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.