Girl looking at library bookshelf
Eranda Ginige of British Council Sri Lanka reflects on our library in Colombo, which remains a community hub even as most readers trade paperbacks for portable devices.
I remember the adventure. My shirt still hasn’t dried after the after-school cricket match. There is a thick layer of dust slowly precipitating on my skin as we walk along the Galle Road against the three o’clock November wind. Entering a library always makes me nervous. The world suddenly becomes silent. The large newspaper table, the tall baggage rack, the long, heavy counter, the slow ceiling fan…You notice them all, but everybody is ignorant of your presence. The pedestal readers are engrossed in headlines. The young receptionist is probably reading a romance novel. Even the security guard is reading the time log book. Nobody cares about you. You are alone, but not for long.
The British Council in Sri Lanka and its library are inseparable. We started out as a library in 1949, grew as a library for half a century and therefore are known mostly as a library. Coming to the British Council some 15 years ago was nerve-wracking. Everything about it was elite. I was just a school boy from a middle-class family that lived in the outskirts of southern Colombo, far from the British Council’s posh Alfred House Gardens. I never imagined that I would be working here when my father dragged me to the British Council to get a library membership. It’s a haunting memory.
After returning the borrowed books and two rupee fine for being two days late, I can hardly look at the old lady with thick-rimmed spectacles who marks the membership card. I know she isn’t happy with me for being late. I finally make it to the precious vault where the world’s greatest story-tellers await, and I can hear their whispers.
Racks and racks of books in front me, behind me, above me and at my sides. Thousands and thousands of books neatly arranged on their dusty shelves. Big books, small books, tall books, short books, new books, old books, very old books, books with pictures, books without pictures, all organised into sections and numbered precisely. And I can have any one of them. What will I discover today? What scary monsters will I find? What amazing people will I meet? What great legends will I unearth? What mysteries will I solve? Will I find the girl of my dreams again? So the adventure begins.
Sri Lankans have an unquenchable thirst to read. Not surprising for a country with a 98% literacy rate. We just read things. We even read what’s written on the street-food wrappers, which are made up of old newspapers or magazines. We have over 25 different newspapers printed daily and read by millions of people across the island. The bookshops are always teeming with customers. There are libraries all over the place. The largest annual book fair held in Colombo is attended by over one million people.
That’s probably why the British Council library in Sri Lanka has close to 24,000 members and growing. Almost 50% of our grant and partnership income comes directly from library memberships and related services. While the rest of the world is seemingly shunning away from libraries, the trend seems to be the opposite here in Sri Lanka.
The case was strong enough to keep the library here open even when we began closing down libraries and offices altogether in many other countries in 2007. In keeping with the unmistakable role libraries played in establishing the British Council as a progressive international organisation in other countries, the British Council library in Sri Lanka has evolved into a different creature today, one that continues to innovate.
It’s not dark here anymore. People smile. Children smile. There are fewer racks with fewer books scattered among more fancy furniture. Computer kiosks have replaced the newspaper table. The old lady is gone, too. There are more people studying for IELTS than reading fiction. It’s a cool place to hangout.
Have I lost my precious vault? But I can faintly hear the whispers. They are still here! Soon it will become even more sophisticated when the library moves into the ultra-modern building that is being built as we redevelop our Colombo premises. People will read their favourite books on their iPads and Kindles while sipping their favourite Ceylon tea. It’ll never be the same again.
Then it hit me. I am in the very future that I read and imagined a long time ago. It is time to start a new adventure.