Posted by: lrrp | June 16, 2007

Preserving the past Colombo Museum Library

Shelf after shelf stand neatly stacked books where ever the eye can see. Old and dusty but leather bound and heavy. Such volumes are not to be seen today, the hard covers, threadbare with gold lettering and a court of arms. Your grandfather might have held a few such books but never such a massive collection. It is absolutely breathtaking which only a devoted reader would understand. The most amazing fact is that it is not only one such spacious room but several house this impressive collection. Books, volumes too heavy to be carried, journals, periodicals, carefully cutout articles are neatly arranged by date and alphabetical order on almost every subject. Where would you ask is this unimaginable collection to be found, is it a hoax by Life to tease you. Ney, good sir for this collection gathering dust but growing each year is at our fingertips to be explored and given shelter in our own back yard.

Standing for more than a hundred years since 1877 when Sir William Gregory himself an avid reader opened the Museum together with a library. “They faced the problem of obtaining books and Sir William Gregory under the Museum Ordinance brought the Government Oriental Library and the Royal Asiatic Library together to start the Museum Library,” explained Padma Akkarawita, the librarian. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine that one day she would be the guardian of this national treasure when visiting the collection as a student but today she proudly walks around her silent wards touching the shelves with loving care.

The second largest collection of Ola leaves (puskola) in the world with the largest in England is at the Museum Library donated by the Government Oriental Library and the printed books from the Royal Asiatic Library. “They are still in good condition,” said Miss Akkarawita some even with the Royal Asiatic seal. Pages can be turned and words read. When informed of the fading words on an Ola leaf it is sent to the Conservation Unit for preservation. A hundred years ago the library started with 1200 books but today the collection stretches to several thousand. “In the 1800’s it is said that Sir William Gregory held regular social gatherings in the library,” which is only a hint as to the condition and maintenance of this section of the Museum.

The collection can be categorized as printed and manuscripts from Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhala, Tamil and Burmese Languages and subjects ranging from Buddhist scriptures to Medicine, Astrology, History, Science, Geology, Language etc. “The oldest manuscript in the island found in the 13th century is at present on display at the Museum,” she said. Spittle’s Bible, S. B Charles’s first copy of the national flag,Collection of H C P Bell, the first archeological commissioner of Ceylon are few of the treasures found here.

“Even with the donation of books there was a problem in obtaining recent publications. Sir William Gregory rectified this by creating another Law declaring that three copies must be made of all prints and one to be given to the library,” explained Miss Akkarawita. This Law is still in effect which ensures a comprehensive local collection at the Museum but it was not until 1885 when missionary John Murdock insisted that a library should become a national institute and collect local volumes as well. Hence under No 1: of the Printers and Publishers Act of Britain all books were registered, three copies made and one of these given to the library. As a result the very first Sinhala print from 1737 is one of their collection.

The present quality of the books is due to the provisions taken by the British admired Miss Akkarawita. The original racks of seasoned wood still in use were specially made for the books she explained and each rack stands on an iron frame atop which stands a wooden stump and then the rack at least a foot off the ground. Walking around that familiar sweetened smell mixed with dust and a smell of old paper lingers, “that is the smell of citronella oil applied to the shelves,” the books are fumigated every now and then to prevent the damage caused by insects but as yet none have found a solution to preserve old paper. “This is a problem all of us face,” she said referring to the librarians at the National Archives Library as well. Even though micro-film and photography technology is at present in operation there is no way to conserve the pages of a first edition or the valuable copies of the last century now out of print.

“The mission of this library is quite different to others,” explained the librarian. “This is not a lending library but one for reference.” Open to all, six days a week, from 8.30am to 5.00pm for a small fee of eight rupees you can spend the entire day immersed in pages of the past. However Miss Akkarawita is quite saddened by the empty tables, “the reading habit is dying in our present generation everyone turns to the internet but it is just another cut & paste scenario, nothing is understood.” Many are even unaware as to the existence of such an institution. Perhaps a better sign board advertising its presence on the far side of the museum and a note to the visiting schools to take a turn in that direction could improve the situation.

Of course many would not be interested as it is only a reference library attracting a majority of researchers and under graduates but to change its regulations to a lending library would be disastrous knowing the destructive ways of our people, selfish and unconcerned that these precious tomes are a treasure like no other. Moore’s volumes of the Lepidotera of Ceylon from the 1880’s, Dr. Thwuites observations, the early descriptions of the island, “most of the books are related to the five units of the museum,” said Miss Akkarawita; Botany, Zoology, Entomology, Anthropology and Ethnology. Walking past the main entrance and towards the canteen a side passageway blocked by a brass chain is the doorway to the library. Even though the presence of this chain would turn away most it was the form in colonial times before the appearance of doors. Hence fashioned with a chain and saloon doors await the library.

Heavy regulations guarding the books insist that no possessions are to be taken in to the reading section except for pencil and paper so that minimum damage is caused to the books. After referring to an extensive catalogue the names and reference numbers of the books are to be handed to the librarian who will then walk among the silent watchers of the past and bring to you, your need. “These books need to be touched, the pages turned, for sunlight to fall or they will just sit in dust and deteriorate,” she said. The vast rooms sometimes with an upper floor for journals is dark, windows wedged shut with disuse. “With the new buildings there is not much light that comes in.” This new building is the latest extension to the library to reduce the constraint on the volumes.

A special room is dedicated to the Buddhist scriptures and the periodicals donated by Ven.Kalukondayawa Pagngnasekara Thera. “These are the most frequently used and are in excellent condition,” however others which rarely feel living hands are not doing so well. The scare that gripped the people during the rains brought many of the clergy to check the condition of this precious collection but due to her presence of mind all the racks were covered in polythene and none of the tomes were affected. Even though understaffed they try their best to help whom ever either by telephone or letter to reach the more distant locations and pleas from school-goers island wide.

“During the early years a well documented catalogue was present but after 1910 it slowly collapsed due to wars, maintenance changing hands and other reasons.” The vast number of volumes is soon to be computerized for easy reference but if no one comes to press that button what will happen asks the librarian. At present photocopy, micro-film and photograph facilities are available. One reason for the fall of the library is the lack of attention by the authorities.
The present director of the museum, Dr. Nanda Wickremasignhe has been immensely supportive says Miss Akkarawita but red tape draped all round makes it almost impossible to improve conditions.

Other than books a stamp collection complete with first editions, an amazing collection of water colour paintings of early Ceylon can also be asked for. “Librarians are people who like to give books but that is not the case here,” concludes one who has walked among the shelves so much that she is familiar with almost all of this astounding collection, able to point out the shelf when the book is called for.


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