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The reconstruction of the Jaffna library

(Reproduced from the Daily News of January 30, 2002)

by Dr. Jayantha Seneviratne

A library is a store of knowledge and information. The Jaffna library is the storehouse of the Tamil communities utilized culture and knowledge. It contained a methodically stored collection of written communiqué related to fields ranging from culture, art, science, politics and society. As such it was knowledge quencher to not just the Tamil community but also all those who sought knowledge. 

The Government has made a statement that reconstruction work on the Jaffna Public Library, which was destroyed by the flames of racism, would be commencing soon. We all have welcomed such a confidence building measure among many that would be launched towards reaching a peace consensus.

When the Jaffna library was destroyed in 1981, it was considered the most well equipped library in South Asia. A collection of books amounting to 97,000 was destroyed in one night. Among the destroyed were scrolls of historical value and the works and manuscripts of the universally acclaimed, philosopher, artist and author Ananda Kumaraswamy and prominent intellectual Prof. Issac Thambaiya. The destroyed articles included memoirs and works of writers and dramatists who made a significant contribution toward the sustenance of the Tamil culture and those of locally reputed medical physicians and politicians.

The Tamil community saw this mass scale destruction as a direct blow to Tamil culture and to their intellectual development, which was the one mode of progress for the Tamil people considering the lack of physical resources.

As such instead of allowing this mass scale destruction to be buried under the sand of time the decision to reconstruct the Jaffna Public Library would be applauded by all Sri Lankans who respect diversity, give room for empathy and know the value of knowledge.

I see this project as an element that would reconstruct humanity. It would greatly contribute toward the process of establishing an identity for all communities in Sri Lanka.

It is now required that a system of governance which would assure justice for all ethnic groups be established, ending the political process of gaining power by misleading the public via racism, a process which has repeatedly demeaned humanity. If a culture of peace was to be established in the country, ethnic policies for national integration must be drafted and activated under the principle of "Justice for all communities".

Peace should not be confined to a word. It is a process, a continuous process. As such it is required that the shortcomings of the past are rectified and more so ensured that they are not repeated. On the other hand it is important that we do not continue to dwell on past mistakes, and move into a process of forgiveness and reconciliation. As such while the victims of war in the north and east are provided with relief aid, it is essential that intellectual centers are reconstructed expeditiously.

A library is a store of knowledge and information. The Jaffna library is the storehouse of the Tamil communities utilized culture and knowledge. It contained a methodically stored collection of written communiqué related to fields ranging from culture, art, science, politics and society.

As such it was knowledge quencher to not just the Tamil community but all those who sought knowledge. Thus the Jaffna library served as a source of sharing background knowledge between communities and therefore its significance became that much more then one derived from the objective concept of a library service. It served not only to develop the literacy rate among the public but also to enhance the cultural literacy between communities.

A library serves not only to develop reading abilities and expand ones knowledge but also to share knowledge. It is significant that background information is shared between the writers and readers, within the community of authors and also between the general reading public. This exchange of information is similar to that which takes place between a teacher and student. In this context a well-equipped library in a city is similar to a small-scale university.

There is a close link between the ability to read and the ability to learn. Via reading we can with ease gain access to new information related to knowledge we possess already and the part a library plays in such a context is immense. As a person's ability to read develops so does his ability to learn.

As one shares his knowledge with others ones thirst for new information or curiosity revitalizes him to study the relevant subject deeply. In this context it becomes evident that the process of learning is dependent on communication and powerful communication is dependent on the ability to share background knowledge.

We have entered the 21st century. Our resolution for the new century should be to build a new culture for the new century. In the century gone by the reduction of the Jaffna Library to ashes is just one among many unpleasant happening related to the ethnic conflict we experienced. 

The incident was a huge blow to the right of the northern-based Tamil peoples access to knowledge and information and to share it. Due to this organized act of destruction the Sinhalese community too stood condemned before the international community.

As such via the resolution to the ethnic conflict we must ensure that such incidents are never again repeated. We must now commence a process of activities that is aimed at establishing co-operation and integration between communities.

