The State Central Library at Afzalgunj, one of the oldest libraries of Hyderabad that flourished alongside many iconic Nizam-era monuments on the banks of river Musi, is all set to receive a new lease of life. Over the last week, multiple aspects have finally fallen in place for the library that has been reeling under times of neglect.
The Telangana IT department, according to the library authorities, has built a digital portal where about 45,550 rare books, including Urdu, Persian, and Arabic as well as English, will now be hosted for researchers and bibliophiles across the world to access for a nominal fee. On the other hand, the state’s heritage department has completed a structural examination of the library and prepared a proposal and budgetary estimate for taking up its immediate restoration in the future. In another development, a Noida-based non-profit organization’s proposal to scan page-by-page all Urdu books and periodicals for their digital preservation has been approved by the government. They will do this with their own funds.
Established originally as Kutub Khana Asafia (house of books of the Asafia dynasty) at Abids in 1891 by Syed Hussain Bilgrami, a noted educationist and a civil servant in the Nizam’s court, the library was moved to its present campus in Afzalgunj in 1936 to mark the silver jubilee of seventh Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan. A century later, it boasts of a rare collection of books that are today inaccessible due to their brittle and fragile nature.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, AVN Raju, the chief librarian of the State Central Library, said that the digital portal built by the IT department at an estimated cost of Rs 5 lakh is under trial and would be launched soon. “At present, we have researchers visiting us from different parts of the world. In the future, they can not only access these rare books but also view, download and print pages for a fee we are yet to decide,” he said. Further, he added, “the heritage department has prepared estimates of Rs 3.2 crore for restoration of the library. The education minister has been very keen on this project. The proposal is being sent to the government and we are hoping for funds to start work as soon as possible.”
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According to him, the Rekhta Foundation, a public charitable trust for the promotion of Urdu language, literature and culture, has been given the approval to take up digitisation of the Urdu books and periodicals, which will be added to the digital portal after receiving permission from authors. “We have to work out copyright aspects. We will seek permission from authors and work out a model,” the chief librarian added.
Behind the imposing facade is the five-storied rare books section called ‘paanch manzil’ which needs immediate attention. This section is unique in the sense that each floor is supported by book racks and stairs made of cast iron as there are no pillars. The books are fragile and in no condition for use. With huge halls and high ceilings, the architecture of the main building itself is so unique that an aerial view of the building resembles an open book, said M Alivelu, who was the chief librarian of the State Central Library from 2004 to 2018.
It was during her time that the State Central Library first took up the digitisation of rare books. With support from the Kolkata-based Raja Rammohan Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF), the library will witness the introduction of computers, photocopiers and air conditioners. She recalled that page-by-page digitisation of rare books was first taken up with the support of an Indian-American computer scientist Dr Raj Reddy who envisioned a Universal Digital Library (UDL) and ‘the Million Book Project’.
“About 45,550 rare books printed before 1963, which did not come under the Copyrights Act, were scanned and stored in CDs, DVDs, and hard drives. These books can be immediately hosted on the new portal developed by the IT department,” she added. These books were published between the period 1740 and 1963, whereas nearly 30,000 original manuscripts from the library were moved in the 1980s to Oriental Manuscripts Library in the State Archives.
With a total collection of over 5,50,000 books in English, Telugu, Urdu, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, Sanskrit, and Tamil, the authorities hope for speedy digitisation of the entire collection. “The discontinued UDL project was meant for hosting 1 million books on the web in coordination with various university libraries and public libraries. Digitisation is the only way to preserve them. So, now we want to make our entire collection available on the web for the larger benefit of our patrons,” said AVN Raju.
The Rekhta Foundation is presently working from 22 locations across the country where old books are being digitized for free and uploaded on their websites. “While our focus has been on Urdu collections, we are eager to expand our work to other Indian languages like Hindi and Sanskrit. We will explore possibilities of digitising Telugu and other collections as well as that would be in the larger interest of people,” an official of Rekhta Foundation said when contacted.
Over the years, the library’s sprawling campus spread over 2.9 acres has turned into a hub of students preparing for competitive exams. As Telangana State Public Service Commission (TSPSC) has started issuing job notifications after Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s announcement to fill over 80,000 of 90,000-plus job vacancies in the government recently, the number of students flocking to the library has increased manifold. Except on Thursdays when it is closed, the students can make use of the library and premises between 8 am and 11 pm.