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Sunday, 5 December 2004    
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No shoes please 

This is a Temple of Knowledge

by Ananth Palakidnar

"Sir please remove your sandles before you enter." The tone is sufficiently respectful but serious. Still the request comes as a surprise. For you are not about to enter a place of worship or veneration.

Pieter Keunemanís collection of books at the special collection section

Or are you? To listen to the guard at the entrance, you are. And the shelves at the entryway, with neat alignments of shoes, sandles and slippers of various sizes and shapes pays testimony to this. But still you have to wonder.

When did libraries get transformed into places of great veneration? Then again, this is not an ordinary library. Like the phoenix rising from the dead, this is the Jaffna Public Library resurrected from the ashes of mindless vengeance, now occupying pride of place in the hearts and minds of the Jaffna public. It is a symbol of continuance of faith, of man's inherent goodness and of the belief that knowledge is the pathway to peace. Hence the `No shoe' law. Hence the veneration.

The guard, (if one could call him that) disabled and moving around with a pair of crutches, says that the Library, set on fire on June 1, 1981 is now more a `temple of knowledge' than a library, and that the current management has made it a rule, that everyone, no matter the status remain barefooted within the sanctified premises. This rules also means the library staff, including the chief librarian, remain barefooted.

Once the stark reminder of the destructive two-decade long war, the library has regained some of its lost glory and also reinforced the belief in man's willingness to help and share. This is evidenced in the various individuals and international organisation.

Most prominent among them is the contribution made by Communist stalwart, the late Pieter Keuneman.

Chief Librarian Sabaratnam Thanabalasingam

Chief Librarian, Sabaratnam Thanabalasingam says that though hundreds of articles and essays had been written on the Library since it was destroyed in 1981, it is now time to highlight the new features available at the re-constructed Library.

Celebrating a grand 51st birthday, if the destruction had not happened, the Library was constructed in 1953, with the foundation stone laid on March 29, by the first Mayor of Jaffna, the late Sam A. Sabapathy. He, together with the late Irish Rector, Rt. Rev. Father Long of St. Patrick's College, Jaffna spearheaded the construction of the Library. Funds for the construction work were raised through mega carnivals with Ebert Silva from Colombo given the contract to put on the best show.

Some Jaffna residents still remember the carnivals with great fondness, as it also included a circus with popular foreign acrobats.

The 15,910 square feet Library reflecting Dravidian architecture was designed by K. S. Narasimman, the Government Architect of Madras.

Several intellectuals of the colonial era had donated, not only their vast collection of books, but also the rare manuscripts they possessed.

The building was opened on October 10, 1959 by the then Mayor of Jaffna Alfred T. Durayappah who was assassinated in 1975. According to Thanabalasingam, work on the new Library, which has retained the original style of Dravidian architecture, got under way in 1999, eighteen years after it was set on fire. The work was completed in 2003.

"Enormous contributions were made locally as well as internationally to re-build the Library and restore some of its old dignity, significant among the contributions was the Rs. 120 million collected under the renovation scheme titled 'Books and Bricks' in the South.

"Attempts were even made to politicise the opening ceremony of the new Library. However, the general public of Jaffna did not want to have any 'tamashas' and the opening was a simple ceremony where students were the first to enter the building on February 23, 2004," recalls Thanabalasingam. The original Library according to Thanabalasingam had 97,000 books and a membership of three thousand. Now the Library houses around fifty thousand books and a growing membership.

It was the last wish of Pieter Keuneman to donate all of his collection of books to the Jaffna Library. In 1998 an Air Force aircraft air-lifted the collection of around three thousand books to Jaffna. They are now shelved in a special collection section along with five hundred books donated by the late Sri Lankan diplomat, Dr. K. W. Alahiyawanne.

Some philosophers might say all things happen for a reason, and there is always something good amidst the bad. Though the destruction of the old Library cannot be condoned in any manner, the reconstruction has brought many glad tidings in the form of additional facilities.

The renovated Library now has a 100-seat air conditioned auditorium, a cyber cafe with e-mail and internet facilities along with audio and video sections.

A documentary division with clippings from newspapers and magazines is also currently being created.

So far several countries and international organisations have donated large amounts of books which are being arranged carefully in the reference section and in other areas. UNESCO, Asia Foundation, British Council and Book Aid International are some of the institutions that have contributed immensely to the Library, according to Thanabalasingham.

At the moment the membership of the Library stands around three thousand and the number is expected to increase in the future. A thirty-member staff is now handling the various sections under the guidance of Thanabalasingam. "It costs Rupees 600,000 per month for the maintenance of the new-look Library and it is a challenging task," he says.

The Library is opened from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily except on Mondays. A well-laid garden is also being created, to give a picturesque setting to the new Library.

Surrounded by the Jaffna Dutch Fort and the long stretch of the Pannai causeway which links the main islets in the Peninsula with the mainland, the renovated Jaffna Public Library remains majestic with its original Dravidian architectural structure in place.

The beautiful statue of Saraswathi, the Goddess of Knowledge seated on a lotus remains intact despite the exchange of gunfire, rockets and aerial bombings around the Library building a few years ago.

However, a highly respected intellectual and a former teacher of St. Patrick's College, Jaffna Rev. David has not been fortunate to see the newly built Library. Rev. David was in and out of the old Jaffna Library and suffered a heart attack and died instantly when he saw the Library in flames on the night of June, 1981.

His death is a tragedy that mirrors the devastation of a great place of knowledge. But the new building also reflects man's resilience and the will to succeed against all odds.

Seylan Merchant Bank Limited

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