Me, My Shelf And I: Celebrating The Guardians Of Books | Verve Magazine
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January 20, 2020

Me, My Shelf And I: Celebrating The Guardians Of Books

Illustrations by Harjyot Khalsa

The stereotype of stern, unapproachable librarians couldn’t be further from the truth for this columnist. He chats with an optimistic young woman who is looking to join the ranks of these guardians of books and is willing to risk a future in this institutionally overlooked profession

“Of all the professions in the world, why would he want to be a librarian?”

But I’d like to imagine that all readers have, like me, dreamed of becoming one at some point. Very few of us, however, end up living our dreams….

The ambition to be a librarian. How many people still harbour it, and why would they? To me, they are messengers of the god of words…book saints (that should be a thing, if it isn’t already), sort of. The librarian in Matilda, Mrs Phelps, is what my dreams were made of while growing up. I would always conjure her up in my dreams, where she would lend me books and be kind to me.

I remember the local library of my area when I was a teenager. I remember Alka Ma’am who used to listen to what I wanted to read and recommended books accordingly. The powers of a librarian are, perhaps, quite simple at their core. It is their ability to help you find the right book — every single time. Their ability to not give up on finding the answers you are searching for. They trust their instincts and know how to use them.

At the same time, I wonder if the thought of being a librarian is boring today (although I can confidently say that they are some of the funnest people I know). If people still visit libraries and have memberships. If students at colleges and schools really use their libraries and actual books to do research….

Can you believe that the first library in the world was founded in modern-day Iraq, in the seventh century BC and housed around 30,000 clay tablets? I was just as surprised when I found out. It was called the Library of Ashurbanipal. I wonder about the librarians of that time. What would their lives have been like? Did they ever stop people from borrowing those tablets? But I digress.

For the longest time, I used to think that the job of a librarian was so uncomplicated. It was easy-peasy, so to say. Give people the books they want. Collect fines. Follow up. Maintain a ledger. And that’s that. What I now understand is that being a librarian is also a science — to learn not only how to stack shelves by catalogue numbers and the Dewey Decimal System but also to understand the nitty-gritty of readers’ unique preferences (and not by referring to some Goodreads algorithm).

The reason for my fascination with librarians goes far beyond all of the above. I mean, what a solid personal goal it is for someone to want to pursue this life. In most popular culture, they are caricatured as introverts and people who wear glasses and ill-fitting clothes. But, as I mentioned, I have met some who are quite the opposite. From my college librarian to the one at the British Council in Mumbai, not only were they suave, sophisticated and outgoing, but they also knew their books to a T, and that’s what mattered the most. They had this grace and charm and carried themselves so well that one couldn’t help but want to be like them.

Excerpts from my conversation with a student who is looking to pursue library science….

Mahika Chaturvedi, 22
Sales associate at The Bookshop, Delhi.

So, why do you want to pursue a field like library science? Especially in this time of e-books and everything being online?
I grew up in a non-reading family, and my first-ever access to the kind of books that I now know and love was because of my school library. As I grew older, I became progressively more cognisant of the impact that a considerate librarian can have on a young mind. Even though I was coming from a semi-urban household — where the accessibility to the internet and a personal computer was too scarce for an online self-education — I could find a lifelong friend in Henry David Thoreau, or Leo Tolstoy.

There are e-books, and the internet has made it possible to access a whole host of indispensable information. But libraries aren’t merely about books. These are spaces that, if utilised and made truly public, can be spaces for communities we leave behind as we shrink their alleyways for larger corporate lobbying. Libraries can create reading and employment programmes.

Susan Orleans’ The Library Book is a great journalistic endeavour that makes the case for all that public libraries can be. What’s wonderful too, I must add, is that libraries are in no way anti-internet. In the case of those which have taken it upon themselves to evolve with time, so much of a library’s archive is digital, accessible to anyone who wishes to take a look.

People often assume the role of a librarian to be pretty laid-back and easygoing. What do you make of this stereotype?
I think it’s part myth, having to do with fictional librarians in movies, and certainly part stereotype, considering how limited the popularity of the profession is. Pigeonholing is inevitable, since public imagination hasn’t exactly made a case for The Librarian.

Sadly, we don’t have a wider, popular discourse on what exactly is a librarian’s job. Someone whose work revolves entirely around managing the catalogue is just as much a librarian as someone who’s responsible for picking the books. A librarian fundamentally never works in isolation. The job entails a huge team of people (that is, if we speak of public or even institutional libraries) that make possible all that goes on behind the doors. You could be in the restoration team that handles repair and replacement of aged or damaged books; you could be handling customer queries. There’s just so much. There’re many wonderful community libraries in various Indian cities that run smoothly because of a whole group working tirelessly.

Since we don’t hear of many welcoming initiatives by public libraries in India, one may lean towards the argument that librarians aren’t doing much. But it takes a lot to keep a library running. I wish libraries in India held themselves accountable for the role they can play, and I wish there was enough state funding to encourage librarians to take those kinds of projects on.

What drives the ambition of a librarian, according to you?
A librarian’s ambition, in the basest form, is to communicate by tangible means the irrepressible power that literature has on a community and its individuals. Especially to sceptical members. They believe in books and that free public spaces of education can shelter countless untethered individuals who can be trained and nurtured to become thinking, participating citizens.

Are there any library science courses in India? How suited are they to encourage the long-term goals of a student?
Since I was in school, I haven’t managed to come across a single inspiring library science course in the country. Experienced librarians suggest schools abroad which, frankly, aren’t only unaffordable but not viable in the least, since the promise of employment in our country is loosely offered. Courses available invite scepticism as well, since most of them are uninspiring and excessively outdated.

I speak specifically of universities and their failure. There are various diploma or short-term courses that are beyond delightful. I’d like to mention Sujata Noronha’s [the director of Goa’s Bookworm Trust] wonderful course in curating children’s libraries.

If given the resources, librarians can turn communities around. It’s a pity library science courses aren’t being considered for refurbishment in public universities or even as introduction courses in the newer private ones. I suppose the fruit of a librarian’s labour cannot be immediately monetised, but that’s frankly a lazy argument.

Teach A Man To Read…

Kajari Mitra is a senior manager at the British Council Library, Pune.

What made you want to become a librarian?
I love reading books, and I turned down MSW (Master of Social Work) and MBA programmes to train as a librarian. I also went to Canada to do a PhD in library science but ending up doing an MBA as it was tough to do a PhD while raising a kid as a single mom.

Also, what were people’s perceptions about librarians, and have those changed?
The most common perception was of a poorly paid person and someone who only stops others from coming into contact with books. There was the image of a spinster with glasses…rather nasty in temperament.

What is your greatest ambition as a librarian?
For me, it is that I will create the best library in the city in terms of book stock, provide excellent customer service and a great ambience for book lovers, organise fantastic events for all age groups and also promote reading among kids.

What are the courses available in India for students who want to pursue library science here?
There are library science courses in most universities — Master of Library and Information Services. The one off ered by the Documentation Research and Training Centre (at the ISI Bangalore Centre) teaches how to use the systems to issue, return and buy books and periodicals.

Me, My Shelf and I is a regular column by Verve’s Culture Editor and resident bibliophile, Vivek Tejuja

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