Situated in the plush 30 acre Belvedere Estate in Kolkata, the National Library of India is the only National Library of our country. It is unique in every way and so are the responsibilities and the powers bestowed upon this institution. A part of the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Government of India, the National library is the largest (the only Category 6) library in India by volume, boasting a collection of more than 2.2 million books (which includes old, new, rare and digitized books) in different languages. Besides functioning as a public library, the National Library has other important functions.
Other than maintaining public records, the National Library comes under The Delivery of Books and Newspapers (Public Libraries) Act, 1954. As stated in the act, it is mandatory for the publishers “to supply books published in India, by Indians abroad or any title that might be of interest to Indians.” Such a library is termed as a “Depository Library” and there are only four other libraries in India that are empowered by this act. However, one of the most important responsibilities of the National Library is of storing all official documents, books, publications and other allied articles in its collection, maintaining and preserving them endlessly or at least for an unstated and indefinite period of time. Such a library is known as a “Repository Library” and the National Library is the only repository library in India.
The National Library has its roots in the colonial era. Lord Curzon, the then Governor General of India merged the collections of the Calcutta Public Library (established in 1836) and the Imperial Library (established in 1891) to form the new Imperial Library in Esplanade that was inaugurated in 1903 in the Metcalfe Hall and was declared open to the public. This new Imperial Library was renamed National Library after independence and the library premises were shifted from Esplanade to its current location in the Belvedre Square. The then Union Minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad officially inaugurated the library with B.S. Kesavan as the first Librarian.
The library has come a long way since the post independence period to the present day’s National Library with a staggering collection of 24,65,342 books of which the number of books in the Indian languages is 6,43,255. Besides this, the library has an impressive collection of maps, manuscripts, current periodicals, newspapers including bound volumes of old newspapers, Indian official documents and microfilms. The library also has an impressive collection of digitized images. The library has 814 reading rooms with 45 kilometers of total shelf area. It is open to the public from 9 am to 8 pm (working days) and from 9.30AM to 6PM on Saturdays, Sundays and other holidays. Membership rules are simple and any individual (age above 18 years) can become a member by filling up the requisite forms with passport sized photographs although memberships to the reading rooms and the book lending section requires special application.
The project of the National Library, “Down Memory Lane” was exclusively envisaged to digitize the rare books which included English books published before 1900 and Indian books published before 1920. The digitization of these extremely old books was essential since the books were brittle and crumbling. The project achieved cleaning and scanning of the documents and digitization of over 6,601 books (over 2.5 million pages) and storing them in the form of 548 CDs (in duplicate) with proper indexing for future referencing. This was only the beginning. In the third phase of digitization 6,000 more books were digitized (20,00,000 pages). Electronic media has now become an inherent part of the library. Full text electronic journals are available for the readers along with high speed Internet connectivity to enable browsing of the contents of the library. The library catalogue is available on the Web to facilitate the readers. The 12th Five Year Plan includes further enhancement of the facilities offered by the National Library.
The Government of India has envisaged the ‘National Mission on Libraries’ plan with the sole intention of developing the library sector. The second stage of this plan is to formulate a ‘National Policy on Library and Information Systems for India’ which will involve interacting with the State Governments on all library matters especially public libraries. This plan has strategies for further improvement of the entire library sector of India through liaison with the corporate sector and international agencies. There are plans to involve disciplinary bodies like the UGC (University Grants Commission), the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), Raja Rammohan Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF) to name a few, who has major stakes in the information and library sector of our country.
The plan also includes coordination with the different pertinent ministries like The Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Information Technology for the planning and implementation of the various projects that has been outlined for the overall development of the library sector of our country. Undoubtedly, National Library, which is not only the pride of Kolkata but also of India will be benefited tremendously once such measures are implemented by the Government. There is only one library in the whole country with capacities and responsibilities like the National Library and so far it has been maintained impeccably by the Indian Government.
The history of National Library will remain unfinished if I do not include the myths and stories of haunting associated with the Belvedere Estate. The Belvedere Estate has its roots in the colonial era. The Estate was originally a gift to Warren Hastings from Mir Jafar, the last Nawab of Bengal who was forcibly dethroned by the British Raj. When the National Library premises were shifted to the Belvedere Estate, the Ministry of Culture decided to restore the magnificent Belvedere House which was in a partially dilapidated condition at that time. The Archaeological Survey of India was entrusted with the responsibility of the complete restoration. During the process, the engineers came across an almost 1,000 square feet, completely sealed enclosure on the ground level.
Efforts of the experts to gain entry into this secret enclosure proved futile. An arch was discovered on one side of this enclosure which has also been walled in. The British had the practice of punishing offenders by walling them in live in enclosures. The arch has the look and feel of such a live entombment. ASI naturally denied knocking down an entire wall of a heritage site just for the purpose of curiosity. Instead they proposed to drill a hole in the wall and use a searchlight to explore the insides of this enclosure but that would need permission from the Ministry of Culture and so far no measures have been taken. This only leaves room for speculations. Some say that the room was the torture chamber of Warren Hastings. But the most favorite speculation is of course that the room is a treasure trove. Such speculations have further fuelled the stories of haunting of the National Library. However, the eerie skeletons in the closets of the National Library remains firmly entrenched behind the walls of the mysterious enclosure till date.
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