With 1.7 lakh books, city's oldest library in a state of ruin

Fading Glory

The story of Hardayal Municipal library, set up in 1862 making it one of the oldest surviving libraries of India, is ironic in itself.

On 23 December, 1912, Lala Hardayal, a revolutionary leader belonging to the Anarchist school of thought, executed a plan to assassinate Indian Viceroy, Lord Hardinge while he was riding an elephant in a procession through Company Bagh (now known as Gandhi Maidan). The Lord survived, but a committee was formed soon to construct a building for the Delhi Public Library under the leadership of Rai Bahadur Lala Sheo Prasad.

The staffers of Hardayal Municipal Public library (HMPL), whose salaries often get delayed, sometimes by six months, have a running joke about how a ‘bomb attack’ on Lord Hardinge changed the fortunes of the library!

These staffers, who on a Monday morning were busy munching peanuts, appeared as if they were in need of another Lord Hardinge; of another procession and definitely in need of Lala Hardayal himself!

The library was set up in 1862 as part of an exclusive reading club for the ‘white Englishmen’. Initially, it was named as the Hardinge Library and later in 1916 renamed Hardinge Municipal Library when it shifted to its new abode.

The name was further shortened to Hardinge Library in 1942 after an agreement between the Library and the erstwhile Municipal Committee which gave it the status of an autonomous body. Finally, in 1970 Hardinge Library became Hardayal Municipal Public Library.

Currently HMPL has over 1.7 lakh books of which nearly 10,000 are extremely rare. Among them is Travaile Begvenne’s A Relation of some years which was published in 1634 and is in fact the oldest possession of HMPL.

The second oldest in the list is Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World - a series of five British-India travelogues published in 1676. A copy of Mahabharata written in Persian and illustrated in gold along with Ayats of Quran written by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb himself is something which the staffers particularly bring up during conversation with visitors.

A new management took over the library two years ago under which the institution fell in the jurisdiction of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation. But the scenes at the library are very much similar to a beautiful monument in ruins. While the structure seems to be perfectly fine on the outside, the real battle, according to those who come to study here is about the “soul and idea of a library”.

According to a senior employee, government funding to the library does not exceed Rs three crore against the total need of Rs five crore. Moreover, close to Rs 2.97 crore are spent on providing salaries to the staff of around 28 public libraries which fall under
the HMPL.

“Almost everyone here will retire in the next few years. No one new is being hired. The library and the culture of reading in libraries itself faces the threat of extinction,” the employee told Metrolife.

Jagat Singh, a private tutor, however was more hopeful.

“I believe the love of books and the library remains unadulterated even in this time of modern technology. I have been coming here since 25 years and there are many like me who come to enjoy literature,” said Singh.

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