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Historical Mumbai library takes creative online approach to sail through unprecedented times

In a game-changing move, Mumbai’s historical library is now hosting enriching, informational lectures online to attract new audiences and gather funds.

By Akhila Menon , in City , on December 3, 2020 Tags: , , ,

One of Mumbai’s oldest libraries has embraced the Zoom age and has been conducting online lectures to raise funds for the library during troubling times.

The advertisement for the Zoom lecture series on ‘Exploring the City through Literature Old and New’

Since August, the Asiatic Society of Mumbai has been hosting talks and lectures by experts from varied fields. The latest series is called “Writing Bombay: Exploring the City through Literature Old and New.”

“They’ve proved very popular, and have brought a lot of new faces to the society, thus increasing membership. As these have been paid lecture series, with a few free single talks, these have also generated some modest funds,” says society president Vispi Balaporia.

The society, which had to close its doors to its patrons on March 16 as a precautionary pandemic measure, has been running the lectures in collaboration with its sub-committee, the Mumbai Research Centre.

The effort has also been fueled by the need to bridge the gap created by the loss of funding and income due to the pandemic. The writing series was being offered for the equivalent of $15.85 Cdn.

The library primarily relies on membership for funds and caters to approximately 3,000 members, with additional high volumes of outside visitors in normal times owing to the library’s reputation and architecture.

Noting the success of the lecture series, the society’s endowment lectures committee, which earlier held its scholarly talks in the prestigious Durbar Hall, has started inviting renowned academics from around the world to conduct talks in niche fields.

In November, Miles Taylor, a professor of modern history from the University of York, U.K., lectured on “The Empire of Namak: Salt and the Rise and Fall of the British Raj.”

Simplifying the process of accessing knowledge

For many of its loyal patrons, the library holds cherished memories and frequent visitors wax lyrical about its vast resources.

The society’s move to an online database, Granth Sanjeevani, has been especially helpful, they say.

“The library moving to online resources is brilliant for people like me who have no time to physically access the library as we live far away,” says Vidya Premkumar, head of department of languages at Mithibai College. “This would make the facilities as well as the library’s incredible resources accessible so people can benefit from over 100 years of collective work exclusive to the city. Digitizing them would democratize access to knowledge.”

For her, the library has always served as an escape from the city’s chaos and she reminisces long hours lost amidst towering stacks of books.

Since its establishment in 1804, the ASM has served not just as a learned society in the field of Asian studies but also as a remnant of Indian history.

Elsewhere in the world, other museums and libraries have been turning to new ideas during the pandemic closures.

The British Library too has been showcasing its rich collection through online exhibitions. Smaller libraries too have hopped on the trend, like the Wilton Library in Connecticut, which has been hosting a plethora of online webinars that cater to all age groups, from story time for toddlers to an expert analysis of Dante’s work for the literary aficionado.