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Auroville Experience

February 2009


A library in crisis

- Priya Sundaravalli

The Auroville Library urgently needs a new building


When cyclone Nisha hit, one place in Auroville suffered severely – the Auroville Library at Bharat Nivas. The situation reached crisis point when water flooded the library, reaching the lowest shelves and soaking the books.

Jürgen at the Auroville Library “There was nothing we could do as it rained heaviest at night,” says Jürgen, who since 1997 has been running the place.
He, along with his staff of three, moved the wet books to the technical section located on higher ground in another building, but the damage was done. “Many of those books are unsalvageable.” This is the third time in ten years that the Auroville Library has been flooded.

The Auroville Library, which comes under the umbrella of SAIIER (Sri Aurobindo Institute for Education and Research), has been occupying this particular spot in Bharat Nivas for over 20 years. “Right from the beginning, the space was unsuitable,” says Jürgen. “There is no proper foundation and the floor is built lower than ground level. Since we're in an area where the water table is high, every monsoon we have water seeping through the floor. When the rains are heavy, we get flooded!”

An electric water pump was built into the floor, but “when it rains, there is often no power. No-one thought of that; and generators were impossible to come by during the cyclone – they were in such great demand.” As the water could not be pumped out, Jürgen was forced to shut the library for three weeks, much to the consternation of its many patrons.

Several voices were heard on the weekly News & Notes as well as the Auroville Intranet. One person remarked: “The Auroville Library is a very important part of a village that aspires to be a place of unending education.” The message was loud and clear: why was there no interest in finding a better location for the library?

“It is not just the location,” says Jürgen, “we also don't have the space to keep all the books.” Currently, the Auroville Library holds over 27,000 books with about 2,500 additions every year. “The 170 square metres floor space is inadequate,” says Jürgen. “Ideally, it should be one square metre for hundred books, so we should display only 17,000 books!” However Jürgen, like other typical pioneers in Auroville, has made the most out of these limitations and gone beyond. He has created not only an aesthetic space for book lovers, complete with floor cushions, fresh flowers and art, but also kept up with the latest developments in library science.

Today the Auroville Library which is free for Aurovilians, guests and workers, has bar-coded books, an electronic check-out, the modern OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogue) and books classified according to international standards using the Dewey Decimal system. The most recent development is a fully- functional web-based search engine that allows the database to be searched from anywhere in the world. As one visitor to Auroville recorded on his blog, “The [Auroville] Library has a brilliant collection and extraordinary categorization, one of the most extensive I've ever seen”. And all this with a staff of three.

“No, it has not been easy to find anyone who wants to work here full-time,” says Jürgen. He trains his staff who all come from the villages and have minimal education. “They assist me in the technical and maintenance sections,” he says.

Jürgen himself is not trained in the library sciences – he studied philosophy. “I learnt along the way, and I am still learning.” When Jürgen first came to Pondicherry , he was assigned the task of managing the little Auroville library then located in Pondicherry overlooking the beach. “That was for a short time,” he says, “but it was the first thing I was called to do.” Later he moved on to other things. Eleven years ago, when Lloyd decided to stop working at the Library, Jürgen took over.

In some ways, Jürgen reminds one of a character from one of the books on his shelves, a philosopher-scholar-pioneer-librarian all rolled into one – quirky and sentimental when it comes to books, gruff and grumpy with patrons who break the unwritten codes of library etiquette but quickly forgiving too, and tech-savvy, unafraid to embrace the developments of 21st century library science. But managing and running the Library, he confesses, has been an uphill battle.

For over three years, he has been working to get a new site and building plans approved. “We found a location opposite the Solar Kitchen in what is called the city centre area. It would also house the existing audio and video libraries.” He explains that Roger Anger had approved the building site before he passed away and L'Avenir d'Auroville also gave its support. But the project got stalled for lack of funds. At the moment Jürgen, with the help of architect Suhasini, has resubmitted a revised and scaled-down proposal.

Jürgen has a grand vision of uniting the different libraries in Auroville under one virtual platform. In 2005, he initiated the ‘All Auroville Library Project'. Its goal was to create an electronic database, linking all the libraries' databases, and to make this accessible from any location via the intranet. The idea found support from Stichting de Zaaier but the project could not fully manifest as not all the Auroville libraries wanted to participate. “The reason given was lack of manpower,” says Jürgen. Yet he went ahead and demonstrated the viability of the idea using an open source software, NewGen Lib. Today the Auroville Library is online. Registered patrons can renew books electronically, place reservations, or even download e-books from this site. The Library's catalogueing and readers registration systems are now state-of-the-art.

Jürgen has managed the near-impossible, with an insufficient budget, a derelict building, lack of infrastructure and unqualified staff. The Auroville Library now needs a better building. Urgently.


Library factsheet

* Started in 1975; housed in Bharat Nivas since 1986.

* Currently 667 Aurovilians, 112 long term guests, 380 guests, 17 Auroville employees, and 3 students use it.

* Operates on a City Services budget of Rs.15,000 a month; deficit is partly offset by voluntary contributions by individual Aurovilians.

* Major book collections in eight languages: English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Russian, and Spanish, including a substantial section in Tamil.

* Has a large youth and children's collection in several languages, including Tamil.

* Average increase about 2400 books per year. Of these, over 90% are donations.

* About 20 newspapers and magazines available at the library. Of these 12 (all Indian) are subscribed for by the library; the remaining, which includes foreign periodicals, are gift subscriptions by patrons.

* In 2008, 10,800 books were checked out; in 2002, 16,996 books.



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