World Libraries

Library History in India: Historiographical Assessment and Current Trends

Abstract: Examines the status of research and publication in the field of Indian library history. Only about a dozen scholars are identified as library historians, but a number of younger librarians are expected to continue their work. There is little published research, and little attention to library history in the library school curricula. It is suggested that a revival of interest in library history would be useful as the profession endeavors to solve contemporary problems, by offering insight into alternative courses of action.

The study of library history, for a long time the province of antiquarians, has grown into a distinct field with distinguished authors, especially in the past quarter century or so. The founding of groups for those interested in the history of libraries within national professional associations was crowned by the establishment within IFLA of the Round Table on Library History in the late 1970s. By that time, several journals had begun to assume significance for the field, and since 1973 the Annual Bibliography of the History of the Printed Book and Libraries has appeared.

The proceedings of the international symposium, “Library History Research in the International Context,” held in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, in April 1988, marked yet another benchmark on the road toward sophistication in the study of library history [1]. Survey reports on the status of library history research were presented by scholars from 13 nations representing four continents. Though not all the news was uniformly encouraging, in general the participants and the readers of the printed text felt that there was hope for the future.

One of the conspicuous omissions from the 1988 Symposium was a report on the status of library history in India — a nation known for its ancient and medieval, as well as more modern, library establishment. Although the history and tradition of literacy and books among certain classes in what is now India is long–standing, the modern library movement has roots in the later 18th century with real growth appearing a century or more later. Programs for professional library education developed in the principal centers of Madras in the 1930s and Bombay, Calcutta, and Delhi in the 1940s, with others following during the 1960s. A number of relatively short surveys and monographic works dealing with Indian library history have treated various chronological periods, types of libraries, geographical areas, or a mix of these. Since the tradition is so rich, the library education programs relatively strong, and the interest in pursuing national cultural history keen, questions that recur to the student of library history are: What is the status of library history in India? How can this be explained? What might the future hold?

One of the authors of the present article, Donald G. Davis, Jr., undertook a systematic overview of the situation in India during a five–week research tour in the summer of 1988 sponsored by the American Institute of Indian Studies. The project “aimed to study the current status of library history in India by cursorily reviewing the existing [English–language] bibliography, by surveying present activities, and by describing and evaluating the findings from an international and sympathetic point of view ” [2]. In addition to long stays in Calcutta at the National Library of India and in Delhi, the tour encompassed visits and interviews at eight library schools and nine other institutional libraries. The report that resulted was widely distributed in the following two years.

The findings of the survey included description of the literature, the historians, the organization structure, and the general attitude toward library history within the profession. The literature survey enumerated works written primarily as history, rather than description, and accounted for fewer than 100 significant monographs, dissertations, scholarly articles, chapters in collected works, and whole volumes of collected papers. These publications constitute a core bibliography for the field. Strengths include the public library movement, Muslim influence, the national library, and library associations; weaknesses include academic libraries, private libraries, library education, and comparative studies.

In library history, about a dozen persons were identified as productive researchers and writers. Several are in retirement, continuing their research after leaving professional employment; as these cease their labors, the profession will sustain a great loss. On the other hand, there is a good group of widely–scattered, younger historians who are just beginning to assume the responsibility of continuing the work of interpreting the profession to its society in historical terms; some of these live outside India.

The organization structure of research in library history is diffuse, with the best collection of printed materials at the National Library of India. Programs in library and information science have not given much attention to library history; and even on the doctoral level, most of the dissertations that have appeared have been done in other departments or overseas. There are no identifiable groups that bring persons interested in library history together and not many conferences on the subject. The few historically–oriented articles that are produced appear in the general professional journals, or, more likely, in scholarly journals published abroad.

The general attitude of library historians seems to be discouragement. The elder scholars as well as their junior colleagues usually work in isolation, sometimes with academic colleagues in historical or literary studies. They see little professional recognition for historical research from their fellow librarians, despite the rich sources for explicating the role of libraries and information in the complex culture of a developing nation.

The survey concluded that despite the pessimism regarding the future of historical studies in librarianship, the outlook for the future is not without hope. The challenge of the coming years will be to find agreement about the nature of the unfinished agenda. Two questions are critical: First, is library history a luxury for a few aberrant and typically elderly members of the profession; or is it a topic that the whole profession, or a significant portion of it, can embrace with pride and enthusiasm? Second, is library history only the province of nations heavily influenced by the West, or it a mark of a maturing profession in any nation that is coming to grips with its role in the cultural life of the country and contributing its part to that cultural record [3]?

Some possible steps envisioned for the future included formation of regional interest groups under the aegis of the Indian Library Association, regular program meetings, an informal newsletter, occasional publications, and development of a model syllabus for library education programs. Mention was even made of programs at the forthcoming IFLA conference in 1992.

Essentially, little has changed since 1988. Yet there is evidence for hope. Some of the younger library historians are completing their doctoral degrees and have published their results. They need to be encouraged and to communicate more regularly with one another. Another major achievement is the splendid, two–volume compilation, Humanities Information Systems and Centres (1991) [4], that presents capsule descriptions of 66 specialized institutions in the fields of cultural studies, many of them being archives or rare book repositories. Most of the entries, many prepared by scholars who might form a nucleus of a library history network, contain substantial historical notes on the founding and development of the institutions and their libraries.

The identification of potential research topics and subjects for investigation is a role that library historians can play in their profession. And when contemporary problems manifest themselves, historians can examine the evidence and help to explain their context, offering some insight into possible solutions and alternative courses of action. In the case of India, libraries represent all of the various types known to the human race, including those of the most advanced countries. Yet one must acknowledge that some outstanding examples may serve only as exceptions to the prevailing low status of libraries, and that fine looking organization charts and statistical tables do not always provide a clear picture of what the real situation is at the grassroots level.

