The story of the Jaffna Public Library

Print edition : March 28, 2003

ON February 13, 23 members of the Jaffna Municipal Council resigned en masse, following their inability to reopen the Jaffna Public Library, which was razed to the ground in 1981. While state-sponsored thugs were behind the burning of the library, public pressure, backed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), had put off the reopening.

The Jaffna Public Library, which was burnt down in 1981.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

That event was also to be a landmark achievement of the JMC, which was dissolved a few days later, on completion of its one-year extension. V. Anandasangaree, the leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), was to have inaugurated the event and two Sri Lankan Cabinet Ministers were to fly to Jaffna for the formal re-opening on February 14.

In the run-up to the inauguration, Sellan Kandian, the then Jaffna Mayor, was reportedly threatened by local LTTE leaders of dire consequences if he went ahead with the re-opening. The decision to postpone the event was taken following high-level intervention and the realisation among political leaders that the only way to avert a possible instance of bloodshed was to shelve the re-opening of the library.

The library has a long history, dating back to the 1930s, a full 20 years before the Jaffna Public Library was formally inaugurated. From its early origins as a reading room, which was inaugurated on August 1, 1934, the library had evolved as a part of the Jaffna psyche and the desire of its people to attain higher levels of education. Early records say that the public response was so huge that crowds thronged the place despite the lack of chairs. This reading room was handed over to the Jaffna authorities on January 1, 1935. Then it had 844 books, of which 694 were gifts from the public, which included leading names of Jaffna society and institutions such as the Madras Bible Society, the Wesleyan Society, the Colombo Muslims Society and the Jaffna Traders Organisation. Owing to lack of space, the library was shifted to a larger premises in 1936.

On May 16, 1952, Sam A. Sabapathy, the then Jaffna Mayor, constituted the Jaffna Central Library Board as the governing body. The foundation stone for this library was laid on May 29, 1954 by the Mayor of Jaffna and a host of dignitaries, including top diplomats representing India, the United States and the United Kingdom. The Asian Development Programme and the Indian High Commissioner gave monetary assistance. Cultural programmes and public lotteries were organised to raise resources. Traders gifted vehicles for the project.

The name Jaffna Public Library, was given on October 17, 1958, during the construction phase. The library was opened on October 11, 1959, even as the construction was going on by Alfred T. Durayappa, the then Jaffna Mayor.

Forty-five years after it opened to the public, yet another formal re-opening was postponed this February. Talking to reporters in Jaffna, the councillors cited the "inability to work in a democratic framework'' as the reason for the mass-resignation. Tamil political sources see the long shadow of the LTTE behind the non-event. The Tigers have reportedly expressed the view that the library should not be re-opened as the "work was still unfinished". In addition, they have also reportedly demanded that a part of the burnt library be kept as a memorial.

The stalemate over the library is also seen as a reflection of the LTTE's resistance to the extension of the central government's powers in the Tamil-majority north and east. Although the LTTE holds some territory it gained by pushing back government forces during the years of armed conflict, it is yet to gain complete control over Jaffna peninsula, retaken by government forces in 1995.

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