Libraries of India

On our travels around India I’ve been able to visit some of the biggest, and oldest, libraries in the country.

Kolkata National Library

This library was established as a subscription library in 1836. At the time, the Governor General of Fort William, Lord Metcalfe, donated 5,000 books to the library. In addition to English, the library purchases books in Gujarati, Marathi, Pali, Sinhalese, Punjabi, and more. It was the first public library in eastern India. Members could join by subscription, or poor students could use the facilities for a specified time period. In 1948, the library was shifted to its present home, at the Belvedere Estate in the Alipore neighborhood of Kolkata (the former home of the Lt Governor) . Today, students and researchers can use the facilities, and if they pay a deposit of 150% of the book, they can check it out for two weeks (but not if the library only has one copy). With over 2.2 million holdings, it’s the largest library in India, and the 14th largest in the world. It has 45 kilometers of shelf space!

Asiatic Society Mumbai Library

In 1804, the Asiatic Literary Society began meeting in Mumbai (then called Bombay). They became affiliated with the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain in 1830. It is now funded by a grant from the Central Government of India. It has over 100,000 holdings, in English, Persian, Sanskrit, Prakrit. It even has some books written on palm leaf. Amazingly, they possess one of the only two original copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy (a gift from the governor of Bombay Mountstuart Elphinstone)! Mussolini asked for it to be returned in 1930, but the library declined, saying that it had been a gift from a patron. The Town Hall building which houses the library is a heritage building, built in 1833. It’s a popular spot for young people in Mumbai to visit for selfies, as it was in a famous Bollywood movie called Lage Ra ho Munnabhai.

David Sassoon Library

I wasn’t able to enter this gorgeous library in Mumbai, as it is entry by members only- but what a gorgeous building! The reading room and library was begun in 1823 for workers of the government mint and the dockyards, with a local Baghdadi Jewish banker, Sir David Sassoon, donating 60,00 rupees to get started. It’s current building was completed in 1870, and is designated a heritage building. Built in a Venetian Gothic style, it was the first building to be built in the south esplanade area of Bombay. It is open every day of the week.

State Library of Karnataka


The State Central Library of Karnataka, located in Bengaluru, is no shy and retiring library- I love the shocking red of the building! Constructed in 1908, the building became a subscription library in 1915, and has remained in that place for over a century. The building was named after Sir Kumarapuram Seshadri Iyer, a long-standing public official of Karnataka. It is now a public reference library only, with none of it’s 300,000 books in circulation. However, people can come to the library and use the resources six days a week. Notably, the library has a large Braille section- over 800 books, each with an accompanying audio book. It’s quite busy during the day, and when I visited, there were a couple dozen people using the facilities. I even noticed a sign-up for Improv comedy classes! I think it’s great when libraries reach out to the interests of their constituents.

Encompassed in the same building is a children’s library, featuring over 5000 children’s book. In addition, the library sponsors two mobile book busses that drive to four stops around Bangalore each Wednesday. Residents of those neighborhoods can apply for a library card with just a passport photo and proof of address. The membership cost is 40 rupees a year, plus one rupee for the application cost.


Do you like to visit libraries when you travel? What are the best ones you’ve seen?


Travel Book Talk: The Last Mughal

While on a walking tour of Kolkata recently, a guide recommended reading “White Mughals“, a 2002 historical non-fiction book by William Dalrymple about the British in East India. My library didn’t have it available as an e-book, but they did have another of his books, “The Last Mughal“, published in 2006.

My friend Mark, a history professor, agreed to partner-read the book with me, which was a big help, as he’s super knowledgeable about the ins and outs of various British history events. “The Last Mughal” mainly covers the year of the 1857 uprising in Delhi, but also examines the previous few decades of the Mughal empire, as well as follows the narrative to the end of the last Mughal emperor’s life, exiled to Burma.

In the 1850s, the British East India company was the largest company in the world, more powerful than many nations, and with the largest army in the world. In India, that army was anywhere from 50%-80% Indian, called sepoys. Due to a culmination of various events and customs, by 1857, the sepoys had had enough, and they mutineed, killing the relatively few hundred Britishers living in both Meerut and Delhi, sparking an uprising that eventually swelled to over 130,000 sepoys. The emperor of the Mughal empire at the time, Bahadur Shah II (called Zafar), while not the instigator of the rebellion, became its reluctant spiritual leader, much to the downfall of his family line.

While most of the events of this book take place in Delhi, including the Jama Masjid Mosque and the Red Fort, there are also events and histories of several regions around Delhi, including Rajasthan and Agra. It’s a great book to read if you’re heading to that side of India and you want to better understand the events that lead to the beginning of the end of the British empire. The author, William Dalrymple, has access to thousands of previously unarchived documents from the 1850s, making book this a pioneer in its coverage of the revolt that nearly wiped out the British East India army.

Jama Masjid Mosque, Delhi

The Taj Mahal, built by Emperor Zafar’s great-grandfather Shah Jahan

Humayan’s Tomb, where Zafar and his family his out post-rebellion, waiting to see if their lives would be spared

Travel Book Talk: Into Thin Air

While hiking in Nepal this fall, I decided to read Jon Krakauer’s memoir of his journey to the top of Mt Everest, Into Thin Air. He was brought on board the climbing party in 1996 as a journalist for a popular outdoors magazine, and the story was meant to focus on the effects of over-tourism in the area. Krakauer was a fairly experienced mountaineer, though certainly not a pro, and he did make it to the top. However, not everyone in his group did, and after his return to the US, he set out to analyze exactly what happened on this ill-fated climbing expedition, the most deadly one in Mt Everest’s history.

This is a well-researched account of the expedition, although there are always some questions about inserting an author’s own opinions and memories into researching a controversial subject. Krakauer was not the only climber to write a book about the infamous climb, so readers may want to read another participant’s book as well to decide for themselves what really happened, and who- if anyone- was to blame. And really, we’ll never know, because some of the information needed died along with the eight people who perished on that attempt.

Two Librarians Saved Lives in School Shootings

This weekend, I read this story about two women whose lives had some odd coincidences. Friends for over 36 years, they both wound up becoming librarians. And they both wound up saving the lives of dozens of students during school shootings. Their story is amazing, and heartbreaking. Read about it here:

Two women met 36 years ago. One was a librarian at Sandy Hook. The other at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.



Diana Heneski, librarian at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Photo courtesy of Reuters.