A quiet book corner amidst the bustle

The Colombo Public Library started in 1925 has stood the test of time catering to a broad segment of society.
Shalomi Daniel reports

Nishantha Janaka can be found at the library at least once a fortnight, most likely looking for books on carpentry and building-- subjects he is particularly interested in. It’s an institution that has quenched the hunger for knowledge of many generations; a place where people from all walks of life come to find resources for leisure and entertainment, research and extensive study -- yes it’s the Colombo Public Library.

A Public Library is an institution that plays the vital role of catering to the information needs of the general public. It is usually funded by the local government body in the area and is open to all categories of readers from scholars to schoolchildren, young and old, irrespective of social differences and physical disabilities.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) believes that a public library has the potential of being a source of information, education and culture. UNESCO published a manifesto to ensure the maintenance of high standards in a public library and this states that a public library should cater to people from all walks of life, while keeping pace with modern technology. Further it is expected to play a vital role in fostering reading habits among young children, create awareness on culture and work towards promoting cultural harmony.

How do we match up? A reasonably developed Public Library system exists in our country too with some 950 such institutions across the island. “At present the Colombo Public Library has 1,050,000 members and the number is increasing steadily each year,” says Chief Librarian Sirisena Kusummullage.

The Colombo Public Library offers a wide range of services including a reference section, lending library, periodicals division, newspaper section, children’s section, study halls and audio-visual section.
The library has a limited number of videos, DVDs etc and this section is being targeted for development in the future. The library also offers internet facilities to its members.

Emphasizing the local flavour and highlighting the rich heritage of the country, there are special collections including a Sri Lanka collection containing rare books about the country, the ola (palm) leaf collection and newspaper articles. The library holds a collection of Sinhala, Tamil and English books and an international collection which includes Japanese, Chinese, Iranian and Cuban books.

“The staff is helpful,” says Sirivimala Hewavitharana who visits the library twice a week. He is interested in books about the share market and adds that he always found the books that he needed. “The opening hours should be extended further,” he suggested adding however that the library tends to be quite warm and congested at times. It would be better if the number of times a book can be renewed is extended, as at present a book can be renewed only twice, he says Nishantha recommended that maintenance of the books be further enhanced, especially in terms of keeping them clean and free of dust.

Did you know the Colombo Public Library also runs a mobile service? The library is hoping to purchase an additional vehicle this year for this purpose. The Colombo Public Library also conducts a programme known as the ‘Books Box Project Plan’, where books are taken to rural areas in vans provided by UNICEF on a fortnightly basis. The membership fee for the Book Box Project is just two rupees. This project has been in operation for the past 35 years.

The Colombo Public Library holds various competitions for children during the Literary Month in September and the National Reading Month in October. “Essays ,oratorical, art and folk song competitions and ‘do you know’ quizzes are some of the events held during these months,” says Grade One Librarian M.C.V. Fernando.

An annual exhibition has been held at the Public Library since 2007 and it will be on this year as well.
“The Colombo Public Library acts as the venue and provides support for various workshops such as photography and art workshops held by interested parties,” added a Grade One Librarian at the library M.T.M. Nizar.

The maintenance of membership, cataloguing etc is done manually and due to the large collection of books in the library, computerizing will prove a daunting task, given that there is a lack of funds to undertake such a large assignment. Nevertheless the Colombo Public Library is hoping to start computerizing this year and begin a new chapter in their long history.

Its beginnings

The Colombo Public Library, is one of the oldest public libraries in Sri Lanka. It is the result of merging some older libraries. The ‘United Service Library’ established in 1813 and which was only for the use of civil and military officers of the government who were stationed in Colombo in 1824 merged with the Colombo Library.

Meanwhile the Burgher community in Colombo founded the Pettah Library in 1829. The Colombo Library and the Pettah Library merged to form the Colombo Public Library in 1925. Colonial Secretary Sir Cecil Clementi held a meeting for the subscribers of the Colombo Library and the Pettah Library and it was decided that the books of both libraries would be transferred to the new Library, which was the Colombo Public Library.

The Colombo Public Library was opened on August 10, 1925, under the Colombo Municipal Council. The first librarian was S.C. Blok.

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