The Central Library, Baroda, built in 1910-11 is a structure of the past designed for the future. One of the first public libraries to be set up in India, it shares a unique resemblance to the world’s finest library, the prestigious Library of Congress, Washington, USA – both boast of a distinctive shelf-rack and glass flooring system that is disaster-proof, allow for as much natural daylight as possible and, most importantly, is extremely user and book-friendly.
The Central Library actually took birth in the Laxmi Vilas Palace of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad, who was one of the pioneers of the public library movement in India that began in 1906. He donated 20,000 books as a ‘seed’ collection to get the Library off its feet and it was first housed in the Sarkarwada annexe, just opposite its present location.
When Sayajirao was in the United States he met and was impressed by William Alanson Borden, then Librarian at the Young Men’s Institute of New Haven in New Jersey. In the winter of 1910, Borden was in Baroda, planning the ambitious Central Library. It is believed that along with Borden even Sir Edward Lutyens (the builder of New Delhi) as well as three architect-planners from Baroda State were involved in the design of the Central Library.
The building was finally ready in 1931 and was built at the cost of Rs. 4 lakh with an additional Rs 1 lakh spent on appropriate furniture and one more lakh on books and magazines.
The Central Library, situated in the bustling Mandvi area in the walled city, has an impressive facade that runs the length of the pavement leading to Champaner Darwaza. A wide corridor filters the noise and dust of the street outside as one steps into the main well of the library with its lending and receiving counters, to see book-filled shelves and cupboards arranged methodically all around. Two light wells filter natural sunlight into the interior thus brightening up the vast space.
But straight ahead is the real architectural gem – the stack room with four floors – 85 feet long, 34.5 feet broad, with 352 slotted angle racks that can house 3.5 lakh books. The stack house is designed as a warehouse with long, glass-paned windows oriented to the north-south axis thus getting the maximum daylight.
In earlier days, the area facing the windows was landscaped with specific shrubs and trees that could ‘process’ the moisture-laden air into dry air which could then waft into the stack room, thus keeping the books inside safe from mildew and other moisture-induced fungi.
The wooden roof structure has iron girders that are designed to hold up the entire metal stack armature. Each stack is fitted three feet away from the wall with thin running beams holding each one in place, with the beams screwed on into the metal armature concealed in the wall.
The stacks are separated from each other by a meter, so that browsers have enough personal space as they look for the books they want. The entire structure was designed to exact specification and executed by J. Snead & Co., USA, who also designed the Library of Congress, Washington.
While the ground floor has kota stone tiles, the upper three tiers are fitted with large glass floor tiles. Surprised? One should be, for even today few architects would dare to use glass floor tiles. These tiles ensured that the metal armature and shelves on which the books are stacked do not heat up in the summer and freeze in the winter, thus keeping the books stocked at an even temperature.
The glass tiles also allow easy passage of light and prevent insects and worms breeding in the floor area. These tiles were imported from Belgium and are of 35”x35”x2” size each. There are 719 tiles fitted and hardly a couple are damaged in spite of carrying the weight of so many books and extraordinarily regular use for over 80 years!
It was no wonder that the earthquake of 2001, which rocked the entire state, could not dislodge one book in this Library from its rack! Moreover, as the stack room really does not need any electrically operated lights or fans, and needs to be swept and swabbed only once in a week, it is supremely eco-friendly in its maintenance, an idea whose time seems to have come now, but the concepts of which were familiar to designers even in the early 20th century.
Being one of the oldest public libraries in India, the Central Library has some priceless books in its huge collection. Amongst these are, The Indian Antiquary (62 vols.), The Indian Historical Quarterly (39 vols.), Masterpiece Library of Short Stories (20 vols.), Greene’s Biographical Encyclopaedia of Composers, Shepherd’s Glossary of Graphic Signs & Symbols, The Private Life of Warren Hastings by Charles Lawson, as well as a copy of the Indian Constitution with original signatures of the MPs, Census Reports and Annual Reports from Baroda State, to name a few.
These rub shoulders with Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, bound volumes of old issues of Satyakatha- the seminal Marathi literary periodical, 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, Linda Goodman’s Love Signs and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code!
There is also an extraordinary miniature book cabinet, barely two feet high and a foot wide that holds 73 miniature books including the complete works of Shakespeare and numerous dictionaries. The largest book in the Library’s collection is the two feet by one and half feet Indian Princes’ Edition of Empress of India Memorial Volumes (1887-1901), subscribed to by the Maharaja and donated to the Library.
Presently, the Central Library is administered and managed by the Directorate of Libraries, Government of Gujarat. The state has a unique distinction of being the only one in India with two state libraries – the one in Baroda and the new one in Gandhinagar, built in 1982-83.
Several programmes for modernization have already been implemented, such as the computerized cataloguing done in 2006, as well as video facility in the children’s section. Others, such as digitization of the very rare photographic albums, are awaiting approval for funds from the government, and needs to be done on priority.
Currently the Library has more than 8000 active members (membership is a nominal Rs 10 for a five-year package!) with numerous children from all the neighbouring schools, as well as senior citizens, using its facilities to the maximum.