In Delhi, at the Library

For the past few days I've been ensconced in south Delhi, mainly visiting the city's research libraries as well as friends and family. It's winter in Delhi, which basically means the high is about 70 degrees F in the daytime -- and still quite sunny. In short, quite a pleasant change after Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, where the high was just about the freezing mark.

I was able to spend a fair number of hours at three different libraries in the city, the library at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the Sahitya Akademi library, and the Nehru Memorial Library (NML). This is just a brief report on what I found there, in case anyone is interested in visiting India for their own research.

First off, I should say that doing library research in Delhi is not actually that hard if you're coming from outside India. The main libraries are all housed in stately South Delhi, full of wide boulevards, government buildings, and Mughal-era tourist attractions (like Humayun's Tomb, Safdarjung, and Khan-e-Khanan). You are not in the busy markets (though there are plenty of markets and malls not far away), nor are you in amidst the throngs of humanity in Old Delhi or Connaught Place.

The second thing to know is that online/electronic search only takes you so far at these libraries, at least as of the present moment. You need to go and browse the stacks and actually talk to librarians in all cases to find out about the collections. In all three libraries I found that books also weren't resehelved especially carefully -- you sometimes have to poke around adjoining shelves and really look if you want to find particular things.

At JNU library, there was a nominal security presence, but I just said I was coming from a university in the U.S. and the guard let me in. The central library building is housed in a rather formidable 10 story structure.  As far as I could tell, the building does not have climate control, so the windows are kept open throughout the stacks (presumably year-round?). This means that the books are all quite dusty, and in various states of degradation. The collection is large, but the literature stacks are pretty spotty (the social sciences stacks actually looked much more impressive). I also couldn't find any of the old Hindi and English-language periodicals I was looking for in the stacks, so I asked the periodicals librarian. She sent me to one 'deputy', who then called on another, and they opened up a huge locked (!) room full of decaying bound periodicals, which as far as I could see were not actually "organized." After about 20 minutes of sleuthing, the three of us found a few volumes of one of the journals I wanted ("Indian Literature"), but at this point the Deputy apologetically told me that if I really wanted to do research on literature I should go to another library, such as the Sahitya Akademi.

As a side note, the JNU campus is an interesting place to visit. The university is known as a hub for the Indian left, and you see evidence of this in spades, as huge murals painted by the various left-leaning student parties have pride of place on many campus buildings. (I do not think many American colleges would allow this level of student club dominance.) You see much shrill denunciation of U.S. Imperialism, religious Communalism, as well as the policies of the center-left Congress Party currently in power. I briefly visited some of the bookstalls outside the library, and found one eager bookseller who was full of gossip about former JNU professors who now have posh teaching appointments in the U.S.

I followed the JNU Deputy Librarian's advice, and the next day went to the Sahitya Akademi library at Rabindra Bhawan. Here I found a collection much better maintained, with really extensive (virtually unparalleled) collections of literature in Indian languages. The materials related to English were perhaps less extensive, but still had quite a bit that I found helpful. I also found some great stuff in the Sahitya Akademi's collections of manuscripts from the Akademi's own prestigious International Seminars, including a talk by Aijaz Ahmad ("Times of the Modern") from 1996, that I think has never been formally published.

Finally, I was able to visit the Nehru Memorial Library at Teen Murti Bhawan. Here the star of the collection is clearly the material (in History, Political Science, and Economics) related to modern Indian history (starting with five extensive shelves marked "Gandhiana"). Also outstanding is the collection of old newspapers on microfilm. I did spend a few hours looking through some of these -- as far as I know, British Indian newspapers like the Civil and Military Gazette (from Lahore) or The Statesman (Calcutta) are not available like this at American university libraries. I will have to come back here and stay longer (for maybe two or three weeks) to do more digging for a certain side-project I want to do at some point.

Literature is somewhat besides the point at NML, but again I did find some helpful material for my project. My one warning for visitors from abroad is to make sure to get a "letter of reference" from your supervisor or chair. In this case the Librarian (who was very much not a Deputy) gave me a hard time about not having such a letter before letting me in anyway. (I would expect that you would want the letter on stationary -- I'm not sure that a printed-out email would suffice.)

At all three libraries I visited, the photocopying works like this: you give your materials to a man at the photocopy center for copying, and he does it for you. The rates are either 50 paisa or 1 Rupee (1 cent or 2 cents) per page. At first I found it a little odd -- for me, photocopying has always been one of the necessary miseries of library research -- but the nice thing about the arrangement is that it gives you a little more time to stay focused on your work. On this brief trip, having a few minutes more to explore the library was appreciated.

Another thing: you might want to pack a lunch if you are visiting these places -- no in-library cafes.

Now -- on to see family in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.