India’s roadways must truly be experienced to be believed. Though the south zonal headquarters of Delhi Public Library’s (DPL) sprawling system was only a kilometer away, one glance at the surging traffic on the roundabout in front of my hotel convinced me that I’d risk my life crossing the street, so I took my first tuk tuk to the Sarojini Nagar Library (SNL).
On a very busy street with throngs of carts where vendors ply everything from plastic containers to fruit, I found the vivid vermillion and cream stucco structure. Backing up to a multistory mall replete with American fast food franchises, SNL is enclosed by a sturdy red iron fence in a huge cobblestoned courtyard where benches beckon beneath the boughs of tall trees and young ones can run around on a large grassy lawn bordered by bushes. Potted ficas and flowers fringe the foundation and the wheelchair ramp leading to the entrance.
The previous day I’d spoken to SNL’s Library Information Officer, Mrs. Sudha Murkejee, about visiting. She’s in charge of the South Zone of DPL, which also includes six sub-branches, a community library and one in a Resettlement Colony (where the dispossessed, and former slum dwellers and squatters are housed). And she informed me that “Sarojini Nagar DPL has distinguished itself with the strength of the varied services it offers. Its leadership is committed to expanding its portfolio to serve the population better in the increasingly digital space.”
Though disappointed we wouldn’t be able to meet, Mrs. Murkejee proudly offered me an escort from one of her passionate professionals, Mrs. Urmila Rautela, a Library Information Assistant working in Reference, whom she depends on to carry out her ideas.
I’d call Mrs. Rautela an absorber and dispenser of knowledge. She sometimes contributes articles, poems and essays to magazines like Pusta Kalaya and Pragati, and has a masters in both Hindi Literature and Library and Information Science, as well as certificates in English/Hindi translation (despite which, my usual caveat (that any mistakes in this post are mine) applies as it always does when I am out of the US) and sports and science journalism. An employee here since 1991, she likes working as a public servant because she gets to help all sorts of people.
Sarojini Nagar has wifi and 20 web access terminals for adults, plus five in Youth with games and learning software. Though there’s a half hour per day time limit, use is free of charge.
A blue classification sign on one wall lists Jainism and other particularly Indian subjects and nearby, a posted note proclaims “My library is the place where I find inspiration, information and connection with the world – and peace.”
Catalog cards are used since DPL isn’t fully automated, but they will manually reserve books for you. The online catalog has existed since 2005, so items accessioned after that are barcoded. There are all sorts of recordings and movies, both for elucidation and enjoyment, in the DVD Corner and the DPL music department provides facilities to listen to songs. Materials are mostly in Hindi and English, with Urdu and Punjabi volumes filling out the selection.
Customers can borrow two movies or CDs, three books and two juvenile titles for two weeks and items can be renewed three times. A card is twenty rupees (about 40 cents) for five years for Delhi residents and fines are one rupee per day with a maximum of 50 rupees for adults and 25 for children. Membership is limited to a specific institution so everything must be returned to the same place.
Interestingly, most of the Dewey labels are on the front cover rather than the spine so you often need to pull out the surrounding volumes to shelve something properly. Items are purchased by the central library which has a materials budget of 150 lakh (about $218,000) and a committee decides how the books are dispersed.
Intricate metal stands display recent acquisitions in the adult area. Vases of bright verdant foliage add cheery touches to the décor as do the pictures of gods and goddesses. High up on a pillar, a portrait of Indira Ghandi watches over all.
The Children’s Room is empty as it’s being painted. Actually, the whole building is being whitewashed, so some spaces are in a slight state of disarray and the usually packed bulletin board is bare.
Bright with primary color furniture and a pretty blue and white assistance station topped by a Plexiglas shelf, the youth area normally has carpeting, to soften the frequent falls of rambunctious tots.
Stuffed toys and animals share racks with solar energy boxes and cars crafted during last year’s happenings. The big TV is used to screen award-winning, classic and historic films for youngsters and popular sports and classic comics of Hindi myths form a semicircle with other new arrivals on a table.
Kid’s programming is very active during the school holidays when they show daily movies and offer summer camps of organized topics like creative writing, cartooning, arts and crafts, pottery, origami and science modeling. During the year, storytime is on the second Saturday of the month.
Teens have plenty of choices here and in a low case of graphic novels. And adolescents can attend events like the robotics workshop provided in cooperation with Vigyan Prasar, an independent government organization that works to instill a love of science and technology by supplying resources, holding festivals and encouraging rational thought.
Security guard, Jai is keeper of the keys and locked the room back up when we were done. He watches the CCTV cameras too, and checks backpacks of anyone entering. SNL has 20 employees and only three are part time support staff. Like Mrs. Rautela and Mrs. Murkejee, Mr. Mahesh Arora, Assistant Library Information Officer, also has his MLS, and some other workers have bachelor’s degrees.
Mrs Mukherjee was part of International Network of Emerging Library Innovators (INELI Cohort 2) a global libraries initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with admirable objectives that help build and strengthen libraries and their leaders so they are equipped to address the specific needs of their populations.
The Delhi Public Library system was started on October 27, 1951 as a UNESCO project in conjunction with the Government of India and was inaugurated by first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. SNL was established by 1985 and has an elevator and air conditioning to supplement the overhead fans scattered about. Its four stories house 75,000 items and besides the usual balanced collection, they have a number of books on yoga, the history of New Delhi and computer science.
Reference and the Reading Room are on the bottom while the next level has Circulation and Children’s. You’ll find the chairman’s office and an activity hall for community outreach and programs (using expert volunteers) above that. Then comes the top floor – a depository for all the books published in India – some go to Reference where there’s also a section for examination books (many students use the library to improve themselves).
For adults, SNL offers English language skills, computer learning classes, career planning sessions and health counseling. Programs like Copyright and Book Day are held outside in the garden. And DPL hosts Drama, Music, Social Studies, Literature, Music Coaching, Naturopathy and Homeopathic groups and has annual competitions to promote cultural interests for all ages and to visually impaired members. It also supports distance education for Library Science candidates by providing them training.
Delhi PL’s website is dual language and has an Ask a Librarian service, a Twitter feed and a YouTube channel as well as lists of the latest books, records and DVDs and helpful web links. The Facebook page features photos of essay and song competitions, lectures, Independence Day celebrations, and links to their online journal.
DPL also has Deposit Stations (at jails, societies, associations…), Mobile and Braille libraries and holds over 18 million items and is the biggest public library system in India.
After leaving, and avoiding a security frisk at the mall, I headed over to the adjacent Sarojini Nagar market – an enormous warren of crowded alleys where shops and stands sell saris, electronics, jewelry, heaps of clothing and every edible treat imaginable. Once I finally managed to find an exit to the street I caught an Uber cab over to Hauz Khas, also in southern Delhi, just five kilometers away.
Where I contemplated how lucky the citizens of the area are to have the benefits and resources of DPL and especially the talented Mrs. Murkejee, Mrs Rautela and all the other dedicated and hardworking employees of the Sarojini Nagar Library at their service!