Sunday, September 24, 2017

The American Library – a sense of nostalgia grips me (Found on the Web)

Arunava Dasgupta, (July 27, 2017)

Image from article, with caption: The American Library today

I recall my first visit to the American Library – my age was not even in double digit as I sat on a bicycle and my brother peddled me to the American library, a huge single storey bungalow on Curzon Road (KG Marg today). Those days parking a bicycle outside the library premises was not a security issue and along with my brother I walked inside, I awestruck by the air-conditioning, the tidily stacked books on the rows of shelves, the quiet ambiance and the light grey coloured telephone instruments that buzzed with a different ring tone.
My brother proudly took me to one part of the library where there was a large sized globe and an equally large sized atlas besides it, placed on a swivel. He turned the globe and as both of us traced our fingers to locate the United States, the USSR, Europe and other continents and countries that we had read about in school, it was my first virtual journey across countries and civilizations.
I recall sitting there not knowing which book to choose when a library assistant, with a kindly countenance, walked up to me and asked what kind of a book I would like to read – Enid Blyton was my prompt reply but with a smile she replied that the US library stocks books on United States and by US authors only. She soon came back with a few books, including one on Abraham Lincoln and that was my first introduction to the United States. Soon, it was Thomas Alva Edison, Graham Bell, the American Civil war and as years progressed, Walt Disney comic strips occupied greater mind space as did American limousines – grand images of Buick, Impala, Ford Mustang, Cadillac and many others – the Hollywood and particularly John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin, David Niven and the popular numbers from ‘lipstick on your collar’ and ‘strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring’.
While the American Library were initiating thousands of young minds into the American fold, the Saber jets and Patton tanks of 1965, the PL480, and later the genocide in 1971 worked on cross purposes, antagonizing an equal number of young minds against the United States.  It was a conflict between Public Diplomacy and Public Intimidation.

The American Library at Janpath, New Delhi at an earlier date
Coming back to the US Library, the social media says that it started as a reading room on 54 Queensway (now Janpath) under the banner of the United States Library with a collection of 3,000 books, 2,000 pamphlets, 80 periodical subscriptions and a seating capacity of 24 persons. In 1951, when the book collection reached 6,000, a lending system was introduced and free membership was extended. Similar libraries are in service at Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai.
The library moved to its present destination at 24 Curzon Road, now Kasturba Gandhi Marg, in 1952 with a collection of 10,000 books and 300 periodical subscriptions.

American library at Bhawalpur House
A little less than two decades, the library shifted to Bhawalpur House on Sikandra Road in 1969 and remained there until February 1974 as the old building of the American library (at Kasturba Gandhi Marg) was demolished and in its place, the present structure came up.
The 1971 India-Pakistan war distanced India from the United States in a major way but other factors that contributed to the ‘trust deficit’ was the Naxal ideology that spread like wild fire from West Bengal (perceived as something glorious by the students community), the political posturing on socialism and the emergence of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a leftist elite class where for the next few decades, a dominant school of thought, excelled in distorting historical, social and economic understanding of Indo-US relations.
I vividly recall my visits to the American library those days in the early 1970s because writings of American authors like Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson were a part of our Graduation and PG curricula. And as one rummaged through the book’s catalogue, sometimes looking to the left or the right, the beautiful garden at Bhawalpur House with its green grass lawns and Dahlias in full bloom was visible from the French windows that adorned the building. It was a beautiful sight indeed!

