Good Old Libraries, Good Old Days
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Little of good cheer remains when libraries go out of circulation. Or are turned into restricted, even fortified areas. Or when people find it increasingly difficult to visit them, owing to constraints of time and distance. There used to be a time when for every class and group of people, visiting a library and spending hours reading there was one of the best things that could happen in life. In my schooldays in Quetta, Baluchistan, it was with intense pleasure that I made a trip every afternoon to the USIS library (which later became the Quetta Divisional Library) to pore through books on American politics and especially on American presidents. It was in that library that I had my early schooling on the lives and careers of all the men who had risen to being president of the United States. The last such biographical work I read in the quiet confines of that library was on Richard Nixon, who had taken charge of the White House in January 1969. Another library that I frequented in Quetta, especially during the bleak winter evenings of 1970-71, was the Sandeman library. It was the howling, cold winds outside that made reading near the fireplace in the library a memorable tale.
Here in Dhaka, in these past many years, the libraries that I once hardly missed visiting have slowly dwindled into a condition that can only be described as regrettable. It is no more easy to saunter into the British Council library on Fuller Road and spend entire evenings reading up on literature and history, the way I used to back in the years when I studied English literature at Dhaka University. Of course there are some good reasons why things are no more what they used to be. In the first place, my friends and I, all vibrant young men and women in the 1980s, have somehow dwindled into middle-aged bores and conventional family people in this early phase of the twenty-first century. In the second place, the somewhat (to me) rigorous rules relating to a use of the library are what often discourage people and keep them away from its reading rooms. In the old days, it was a freer atmosphere. We could simply walk in, read, borrow books and walk out.
But then, everything changes. When I sit back and reflect on all the warm afternoons my friends and I spent reading at the American Centre library in Dhanmondi, I realise the degree of change that has come over our world. It was at this library, which is not there any more, that we watched the fiftieth Oscar ceremonies. Bob Hope cracked his jokes and we nearly doubled over with laughter. In the bicentennial year of 1976, some of us participated in a quiz competition organised by the library. I recall I won a set of Saul Bellow books (the writer had just won the Nobel for literature). It was with profound love that I kept those books on my shelf at home, until the day when a classmate borrowed them because she was on to some academic work or the other on Bellow. The books never came back to me, though my friend is still around. We never talk about this case of the missing books. At the Dhanmondi library, we watched with fascination, and in the hope that Jimmy Carter would beat Gerald Ford, the presidential debates as well as the results of the election in November 1976. We cheered when Carter won, but mourned when he lost to Ronald Reagan four years later.
The American Centre library in Dhanmondi soon shifted to Motijheel, which made reading a little difficult. Moreover, the cosy atmosphere that had defined the ambience in Dhanmondi clearly had become a thing of the past. Nevertheless, since I happened to be working as an assistant editor at the Bangladesh Observer at the time, it was fairly easy to pop into the library and spend some time there. But once the library was carted off to Banani, reading came to a virtual stop. For sometime I enjoyed the membership of the library, but a major difficulty in coordinating the reading habit and the collection of books was the distance. Besides, the library remains closed for three days a week, including Thursday. On the other days, it shuts down at four in the afternoon. Hence, no reading, no borrowing books. Darkness threatens to envelop part of my world, anyone's world.
The Public Library at Shahbagh is one other place I quite enjoyed visiting until about a decade ago. It has a pretty rich collection of books, some of them old and often rare. The problem with the library is that it does not have a system for readers to become members and thereby borrow the books they would like to read at leisure. Perhaps the people who man the library will someday think of developing a system that will allow one who cannot do away with his bad habit of reading to take books home, recline against a pillow and have a cup of tea or coffee at hand as he begins turning the pages? A lesson or two might be learned from the Indian cultural centre library in Gulshan. It has a formidable and fascinating range of books on nearly every topic under the sun. And it welcomes members into its fold.
Ah, being in the warm bosom of a library and listen to the cadences that waft from reading! Who knows if the old days will be back here again?
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