A Fine Library in Madras


The BBC reported in 2016 that the 204-year-old Madras Literary Society in Chennai was getting a new lease of life, thanks to youthful volunteers and a social media campaign.

The library is a national treasure. The sight takes your breath away. As you step in, you encounter bookshelf after bookshelf rising up from the floor to the ceiling. It is as though you have stumbled upon a waterfall of books.

The Madras Literary Society library is located in the centre of the south Indian city of Chennai, formerly known as Madras. It houses more than 55,000 books, including a huge collection of tomes that are between 150 and 300 years old. From outside, the imposing red brick building, which was constructed in 1905, looks like something out of a British period movie. The architectural style is typical of the Indo-Saracenic movement, favoured by the architects of British India in the late 19th Century.

Established by the East India Company in 1812 to train its employees in administration, languages, law, religion and “customs of the natives”, the library was initially located inside the Fort St George between 1812 and 1854 and moved to its current location in the year 1905. One of the oldest books in its collection is Isaac Newton’s Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”) published in the year 1729. It also contains memoirs and accounts published by the British officers of the Raj, such as “The History of Buckingham Canal” which was published in 1898. But it was reported that some of these were in a dire state and required immediate restoration, a process that costed from 5,000 rupees ($74; £58) to 12,000 rupees. Without adequate funds and staffing, the old books would soon turn to dust.

So how is the restoration going?

We are pleased to report that work is thriving and, although there are fundraising campaigns still being run to fund future restoration, huge strides have been made.

You can follow the Madras Literary Society on Twitter here and, if you live in the area, you are welcome to volunteer.