The newly constructed American Library
In 1974, the library shifted to its present premises – it was huge, modern and extremely user friendly. The concept of a reference library was understood much better by me and also the importance of access to information and data on time. Books on Thoreau, Whitman and others were not too many and I would place requests with the library to receive a post-card a few days informing its arrival at the library.
Today, when I look back, I think these librarians were years ahead of Google – ask them for anything, and they had a relevant answer. They certainly deserve a bow of gratitude. The American Center has been a reference point, a bench mark in library science for many Indian libraries – be they public libraries or school, college or university libraries. It has also been a center of excellence as many an erudite scholar, administrators, legal luminaries have used, and still continue to use, the American library for their research.
Virtually a decade later in the early 1980s, I was chatting with a friend at a coffee shop in Connaught Place when he asked me whether I could accompany him to the US Information Center (American Library building). There, I was invited to fill up a form and thereafter, for nearly three decades, I used to receive the SPAN magazine and other literature. The SPAN is a beautiful example of how literature for public outreach can be dovetailed to suit a purpose and a time. From an initial general interest magazine, very traditionally designed, some brilliant photographs and production value, wonderful articles and a page comprising 4 cartoons, SPAN was slowly re-purposed to meet a specific objective – of reaching out to the younger generation of Indians, acquainting them with the education facilities available there and the admission process. It was like “Everything you wanted to know about US Education System but did not know whom to ask”!
The entire magazine had shed its earlier features, was completely redesigned for this new target audience and was in total sync with the wide embracing role of the internet and its many applications. From general information on US, it had specialized as a students’ information magazine, precisely targeted and possibly, thus circulated.

Martin Luther King III, son of  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, at the American Center
Presently, the American Library is a part of the American Center which is a very important American Institution in India for public outreach, and particularly the younger generations, the future leaders of India. The American Center is also the only one of its kind in the city – the services offered by the Center are highly subsidized, virtually free, and open to all. Except for the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and a few commonwealth countries, most of the 150 plus diplomatic missions do not have the ‘advantage of being English speaking’. The British Council, just across the road also offers many services that are quite similar, but they are far less subsidized, rather quite paid for.

The American Center today
Change is a part of life and the American Center has recently taken a decision to update its services to be more in line with today’s requirements. Yesterday’s laid back lifestyle has given way to a more, rather fiercely competitive world with an increasing global acceptance of democracy, pluralism and freedom. And in such a social milieu, it is imperative that similar thinking nations come together, not just for trade and economic benefit but for people to people appreciation.
Says Mr. Richard E. Pinkham, Director of Programs, Northern India, “As one of the main platforms for interacting with the Indian public – sharing the story of the United States, explaining our country’s history and values – the American Center is an Integral part of the Embassy.  The way people seek to inform themselves has changed, and we have changed the way we engage with our audiences.  This has meant that we are dedicating more attention on interactive programming, with speaker series, panel discussions, film festivals and art exhibitions. We also are transforming our library.  The American Center will continue to offer extremely high-quality reference and circulation services, but we needed to relocate the area for the library to a smaller physical area to make space for all the other exciting things we are offering here”.
The contribution of the American Library yesterday may not have been quantified, it may not be tangible, but it has indeed played an important role in shaping the imagination of young people. Indeed, the fact remains that the American Center is an institution that has played a very important role in bridging the world’s two leading democracies – India and the United States. Today, as US and India become more and more relevant to each other, the United States government may have to decide on opening more American Centers in other towns like Bengaluru, Pune, Hyderabad, Guwahati, Indore and others. And possibly, it may be compelled to review its decision to downsize the American library at Delhi to cope up with improving Indo-American relations. However these are conjectures but if a recently debate, organized by Delhi University and held at the American Center on World Press Freedom Day is an indicator, the Richard Pinkham’s summary of the event is highly appropriate, “It was immensely gratifying to welcome such intelligent students to the American Center so they might contest the appropriate limits of free expression in the realm of social media. I will not be surprised if sometime before long our participants are debating the same issue as part of a policy-making exercise” is a wonderful assessment.  Thus, the role of American Center is possibly set to grow, it may evolve as a think tank of young minds, and the Indian government may also need to open an Indian Center in the United States.
The world needs to recapitulate Poet Rabindranath Tagore’s famous lines because they hold so true, especially these days:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free,
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments,
By narrow domestic walls,
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection,
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way,
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit,
Where the mind is led forward by thee,
Into ever-widening thought and action,
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
All Photo Credits: American Center, New Delhi

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