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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha >  A Center for Dravidian Archives in Eelam

Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

A Center for Dravidian Archives in Eelam

21 July 1991

This is a shortened version of a paper presented by Sachi Srikantha at the Sacramento Conference organised by the International Federation of Tamils, in 21 July 1991 on "Tamil Eelam - A Nation without a State'

Robert Holmes in his book Jaffna (Sri Lanka) 1980 made a poignant observation about the reading habits of Eelam Tamils. "Only a very small minority find recreation in reading. One of the best informed of the residents of Jaffna, who reads omnivorously told me, `Most of the people in Jaffna have no academic interest. They do not read books. Even the wealthy man who has two cars will not have a library. If he is a doctor. he will have a few medical books; if a lawyer, some law books...Only the exceptional person possesses books'".

Though I suspect whether this stereotypical portrayal of Holmes can stand scrutiny in a scientific survey, I agree with the overall context of these statements and the spirit in which they were written.

If the publication of Jaffna 1980 had occurred in 1982 or later, author Holmes would have recorded how the Eelam Tamils agonized over the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981. This tragic event was a turning point in the Sinhalese-Tamil relationship in Sri Lanka. It was equated with the Nazi book burning campaign of the Jewish scholars after Hitler's rise to power.

That Tamil areas were badly served in the post-independent Sri Lanka in terms of public learning is evident by the fact that the two foremost libraries run by the foreign agencies (British Council and the United States Information Services) had their services only in Colombo and Kandy. The reason for non-establishment of branches of these libraries in Jaffna and Batticaloa between 1948 and 1983 are not difficult to list.

Based on my past ten year exile in the USA and Japan (in four institutions of higher learning and research), I wish to focus attention on the establishment of a Center for Dravidian Archives, a major component of which will be a research library.

The three B's of a library

Books, brains and building have been noted as the three B's, which constitute the skeleton of a library2. I will address the issues related to the two B's (books and building), while excluding the 'brains'. Librarians, information scientists, archivists and personnel involved in assorted services such as maintenance would come under the category of `brains'.
So that what happened in 1981 to the Jaffna Public Library will not be repeated, entire structure for the center of Dravidian Archives has to be constructed underground. This will prevent demolition from aerial bomb attack and arson. However to safeguard the deposited materials from fire, which can arise due to electrical short-circuit, as an insurance, an architectural feature should be added in the form of a water-reservoir. A pond, if designed aesthetically and assured to have water all around the year, can serve this protective purpose well.

The main undergraduate library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (the alma mater for Robert Holmes as well as me) was built underground decades ago, for altogether a different practical reason. I feel the architectural design of this library could serve as a valid model for the proposed Center.

The underground building will also have another important benefit. It will aid in a better preservation of the books and other archival materials. According to Jeremy Norman (an internationally known dealer and appraiser of rare books and manuscripts), "Over the centuries books have proven to be very durable objects. If simply placed on a shelf out of direct sunlight in a room with medium temperature and humidity, there is no reason why most books should not survive for hundreds of years".

What a better way to preserve the books in the tropical climate of Eelam by keeping them underground, away from the direct exposure to the ultraviolet rays of sunlight.

How to collect materials for the proposed archives? Though the archives should also include journals, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, annual reports of international organizations, reprints, unpublished manuscripts. audio cassettes, video cassettes and movies, the main focus will be on the books. We can set the initial target of collection at one million books.

I would suggest that a well-organized attempt should be made to involve all the Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates and exiles in a mass-collection scheme of one million books. Table 1 provides a 1991 estimate of the expatriate and exiled Eelam Tamils. I arrived at the cited numbers, by extrapolating the figures provided by Guy de Fontgalland in his useful compilation, Sri Lankans in Exile (1986). In the absence of any other valid documentation, I believe that this 1991 extrapolated figure of 271,000 can be accepted as the number of Eelam Tamils who are living around the globe. On the basis of 4 individuals per household, this works out approximately to 67,750 expatriate and exiled Eelam Tamil households.

Efforts should be made to implement the donation of 20 books per expatriate household for the Center. In a highly optimistic estimate, if 50,000 of the 67,750 expatriate households can donate 20 books per household, the donation target of one million books can be attained. Even if this highly optimistic target cannot be achieved, a realistic figure of 500,000 books (25,000 households donating 20 books per household) can be fulfilled. One should also note that the famous Alexandrian library which was begun by Ptolemy II and destructed by the invasion of Julius Caesar was supposed have had a collection of half a million volumes in it at its peak.

The demerits of monetary donation for this book campaign are many. These include, varying monetary values of the currencies of different countries, difficulty in handling the collected amount in a manner which can satisfy the donors as well as "donor-fatigue". However, the request for a donation of 20 books (in any language, on any topic of their interest, of any affordable price) will be a novel form which should elicit a higher range of donor participation.

Since the donors will be living in countries which use languages other than English as well, it is plausible to collect books from many languages of the world. Consider the benefits of this diversified collection. The Center itself would gain recognition among scholars in the region or continent, as a repository of knowledge in more than 50 languages.
Arrangements should also be made with the internationally known Tamil academics such as Prof.C.J. Eliezer, Prof.S. Arasaratnam, Prof.S.J. Tambiah, Prof.A. Jeyaratnam Wilson and Prof.M. Sundralingam that their 'papers' will be donated to the Center after their retirement from active career.


I wish to end this paper with a 1981 quotation from Herman Liebert, the Librarian Emeritus of the Yale University. "Libraries are our fortresses against the infidel and if we do not man their ramparts, it is we who shall have lost the battle and failed to keep faith with the book"." Tamils should be constantly reminded that if they fail to rebuild the "fortress" demolished by the "infidels" in 1981, "it is we who shall have lost the battle".




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