The pages of history: J. N. Petit Library

The staff of the JN Petit, home to 150,000 titles, do more than just take care of books

If you can’t remember the last time you visited a heritage library, you are not alone. Edged out by modern lending libraries, and threatened by the Internet, Mumbai’s heritage libraries are floundering. Some have been able to get companies to help restore their period architecture, but most struggle to get funds for conservation and even the purchase of books.

The JN Petit Library at Fort is a typical example of a once-magnificent library running to seed. Housed in a beautiful heritage building dating back to 1895, this massive library has 150,000 books, including a rare copy of Firdausi’s 11th century epic poem The Shahnama, illustrated with gold leaf. Its huge, airy reading room, with stained glass portraits of the Petit family, is supposedly the largest in Asia. Its eclectic collection of books includes rare Parsi and religious books dating from the 16th century, as well as modern self-help books and current copies of magazines such as The New Yorker and Scientific American.

Like many of its counterparts, the Petit is run by a private trust. It survives almost entirely on donation. “Corporates have given us money to renovate our building in the past, but what we really need is money to conserve our books, pay salaries and pay our electricity bills. Our corpus used to be sufficient, but it has not kept pace with inflation,” says J.R. Modi, the library’s chief administrator, who has worked here for 12 years.

Conserving fragile books is a messy, expensive job, made even more difficult by the humidity of Mumbai. “Just conserving The Shahnama — all 820 pages of it — cost Rs44,000. Each page took nearly half a day, and we had to get trained conservators from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), in Lucknow,” says Modi. “There is a serious shortage of conservators,” says Tasneem Mehta, convenor of the Mumbai chapter of Intach, and trustee of the recently-opened Bhau Daji Lad Museum. “It’s a very specialized field, and the restoration of paintings on manuscripts is particularly difficult.”

In heritage libraries such as the JN Petit, the staff do more than just look after the books. Nisha Rupani, librarian-in-charge, says that she gets requests from members asking her to trace their family trees. Many scholars and researchers come from foreign countries for research. “We have a directory dating from 1869 that provides information on all the important events, buildings and people of that time. As a heritage library, we have to ensure that we provide something that modern libraries cannot.”

The Petit library is luckier than most. Nearby, at Kala Ghoda, the David Sassoon library is in a worse state. Again, companies and private individuals — including film producer Pritish Nandy, CEO of Pritish Nandy Communications — have chipped in to restore the beautiful heritage building, which dates back to 1870. It is a popular venue for literary and cultural events, such as the annual Kala Ghoda Festival, which is held in its garden.

But the books are arranged in a haphazard manner, and the period furniture inside the building is badly in need of repair. Many of the library’s rare books — including a 1798 book of letters written to the British regent Queen Anne by her secretary Lord Bolingbroke — are bundled into a Godrej cupboard.
The Sassoon has an annual book budget of just Rs70,000, and does not have a full-time librarian. “We have got donations to restore the building,” says Vivekanand Ajgaonkar, president of the library, “but getting money to pay our staff and buy books is very difficult.”

Membership fee in heritage libraries in Mumbai is below Rs1,000 a year. “Our trust deed stipulates that the library should serve the poor and middle class,” says Modi. “We have recently increased our fees, but many of our older members complained because they have to manage on tiny pensions.” Meanwhile, members continue to dwindle and age. The younger members are mostly students who use the library as a place to study. “We had 4,344 members eight years ago, and we now have around 2,600,” says Modi.

Other libraries, such as KR Cama Oriental Institute Library and the People’s Free Reading Room, have rare books, too. “Just as heritage structures are listed and protected, why not list collections of books?” suggests the noted historian and conservationist Sharada Dwivedi.

She says that the Asiatic Library has set an example in fund-raising. “There are many corporates who are willing to invest, but it’s just a matter of creating awareness,” she says.

Meanwhile, the JN Petit has recently opened a children’s section, which Modi hopes will help bring in children from neighbouring schools. The Asiatic recently launched the Adopt a Book or Periodical scheme, which allows donors to sponsor the conservation, or microfilm books and periodicals, which are then labelled with their names. Dwivedi has plans to start a book club that will host readings and events at the Sassoon’s garden.

Most of these libraries now survive on donations from elderly members such as 85-year-old Bhau Phansalkar, who has been a member of the David Sassoon for 68 years, and recently paid the library’s staff bonuses out of his own pocket. “I graduated from Elphinstone College straight into the David Sassoon,” he says. “In those days, the monthly membership fee was Rs2, and life membership was Rs100.”

At the JN Petit, Homi Surti, who has been going there for 37 years, spends at least 2 hours every day, “I have worked in a nationalized bank, done a course in animal husbandry, and studied mechanical engineering. I have learnt it all from books in this library,” says Surti. “This is my home.”

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