I used to sit on the 21st floor. Now I am retired

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Anything but my favourite library

Sepia walls, muted lights, green sofas comfortably placed against the bookshelves. Some stolen moments of sleep while reading. Beginnings of conversations over Richard Dawkins and George Orwell. Very inexpensive and often well-made chicken croissant in the cafe. Rows of poetry. My favourite corner of encyclopedias, trivia and cornucopia. Cabbages & Kings, the book of incidental history.

The British Council Library on Kasturba Gandhi Marg was a safe haven. It was a delight. It was the place of pilgrimage for quizzers, amongst other groups. And, after half a day of research, you could go home with Science Fiction and a Booker Prize winner. Week on week.

That was till 2001. Then, I went to Bangalore. When I came back in October, the place was changing. September 11 had put up barricades in front of the building. The friendly guard at the gate was relegated by a hierarchy of supervisors, guaranteed to make you feel miserable. Soon, the changes moved from the merely superficial (painful that they were) to the core of the library itself.

Gone were the elaborate labyrinths of literature. In came a cybercafe, a rather large section on tripe - business books, career guides. The sepia lights were replaced by an antiseptic flouroscence. The sofas on the corners were removed. Monstrosities in clean modern lines came in - uncomfortable, uninviting and rude.

I stopped my membership. I haven't gone there in the last 3 years.

I have heard from old friends, that the old format was a place for intellectuals, book-lovers, students and other not-so-profitable segments of society. Now, those looking for a career in Britain (and willing to shell out top pounds for counselling) are the customers that flit in and out. Willing volunteers for cross-selling. Someone was also telling me that this was a move hastened by September 11, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Libraries are a classic example of public goods for me. Either you put in entry charges leading to sub-optimal consumption (Pareto non-optimality), or they lead to the free-rider problem (everyone wants to use it, but not pay enough for it!!). The externalities are also high and impossible to price (what value can you put on all the knowledge that I have got? and on the goodwill that I have in my heart for the British Council). Thus, invariably markets fail to price a library efficiently. That is when institutions like the government or the British Council need to step in and provide this good. Obviously, they need to have sufficient incentive too (votes, popularity, brand equity).

I guess the motivation of the British Council changed sometime. Not sure what the real reasons are for this. However, one thing's for sure - it's anything but my favourite library now.

3 Comments:

Blogger aimlesswanderer said...

The transformation was, I think, driven by the need to market the UK as an education destination. I'm not saying their logic is right, but I seem to recall that the library began to change in character around the same time that the Education UK initiative gained prominence. The composition of books also reflects this. Do note that this is a charge [of replacing culture with career] that has been made in other contexts Blair's Cool Britannia, so it is, perhaps, all of a piece.

The lack of change in Max Mueller Bhavan and the American Centre Library[that I know of- I haven't been to either in 2 years] is indirect[if weak] support for this hypothesis. The Germans are nowhere as aggressive as the Brits in asking for our student loan money; the Americans already have separate institutions to deal with education-related issues.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006 6:45:00 PM

 
Blogger dhoomketu said...

hmm.. Clearly, they have made a choice of creating an education centre in place of a library. My hypothesis is that this move also has led many old faithful away, and amongst those, some influencers.

Btw, I'm not even sure that there was an 'either-or' situation here. If ACL can run a good library and have the USEFI close by, why not the British Council?

Thursday, March 16, 2006 1:51:00 AM

 
Blogger aimlesswanderer said...

>lso has led many old faithful away, and amongst those, some influencers.

Certainly. I'm one of them. That said, I don't know how relevant the loss of the "influencers" is. I would hypothesize that the target market of potential students has expanded vastly in the last decade. I'm guessing that what you said about the role of 9/11 has something to do with this. More stringent entry barriers to higher education in the US has probably resulted in many students, from more diverse backgrounds, considering the UK as an alternative destination. At a time when Oxbridge and LSE were the destinations of choice, the profile of most students going to the UK was more homogenous, and the importance of those "influencers" as brand ambassadors was greater. There is also a change in the nature of the courses supplied by the UK to consider- again, a shift from academic disciplines to professional/vocational courses.
I think the Americans are quite unique in their separation of their cultural activities from their education activities in India. Almost every other country has a cultural centre that also coordinates education-related activities.

Thursday, March 16, 2006 6:10:00 AM

 

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