The need for the revival of UP’s oldest temple of learning

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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Digitisation alone cannot save the intellectual wealth and legacy of the Amir-ud-Daula Library

What is a library? It is a repository of the past and a telescope for the future. To imagine a better future for ourselves, we need to turn to our libraries. In trying to take such a turn, I came across an enigmatic gem of Lucknow’s intellectual heritage- the Amir-ud-Daula Public Library. Silently laying adjacent to one of the ever-bustling streets of Qaiserbagh in Lucknow, the Amir-ud-Daula Library is the oldest library in the state of Uttar Pradesh, offering a rather old and dusty treasure trove for the bibliophiles and philologists of the city of Nawabs.

The library houses more than two hundred-thousand books in not only Urdu, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Assamese, Gujarati and other Indian languages, but also in Greek, German, Italian, Persian, Latin and Pashto, besides English. There are hundreds of rare Buddhist, Pali, Sanskrit and Persian manuscripts, including the ones that were jotted down on palm leaves centuries ago. The range of genres, themes and subjects of books are myriad. Here one can find the harmonious coexistence of rival thoughts as Valmiki, Marx, Savarkar and Gandhi lay side by side under the same roof. From English classics like Thomas Love’s Nightmare Abbey and Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper to ancient Prakrit and Sanskrit manuscripts like Acharanga Sutra(5th CE BC) and Amrasimha’s Amrakosha(57 BC); from academic texts on thermodynamics and material sciences to children comics- the library courts audience from all walks of life.  This, however, was not the case forever. When the Raja of Mehmudabad, Amir Hasan Khan, established the library in 1868, it was only accessible to the officials serving the colonial government of yore. In fact, it was declared a public library much later when the independence of the country began to seem eventual and inevitable.

This repository of philosophy, religion, politics, art and science, sadly, can be found in a dilapidated state of existence today. There are not many libraries in Uttar Pradesh, let alone Lucknow, that are as culturally and intellectually wealthy and prestigious as Amir-ud-Daula and yet the scene here is one of despair and indifference. The books and manuscripts have rotten due to their long neglect by the city administration under whose aegis the responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the library lies. The shelves have become coffins of dishevelled books. The lack of adequate ventilation, archaic ceiling fans, creaky wooden stairs, table and chairs, unkept washroom and persistent atmospheric dust inside the main hall make any long session of focused reading impossible for the members. The staff is not only unfriendly and uninviting, but also lacks knowledge and skills insofar as running a library is concerned. How I wish it wasn’t the oldest library in the state?

In a recent meeting of the library Board, chaired by the Divisional Commissioner of Lucknow, Roshan Jacob, the decision was taken to address some of the abovementioned issues. The Board decided to hike the membership and security fees- a pragmatic step to meet the challenge of paucity of funds. However, it is unfortunate that the state administration, instead of meeting the expenses from its own coffers, has decided to squeeze the pockets of already the only few members that visit the library. Further, at the meeting, Mrs Jacob floated the idea that an internship programme for the student should be rolled out for the mutual benefit of both the interns and the library. Such a programme, when launched, will not only solve the problem of inadequate and inept staff, but will also help train the students in library functions.

While the causes of despair are abound, I cannot shirk my responsibility as the author to also mention the good work that has been done recently. Under the Lucknow Smart City Project, the books and manuscripts have been digitised and made available online on a new website and application Lucknow Digital Library (LDL). The interface of the website and application is quite user-friendly, offering 24,000 digitized books, 300 digitized manuscripts and several audiobooks- all free-of-cost to anyone willing to read and listen. There are a dozen of computers and a pair of kiosk machines that have been recently installed in the library. This is a brilliant work done; however, the availability of digitised versions of these invaluable books and manuscripts cannot be the substitutes for their original texts on ragged pages and palm leaves.

Digitisation is neither an alternative nor a panacea. The aesthetics of a actual book and the smell of its creamy, white pages can never be matched by the brightly lit sterile screens of our desktops. In any case, the mere digitisation of books and manuscripts makes no improvement to their dilapidated state. Nor does it solve the problem of inadequate library infrastructure. The public libraries in Lucknow, in general, lack grossly the adequate and accessible infrastructure. The rights and the special needs of the differently abled people seem to have received no attention at all by the authorities, which is in complete violation of not only the parliamentary legislation and several judicial proclamations, but also the sense of accountability that the administration ought to show.

The responsibility, however, doesn’t solely lie with the government. The civil society and the media have to play their roles as well. How often have we seen the civil society organisations march and protest for the betterment of any library? The mainstream media has shown very little concern for the oldest library of the largest state of India. Lucknow is turning into a city of students, workers and families today, thanks to Lucknow University, better employment opportunities and ease of living in the city. The cliché-ridden symbols of city’s identity- Kebabs, Nawabs, Chikenkari and Tawaifs- cannot alone bind the disarraying people in unison, nor can they show the future. We need to dig deeper. We need to turn to our Amiruddaulas.  



Huzaifa Khan

Student of MA {International Relations), Jamia Millia Islamia


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