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Precious manuscripts are at risk in India's public libraries

The meagre govt, corporate and individual grants they receive are barely enough for operational and administrative expenditures.

Feb 01, 2015, 11.26 AM IST
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The meagre govt, corporate and individual grants they receive are barely enough for operational and administrative expenditures.
The meagre govt, corporate and individual grants they receive are barely enough for operational and administrative expenditures.
NEW DELHI: The year 1193 was one of terror for Nalanda's Bud dhists. Mohammed Bakhtiyar Khilji's marauding soldiers burnt thousands of monks alive and beheaded a thousand others in the region. However, for Buddhism itself, the year was nothing short of catastrophic.

For although the religion was on the decline in India by then, the destruction of Nalanda's great library was, for Buddhism, “the final coup de grace“, according to historian Charles Allen.It marked the “virtual obliteration of every page of a thousand years of Buddhist history on the subcontinent.Thus, India's Buddhist past was all but lost -and very soon forgotten,“ Allen says in his book Ashoka.

Perhaps no other event in Indian history emphasizes as much the importance of public libraries to society.

At a time when India's wealthy spend crores of rupees to insure prized art and collectibles, `uncovered' public libraries -home to the cultural and historical moorings of any society -epitomize both apathy and irony .

Premier public institu tions such as The Asiatic Society of Bombay , the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room and the Delhi Public Library stand vulnerable to all kinds of mishaps, be it theft, fire or flooding.

The meagre government, corporate and individual grants they receive are barely enough for operational and administrative expenditures, leaving almost nothing to consider even basic insurance cover. This is in stark contrast to the West, where governments and foundations invest millions of dollars to safeguard valuables at museums and libraries.

“North American mu seums and public libraries are often set up by private benefaction and in such cases have a duty to protect the financial endowment and legacy . It is not just the works of art but also their value as a financial asset that is of importance,“ says Robert Read, head of fine art, Hiscox, a LSE-listed speciality insurer.

In India, Kolkata's National Library is, perhaps, an exception, with some 500 of its rare books insured. Others like the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room, Mumbai are only now considering applying for cover.

The Asiatic Society of Bombay, a two-centuryold library, houses over one lakh books, including antique texts and manuscripts and over 12,000 rare coins. This includes the prized Sopara relics from the 8th and 9th century Mauryan era. “If something happens and we lose our books and relics, they are gone forever,“ says president SG Kale.

Some libraries have moved online to reduce risks. The Kerala State Central Library (1829), for instance, has no insurance cover but its website hosts its rare books. Yet here, too, cost is a big deterrent.

Mukesh Kumar, executive director, HDFC ERGO General Insurance Company , says that penetration of art insurance is currently low in India. “The valuation depends on the current market demand for the work of art, its ageing, origin, etc,“ he says, of the opinion that a reluctance to reveal the precise worth of an asset is one reason why so few art works, manuscripts and books are insured.

Without insurance, public libraries have found other ways to protect these collections against theft and larceny. “Rare books are kept aside, accessible only to members of the library and not the general public,“ says Vivekanand R Ajgaonkar, presidentemeritus of 1847-founded David Sassoon Library.At Asiatic, even members take special permission from society members to access the rare collections stored under “lock and key“. A 14th century manuscript of Dante's Divine Comedy they own has been placed in an SBI vault. Legend has it that in 1930, Italy's Mussolini government offered a million pounds for it.
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