Friday, February 12, 2010

What Ramin Jahanbegloo writes, that we sometimes forget

I started reading "The Spirit of India" by Ramin Jahanbegloo last night. Dr. Jahanbegloo is an Iranian political philosopher. He was imprisoned for a few months on charges of spying ("improper contact with foreign countries") in 2006. Around that time, he also spent time in Delhi. But this post is not a bio of the professor. I found this gem on the second page of this book and wanted to share it:

"...when the soul of India speaks, it reflects the peaceful diversity that has been the cornerstone of India as a nation. It is its national spirit."

The book goes on to discuss the ideas of several prominent Indians. But coming at the end of a day of very trivial politically-driven divisions, this sentence, written by an outsider-observer, was balm to my spirit.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The importance of libraries

I have decided that everytime I find myself writing more than a couple of tweets one after the other, it's really a blogpost, and I will just visit the blog and write here instead!

Last night, I posted a request to my friends on Facebook for help locating a couple of articles. My good friend Piper responded, and actually walked over to the magnificent, the heavenly, the phenomenal, the *fill in any superlative* library stacks at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign--my alma mater, to locate, copy, scan and send. When you have friends like this, what's there to ask for.

Except maybe: Access to a really good library where you are?

I grew up in Bombay where good library meant 'BCL' or 'USIS.' And of course, the local circulating library for fun. My school had a tiny library and when we were in Class X, we were forbidden to use it because it would disturb our Board exam preparation. All that did was take us to the circulating library which had a lot more trash to offer.

After school, I went to Sophia for two years and learnt wonderful words like 'open-access,' 'Dewey Decimal System' and 'card catalog.' I was in heaven. I read like I was in heaven for one day only. Elphinstone, where I moved to get a Political Science degree, had a great library, but an outdated catalog, closed stacks that you could not browse and a long-drawn out requisition system which required interface with disinterested staff. By year two, I managed to get permission to browse simply by begging and being determined. But it was such a waste for anyone who did not do that. Then came, Syracuse--Bird Library may have been my first glimpse of heaven. Open stacks with a repository South Asia collection, interlibrary loan from Cornell, carrells to sit and read in, open most hours of the day. Even a person who does not like books, cannot but be seduced, and for me, the only challenge was reading what I was required to rather than what took my fancy.

I came back to India and my luck with libraries became a little spottier, to some extent, because of my own choices. A terrific personal library completed my history education. A very focused think-tank library continues to be a personal favourite in India. I discovered the Sapru House library, which I am happy to report is in the process of revival and digitization.

And then I went to the University of Illinois. UIUC has the world's largest public library system. 'System' is the word. Words fail me as I drown in nostalgia about it. Just check out the link! After my Ph.D., I worked for three years at MSU, a library that looks very new and contemporary, rather like a USIS (or whatever it's now called) library in India. After UIUC, my first thought was: nice toy library. I had to quickly remind myself that I still hadn't read most books in it! Over three years, I grew fond of this place too. Of the collection, the people I smiled at, the naturally lit reading rooms, the excellent reference collection in the basement, and maybe most of all, the beautiful tree at the foot of the front entrance, and the Red Cedar running behind.

But after MSU, I was at Yale for a year. One of the first things I did was take a library tour with the South Asia librarian. I have no idea what he said to me in that entire hour. All I could think as I took in the beautiful building and the books was: I have died and gone to heaven. Yale however, still takes second place to UIUC for me, because it's not quite as efficient, and the South Asia collection is not half as good as Syracuse or UIUC.

Anyway, now I live in Chennai. I work independently, so I don't have access to a college or university library. All I have, and it's pretty decent by Chennai standards, is my own collection, which anticipating exactly such a situation I have built up over the years without stinting.

But there are so many things beyond my reach. Electronic databases with full-text access to journals, for instance. The local libraries are outdated, hard to access and/or poorly organized. Chennai doesn't even have something like the Centre for Education or Documentation!

Someone like me, at this stage of my career, can still call on friends to help out, travel to another city, buy books and afford most regular subscriptions. But what of young students who are not in Delhi? What choices do they have? Where do they go?

Even if people don't want to take on the very large issues of poverty, public health, gender violence and communalism, they can still find good issues to tackle for which solutions CAN be found: good local public libraries are a great point of departure if you want to invest time and resources in India's youth. Think about it.