On School Libraries – I

The first school library I can remember using was during my sixth grade. I had transferred schools after the fifth grade, and perhaps because of the trauma of losing my favorite school teacher, some memories of those first five school years seem to have been obliterated. Including the ones about libraries.

My new school’s library had the standard furnishings: some open shelves, some books in shelves with glass doors (its collections were all hardcover), long reading tables, vertical stands for reading newspapers, and most prominently, the librarian, a stern-faced older gentleman who sat at a centrally located desk and peered out suspiciously from behind a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles at the grimy schoolboys and schoolgirls that filed in for their library class period. (He was the first to remind me that ‘my reputation’ preceded me; my brother studied in the same school and was well-known to him; thus did my determination to find an alternate locale to flourish in receive its first impetus.)

The library’s holdings were modest, obviously, compared to the other two libraries my parents were members of, and to which I, as a consequence, also enjoyed access: the British Council Library and the US Information Service Library. Still, it had its charms: I had my own library card, not a dependent’s; its collections of Indian magazines were unique; and of course, the library period, once a week, came as blessed relief from the onerous demands of the remaining seven class periods of the day. When it was over, and the bell rang, signalling our return back to our classrooms, I would reluctantly drag myself away from whichever reference book I had taken down from the shelves to peruse.

The library code of hushed silence was rather rigorously enforced, and more importantly, observed in those days; my abiding memory of the library period are the sounds of rustling pages, creaking fans and the occasional scrape of the chair pushed back by a reader going for seconds.

Among my various borrowings in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades–the three years that I spent in that school–I can only remember one: a compendium of photographs selected from one of India’s leading news magazines of the time: The Illustrated Weekly. I do not why this title was not in the reference section but I wasn’t about to turn down this particular gift horse. I took the tome home and spent hours poring over its black and white photographs. Among them, two shocking images from the 1971 war with Pakistan still persist in my mind’s eye: a young boy with his guts torn out by shrapnel and the reprisal bayoneting of razakars in a Dacca public square by Bengali militia (after the Pakistani Army surrender). 

I was a conscientious library patron; I never returned books late. (That nasty habit only reared its head once I began graduate school.) There was little chance I would, of course; I was a reasonably fast reader and I was eager to get on with the next borrowing, which would only be possible once I had returned the previous one.

I was a day student, and not a boarder, so my contact with the library was limited to that single period during the week. My relationship with libraries would change dramatically when I transferred in the ninth grade to a boarding school, a very different one in many respects.

On that experience, more anon.

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