Among the many potential contemporary topics that might invite the attention of Indian library historians are the underdeveloped state of public libraries, the lack of genuine library consciousness in the library community, and the role of the profession [5].

On paper India appears to have a well–organized, functioning system of public libraries that attempt to supply the reading needs of all its citizens. In reality, the condition of most public libraries, large or small, urban or rural, city or village, is exceedingly poor. In fact, a case could be easily made that with few exceptions, genuine public libraries worthy of the name are yet to be established. Modern public libraries that are user–centered, service–oriented, and collection–balanced centers for graphic records are still in the future. The reasons for this extremely slow development, despite efforts in the early 20th century to approximate the kind of service available in Europe and North America, are surely worth exploring. While the effects of domination by colonial powers, primarily the British, may have produced a lack of concern for the vernacular–speaking and reading populace, local and more recent decisions about priorities are certainly involved as well. Comparative studies of individual states has only begun.

The issue of library and information consciousness in the nation is relevant here. One could receive the impression that a commitment to the value of reading, information, and libraries is not high among professional librarians and sponsoring agencies. Some in the library establishment are convinced that the government is interested in libraries and literacy on only a marginal level. Though individual states differ greatly in their provision of library service, a prevalent idea seems to be that passing library legislation by itself will result in great advances, whereas funding and implementation have frequently failed to support legislation. Studies examining the comparative effect of library legislation in various states could yield some fruitful insights that might provide guidance to future efforts.

Another issue for investigation is the role of the Indian library profession. Judged on its past, the Indian library establishment has been unable to mount an effective effort to achieve some short–term and medium–term goals with respect to library development. The tension between the specialized libraries connected with government agencies and the commercial sector, and public libraries and libraries associated with educational institutions, has been one reason for the lack of success. The historian can examine actions taken, and not taken, by library associations to discover their impact on library progress. One persistent problem has been the creation of professional standards. Another has related to the proper duties and responsibilities of librarians.

In his 1987 presidential address to the Indian Library Association, T. S. Rajgopalan rightly remarked:

It is generally acknowledged that our libraries are underutilized in relation to investments being made in them. Non–use and low–use of libraries amount to wastage of facilities being made available. Maybe the literacy rate, lack of reading habits, etc., are the causes for low use from the side of patrons…User education programs must be organized by libraries in a way that libraries are fully utilized [6]. If library historians would address the roots and trends of library use issues, they would provide a valuable service to their profession and society.
With the centenary of S. R. Ranganathan's birth in 1992, it is an appropriate occasion to reconsider the expression of opinion that he offered in a radio talk in April 1956:
An account of the libraries in the first four periods (the Vedic, the Buddhistic, the Medieval, and the Muslim) must necessarily depend upon the historical research. This has not yet been done. The library profession is too small in India to spare a person to fill up this antiquarian gap. Those trained in the scientific method of tracing history are too preoccupied with dynastic and political history to spare sufficient time for cultural history in general and library history in particular [7]. This statement no doubt reflects the feeling of many colleagues from India, but is it not possible now to fill the “antiquarian gap” in a way that will benefit librarians and those they serve?


[1.] Paul Kaegbein and Paul Sturges, eds., “Library History Research in the International Context: Proceedings of an International Symposium”, 14–15 April 1988, Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, Germany, Libraries & Culture 25 (1990): 1–152.

[2.] Donald G. Davis, Jr., “The Status of Library History in India: A Report of an Informal Survey and a Selective Bibliographic Essay”, Journal of Library and Information Science [Delhi] 14 (1989): 98–114. This report also appeared in South Asia Library Notes & Queries 26 (1989/1990): 5–23, and Libraries & Culture 25 (1990): 575–589.

[3.] Davis, “Status of Library History in India”, JLIS, p. 106.

[4.] “Handbook of Libraries, Archives and Information Centres in India”, B. M. Gupta, coord. ed., vol. 9 in 2 parts, Humanities Information Systems and Centres (Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 1991).

[5.] These points derive from an unpublished paper by Mohamed Taher and Donald G. Davis, Jr., “Librarianship and Library Science in India: An Outline of Historical Perspectives” (Hyderabad, 1991; 187 p.). A comprehensive bibliography of nearly 350 items in English appears on pp. 122-142.

[6.] T. S. Rajgopalan, “Trends and Perspectives in Indian Librarianship”, Presidential Address, Indian Library Association Conference, 1987.

[7.] S. R. Ranganathan, Radio Talk of April 1956. Quoted in Mohamed Taher and Donald G. Davis, Jr., “Librarianship and Library Science in India”, p. 3.

About the Authors

Mohamed Taher is Deputy Librarian, American Studies Research Center, Hyderabad, India. He has two master’s degrees from Mysore University, and a Ph.D. from Calicut University. In 1990–91 he was a Fulbright Exchange Visitor at the Rutgers University library school. Dr. Taher has written extensively on Indian libraries, including a forthcoming monograph History of Libraries in India. His articles have appeared in numerous professional journals.

Donald G. Davis, Jr. is a Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Texas, Austin, and Editor of Libraries and Culture. He has master’s degrees in history and library science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. Dr. Davis has also taught in the Department of Librarianship, Birmingham Polytechnic. He has published five monographs, about 80 articles, and about 200 book reviews. His newest work is the Encyclopedia of Library History, co–edited with Wayne A. Wiegand (September 1993).

© 1993 Rosary College

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