Younger people may find it too dated, but I’ll stick to what Jorge Luis Borges once said: âI always imagined that Heaven would be some kind of library!
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Well, not always! Until my second year in DU, I spent at least a few days a week in the USIS and British Council libraries in Dhaka reading British / American newspapers or literary periodicals like TLS and The New Yorker, or borrowing novels that I could devour at home later. But there were a lot of other things to distract us friends at the time. Bliss was playing basketball or cricket or chatting with friends or ogling passing girls chatting!
It wasn’t until towards the end of my second year in DU that one of my dearest school friends soberly asked me if I was going to get serious in order to do very (and not quite) well on the exams. . For middle-class boys like us, he pointed out to me and two other friends, doing well was important, because if you had a first and a high TOEFL / GRE score, you had a good chance of doing it. ‘go to a North American university. .
This is how I ended up spending almost all of my days at the main library at DU. At first, however, it didn’t seem like a place we could hang out. There were too many rules and you had to be patient as there was always a line to get books. The library staff, too, seemed at first overworked / indifferent, and I lack patience by temperament!
But I persevered. And that’s how I became what is called a “serious” student, determined to spend as much time as possible in the DU library. I quickly discovered how the library was a treasure. Whether I was looking for books on Sophocles or Shakespeare, or wanted to discover the “Elizabethan World Picture”, or admire contemporary stars of Literature, or wanted to know why Milton had gone for the grand style, or that I was was trying to get away from Eliot’s. doomsday thoughts on the wasteland while reading his hilarious book on practical cats, the 2nd floor collection of books from the English department apparently had it all.
Another section that I found fascinating was the books in the downstairs reference section. There were, for example, twenty volumes of Scrutiny which I found superbly educational. But when I wanted to shy away from serious literary criticism, I found Gershon Leghorn’s 1968 book The Rationale of the Dirty Joke captivating, not really for its psychoanalytic approach to such humor, but for the kind of laughs we , adolescents turned men, were still dependent. There were also many newspapers and periodicals, a favorite reading of those who came to the library to keep up to date with news from around the world.
But, of course, I was in the library to study. I continued to do it seriously, along with my three other friends. After a year, I discovered that the library staff on duty, especially on nights when student attendance was low, were not at all hostile. In the evening, they even allowed me to walk the aisles stacking books of literature. I was thus able to access a very old collection which had in a way become part of the batteries. Some were also in the “confined” section of the library – books like Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World, published, I still remember today, in a Victorian edition with a gold cover.
My reputation as a serious and âbookishâ student grew. But what did such labeling matter to me, knowing that I had found a gateway to some sort of paradise through reading? Keats’ âOde to Homerâ by Chapman, so beautifully alive to describe how a book is a magic carpet to glimpse paradise, seemed to match my feelings well. âI have traveled a lot in the realms of gold / And many well-regarded states and realms,â Keats wrote, but when he came across Chapman’s book, he said, he had become a “sky watcher / When a new planet swims in its father.” Going to the DU library was adding to the literary planets that I regularly placed in the firmament of my imagination to come back with a better understanding of the makers of literature in English.
When our eyes got tired of reading, we took tea breaks every two hours, spending a lot of time in Sharif Mia’s canteen. Students, aspiring and senior writers, and close couples chatted in the canteen while Sharif Mia poured hot, steaming tea to relax tired eyes and recharge the imaginations eager to explore the world of knowledge. The four of us had made the library our home base, but we did classes, play games, and watch sporting and cultural events that took place in the gymnasium’s playground and at the TSC between our reading sessions. The days went by quickly and we knew we were spending them well, not only gaining knowledge but also socializing and having fun.
I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks researching Edmund Burke at the British Library, while it was hosted next to the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London. It was a pleasure to work in his reading room and read signs that Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf and others had studied there. Once, I could even imagine their presence in the round-shaped reading room! People came from all over the world to either view the collections on display, visit the nearby British Museum, or do some research.
However, the only major library in the world that I have come to know well for a long time is the main library at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Both during my master’s thesis at Simon Fraser University and my doctoral thesis at UBC, I spent most of the day in this imposing Victorian-style building. What I know from almost six years of working at this highly rated library is that you could get almost any book or periodical that you wanted to access by going to card catalogs and then to stacks with the books. books. And if they turned out to be insufficient or confusing, one could turn to the serving reference librarians, whose knowledge of the library’s holdings was simply astonishing and whose enthusiasm in helping readers was always astonishing. And while they couldn’t help readers locate sources or printed materials in the library, they could get it by letting us fill out the appropriate interlibrary loan form, wait a week or so, and then have them!
I first researched Herman Melville and the city, looking for his works of fiction and poetry, letters, journals as well as old newspapers, journals and critical books. Mid-nineteenth century New York came to life and Leviathan de Melville’s imagination swam in my vision like never before! Later, I worked on Daniel Defoe, but now my research takes me back to Francis Bacon and the history of science, mercantilism, colonial history, 17th and 18th century cartography. New worlds kept opening up and I felt like young Keats again, traveling to “golden realms”, seeing islands and peoples linked to British colonial expansion, and admiring more and more Defoe, who seemed to know so much about the world outside of Britain, even in the 18th century.
Because I had taken a course in text criticism, I had also learned to appreciate book printing, design, editing, etc. I could see many old books from the UBC collection as works of art, beautifully illustrated and lovingly bound. . Some had the unique scent that book lovers love. Many could be exhibit pieces and inspire wonders, even in stacks!
I have never been bored. When I had had enough of research, I read my favorite newspapers and periodicals. The UBC library obtained the (now defunct) Bangladesh Times, which kept me informed of events in my dear country. When my eyes were tired and the day was bright and sunny, I would go to the nearby rose garden and bask in the sun for about an hour, or have a cup of tea in the basement cafe, or take the lead. en route to adda with my bangladeshi friends or a friendly canadian tech assistant UBC’s main library, like all major libraries, had endless variety, although only the initiated can appreciate the range of delicacies to be found there!
And what will be the fate of the world’s major libraries in this super-fast digitizing world?
The DU library is now coveted, newspapers keep paying, not for its book and newspaper collections, but for its spaces where students can study in relative silence for the competitions. The library, in fact, has been largely digitalized and there is a lot of information available to students who wish to evaluate it online. In contrast, and from what I can tell from UBC’s main library website, it not only went completely digital, but also attracted not only students and faculty members, but also the general public in its 6 million books and its exhibition sections. Now that the pandemic has kept people from mingling anywhere, there is even a “material pickup service,” the webpage tells me.
It’s unclear where digitization and science will take us, but while I was looking for another suitable quote to end this article, I came across one from Albert Einstein: “The only thing you absolutely need to know is the location of the library. “Nowadays, I suppose, you have to add, digitally, virtually or in reality. Fortunately, paradise can be glimpsed through its collections, if not the pleasure of touching books and flipping through them, page after page. , book after book!
Fakrul Alam is Director of the Bangabandhu Research Institute for Peace and Freedom and UGC Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.