As one such activity the reconstruction and redevelopment of the Jaffna library stands significant. While it is our responsibility to contribute toward this project, this moment is an ideal one to clarify ourselves as civilised humans before the world.

When studying history it becomes clear that 20th century was doomed one for the fate of libraries. Many collections worldwide were destroyed and continue to be destroyed due to war, natural disasters and deficiency in preservation. 

According to a report issued by the National Library of Netherlands the destruction caused libraries in Poland and Germany during the first and second world wars are outstanding. 160 libraries in Germany alone were ruined while all the libraries in the city of Dresden were destroyed.

Following the Revolution in 1917 in the Soviet Union, Communist systems of Governance as well as dictatorships and fundamentalist Governments that came into office after 1945 destroyed and distorted hundreds of thousands of books under the pretext of cultural cleansing and in the belief of political inaccuracy.

This destruction was carried out in mass scale in Eastern Europe including the Soviet Union as well as in China and Cambodia. (While these countries were considered Communist countries, such distortion of Communist ideals, it was believed at that time if one was to study the true concept of Communism one had to do so in a Western country with capitalist ideals).

Most recently all the libraries in Afghanistan were destroyed due to the imprudent acts of fundamentalists. If the right to read is to be taken away from the public they must either be made blind or else the facility to read must be removed, i.e. destroying libraries.

Many chose the latter form of suppression, which was the easiest. The racists in our country too chose that method. That choice was made not only due to the ease of the method but also to minimise international reproach.

Natural disasters too caused the destruction of libraries. Over 700,000 books in the library of the Imperial University in Tokyo were completely destroyed due to the earthquake that took place in 1993.

Also the books related to Judaism in Germany, Austria and Poland which were shipped to the United Kingdom for the fear of destruction at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War, were reduced to ashes in a fire at the Jewish Theological Seminary Library where they were stored in 1966. In 1988 a fire at St. Petersburg destroyed over 3 million books and archives stored at the Science Academy. 

Apart from man made and natural disasters time climate and weather cause hindrance to the preserving of book collections in library-form. UNESCO points out that the volatility of chemical preservations, humidity, light and air as well as the high temperatures that exist within libraries and chemical reactions it causes much damage to book-collections worldwide.

Among such libraries in danger due to humidity is the Egypt National Library based in the city of Cairo. Dry air, cool temperatures and low light are elements that help preserve libraries. While new technology can be utilised for this purpose this is also an issue for the libraries of the Third World. In a country such as Sri Lanka the air conditioning system too is a doubtful remedy considering the ongoing power crisis.

Apart from this untrained labour, lack of storing facilities, incorrect storage methods as well as theft pose a great to the library service and its continuation.

According to my knowledge the reconstruction of the Jaffna Library has commenced after taking all these aspects into consideration. While the former regime commenced a similar project under the title "Book and Brick" it was disrupted due to the armed conflict reaching intensity.

However the recommencing of this project by the new Government is cause for satisfaction. I trust that at this point when a ceasing of hostilities has been declared with the LTTE and an understanding has been established with the movement toward reaching a consensus, the reconstruction work of the Jaffna library can be carried out minus interruption.

According to my knowledge when the former Government launched reconstruction efforts this was obstructed by the LTTE. The movement had at that point wanted to secure the ruins of violence for the witnessing of the future generations. However it is better to work on a prospective future rather than dwell on the bleak happenings of the past.

As such I trust that the LTTE would respond positively to this attempt of rebuilding the Jaffna Library. The total cost of this project is estimated at 700 million rupees and it has been proposed that several new units be included into the construction while retaining its original design. As such at the end of the project the Jaffna library would inevitably become one of the most well equipped and up-to-date libraries in the world. 

What is even more significant is that the Jaffna library would become a strong foundation to the fellowship between the Tamil and Sinhala communities. As such it is the responsibility of us all to co-operate in this worthy national venture irrespective of any division. 


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Last Updated Date: September 25, 2003 .