By Chenelle Fernando
“Reading maketh a complete man” is a phrase not new to anyone. A library is a keen reader’s hotspot, their stairway to heaven to drown themselves in an abundance of books and resources. Oozing with immense historical greatness, the Colombo Public Library situated at No. 15, Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Colombo 7 is truly experiential.
Taking a dive back into the past, the library was established in 1925 at the Sirinivasa (official residence of the mayor of Colombo), following a proposal received by the Colombo Municipal Council, by the late E.W. Jayewardene (father of former President J.R. Jayewardene). It was then relocated to its present location on 17 December 1980 with an initial membership inclusive of prominent political and legal personalities.
Interestingly, their use of the library was no different to that of how the venue was utilised by civilians at the time; a clear eye opener and stark difference to what we witness today.
What to expect
Our visit to the CPL opened our eyes to the plethora of resources and facilities that are preserved within the premises. For one, the library is one historic building located in the heart of Colombo that is hard to miss. You’d see people passing by on the daily, but how many of us actually take the time to visit it? To delve further into the matter, The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to its Chief Librarian, Varuni Gangabadaarachchi, who if we may add was an absolute delight to speak to.
To our surprise, we learnt that it wasn’t underutilised, for its thriving readership that has taken place over the past few months. Gangabadaarachchi attributes this to modernisation, availability of digital resources, and enhancement of facilities. Apart from this, she indicated that numerous promotional programmes have assisted its blossoming. “We have 11 branches and there are readers’ societies in all of them. So there’s competition amongst these societies to conduct various events and projects to increase readership. With this, our membership has also increased. According to statistical documents, there have been around 500,000 books within the system that have been borrowed by readers.”
Commenting on children’s readership, Gangabadaarachchi included that she has witnessed a tragic decline. “Parents of today’s day and age drown their children in school work and other activities so children are preoccupied for the most part. Due to this, parents visit the library on behalf of their children to choose books; this isn’t a good thing.”
Anyone within Sri Lanka is able to obtain services, although membership of residents within Colombo city limits appears to be relatively higher. Gangabadaarachchi indicated: “A library must generally serve the local government area of the municipality to which it belongs. Since we have an abundance of resources within this library, membership has been designed in a manner that anyone can obtain it.” This is also inclusive of foreign nationals – both civilians and diplomats. “We have numerous diplomats who are members here. The previous American Ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert Blake was also a member here,” she added.
30% of its readership consists of adults above the ages of 40-50 years whilst 35%-45% consist of children and the youth.
Whilst the library has seen walk through its doors 20,000 members who have been active since its inception, there is also a daily non-member usage for reference and studying purposes.
Spanning across 100,000 square feet, the library is a fully fledged facility with an audio visual section, foreign collection, Wi-Fi, and e-book and internet services. Apart from this, it renders the lending facility to both adults and children who are able to borrow two books every two weeks. Citizens above 60 years of age are granted a special membership facility where they are able to borrow four books a month.
Needless to say, the library is trilingual and consists of both daily and weekly papers of all three languages. A list of more than 100 magazines both local and international is also available here.
It consists of a fully equipped children’s section, adults lending section, reference section, as well as a special collections section. With a database of over 400,000 books, periodicals, and reports, the library quite certainly has something for everyone. With books in various genres such as arts, education, humanities, engineering, law, and poetry, it is safe to say it champions books in every possible way.
Programmes offered by the library
Libraries are commonly identified for its generic lending and borrowing. Contrary to popular opinion, the Colombo Public Library however affords a variety of activities and programmes to its members.
The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) programme offered to schoolchildren for instance is one such activity. Apart from this, children could be expected to participate in seasonal activities such as kite making in August, lantern making for Vesak, and card making during Christmas holidays.
Sri Lankans have begun to show keen interest towards Korean culture and it is popular now more than ever before. This could be the reason for the inclusion of Korean lessons within the library, which are carried out free of charge. In partnership with the Korean Embassy, as Gangabadaarachchi indicated, attendees are looked into by a volunteer from KOICA (Korean International Cooperation Agency). “The embassy extended its assistance by completely renovating a room which was not in use before with the provision of necessary facilities.” One is only required to have a library membership for the purpose of attending these classes.
Special collections section (the Sri Lanka and rare collection books)
All books within the library openly cater to reference and borrowing purposes of its readers –except the Sri Lanka and rare book collection, and this specifically caught our attention. Tucked away from the main lending section in its special air conditioned facility is this collection.
The purpose of the maintenance of such a section was attributed to the protection and maintenance of literary sources relevant to all subject matter and Sri Lanka as a whole written by renowned local and international authors.
Looming in what was found there, we were able to witness a collection of books relevant to Buddhism such as the 555 Jataka Stories (Pansiya Panas Jathaka potha), Tripitaka, a papyrus leaf collection relevant to the Tripitaka, ancient Pali Books on Atta Katha, an ancient Holy Bible, Bhagawad Gita, and Ramayana as well as an ancient Quran.
Ancient literal creations in all three languages, historical sources pertaining to gazettes, the Hansard, legal reports, reports of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, and reports of the municipal council and a whole lot more were all included here.
Some of the interesting books we were able to witness were Sri Lanka’s largest and smallest books and an original creation of Robert Knox. Knox, who served as an English sea captain under the British East India Company, is the renowned author of the manuscript of “An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon”. The book which is said to provide an account of Knox’s experiences during his time in the island now has a Sinhalese translation – “Knox Dutu Lakdiva” authored by Premachandra Alwis.
Here’s why you should visit a library/read
Reading outpours an abundance of benefits. For one, it assists both school students and university students by enhancing their ability to understand. “When answering a question, reading enables them to understand the question better,” incited Gangabadaarachchi.
Although we don’t realise, books are capable of creating pathways that open up to other dimensions, cultures, societies, and lifestyles. Commenting on the enhancement of skills occasioned through reading, Gangabadaarachchi added: “When you watch a cartoon, you see the image and you hear the sound; there’s no room left to think. When you read a book however, you start to picture it in your head. This enhances one’s thinking. Thus, readers get innovative ideas as a result. So it’s important to encourage children to read at an early age.”
Photos: Krishan Kariyawasam