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On Libraries

Sunil K Pandya asked on NMJI "Are Libraries in Our Medical Institutes Dead?"

Badakere Rao responded to it with his memories of physical books.

I had this response:

The article on libraries and your response to it was a sweet read to me. The school in Mattanur that I studied from 1st standard till 10th standard had a large library (when I went back last month, it felt small. Maybe everything was much bigger when we were smaller). If my memory serves me right it had 4000+ books. The most beautiful thing was that when any student has a birthday they would celebrate it by donating a book (or more books) to the library and their names would be announced in the school assembly. This kept the number of books keep increasing. Perhaps it became a prestige issue for parents to send only quality books with their kids for their birthday, because all the books so donated were usually good and new books. From as far as I remember my favorite pastime after school (and free hours during school) was to go to the library, pick up a book, and read. The competition with other students who used to read more books (by numbers noted in the library register) only helped propel the habit. When it was time to leave and the library teacher would come tapping on the shoulder asking me to leave, I would take the book home if it appeared interesting.

I still remember one Sunday when I read The Diary of Anne Franke (C edition, I think) from cover to cover at home. Now, this book has an interesting side story that makes libraries not just a collection of books and something much different from digital book reading devices. There are a few sections of the diary in which Anne Frank touches upon sexuality. One particular such page which has some graphic description (which I do not remember now) was so often read by the library users that the page had become dog-eared. In fact, you could open the book randomly and there was a very high chance that page would open up. And I promise I read that page only a few times. That worn out page perhaps was a silent broadcast to all the readers of the book about the curiosity in everyone's mind. There are mechanisms in digital world which allows people to "scribble on margins" which can be read by other readers on their digital devices. But I do not think any digital mechanism can have dog-eared pages.

When I was in ninth and tenth standard, I had become bored of my school's library. Also, I would play football right after school and by the time I was done the school library would have been closed. That is when I discovered the public library in Mattanur bus stand. More than the books there, it was the librarian there who I spent time with. He was preparing for IAS examination and would talk to me about Sweden and Malayalam literature and so many other things that was happening in the world. I took War & Peace from this library once and it was so boring that I never read past the first chapter. Finally when I stopped going to the library, the book remained in my home's bookshelf for more than an year. I later got a postcard from a new librarian who wanted the book back and also made me membership charge for that entire year.

The school I did 11th and 12th in also had the ritual of birthday book donation. And the library there was huge too. But somehow I never used this library. And of course, there was "entrance coaching" to attend after school leaving very little time for actually going to the school library.

Joining Mysore Medical College changed a lot of my expectations from "education system". A library without general books was one such new experience for me. Yet, I would frequent the college UG library. In fact, Swathi and I have spent a lot of evenings in that library sitting across each other and holding hands while reading. Sunil's mention of the pleasure in finding a hidden gem is amazingly accurate. Though MMC library's "gems" were mostly old editions of Gray's anatomy, I particularly remember one physiology textbook by Vander which explained some of the concepts in ways nobody had ever taught me till then. It was one of those treasures you value so much that you would show it to nobody else and try to hide it in some corner of the shelf. But fortunately I didn't have to do any of that because not many of my friends were interested in the library, let alone a textbook that no teacher had recommended to them.

My favorite book is "The Emperor of All Maladies - a Biography of Cancer". If you ask me, it is a textbook of medicine (especially public health) that every medical student should read. But I can make a fairly reasonable bet that the college library wouldn't have that book, even today. But, I also know for a fact that it has multiple copies of all the editions of a book titled "Companion for 1st MBBS" (and also 2nd MBBS, 3rd MBBS, and 4th MBBS). This is a question bank which contains past questions asked in the university exam. It is perhaps the most widely read book by the undergraduate student in Rajiv Gandhi University. And that speaks volumes about what our education system prioritizes. Libraries are only victims to the same.

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