuit at the behest of a teacher Mrs. Manonmani, that salvaged the Anna Library from conversion. Her petition stayed the proposal to convert the library into a hospital for more than four years. She further petitioned in 2018, calling out the administrative neglect of the library and the State’s attempt to shut the library down, resulting in a forced change in the State’s attitude towards the library and its upkeep.
I would like to personally thank the crusaders who rose above and chose to fight the good fight and get our library back for us. Though the library managed to survive the storm, there is a lot that needs to be done for any library to stay relevant in these changing times. Though the introduction of e-books and e-libraries has not greatly affected the patrons of the Anna Library, the COVID virus crisis has dealt a big blow to the library as it has to people of all walks of life. Just as the COVID crisis has given all of us a personal wake-up call and made us question the meaning of our existence, I guess the Anna Library also finds itself facing a similar question of finding its relevance.
So, what should arguably one of the biggest libraries in South Asia be doing to stay relevant to the times? To quote Voltaire, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers”, I would like for you to judge my first blog post with the question that I have left you and I do hope to hear some creative suggestions to reinvent the Anna Library.
About the Author:
Yogesh is a Chartered Accountant from Kotturpuram, Chennai . He is fascinated by travel and history. This is his first blog post and he looks forward to sharing more about his city and his neighbourhood Kotturpuram.