Entering the carved arched doorway along the brick walls of the Madras Literary Society is like stepping into an era long past. Rows of 60-foot-tall bookshelves touch the high ceiling of this 20th-century building stacked with old and dog-eared books on such varied subjects as the anatomy of a butterfly and the structure of ragas in Carnatic music.

Though it is situated in the heart of Chennai, this library is little-known among its residents.

Today, much of its 85,000 books have now gathered dust and mold even as visitors are few and far between. But there was a time when the society was the destination of choice for intellectuals and scholars.

The design of this building is a subject of study among architecture students.

The joy of learning

The Madras Literary Society opened in 1817 as a learned society to promote and engage in research on a variety of subjects, much like the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Kolkata and the Mumbai branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. It was founded by the College of Fort St George, an institution set up by the British in 1812 to study society and natural sciences in the Madras Presidency. The idea was to acquaint new employees of the East India Company with the country and society.

The Madras Literary Society also had an annual publication, The Madras Journal of Literature and Sciences, which featured fascinating research papers on topics that ranged from why writing in a native language is important to examining a cross-section of a particular kind of coral.

“There are many rare books and maps in this library,” said Thirupurasundari Sevvel, a 26-year-old volunteer at the library who is a trained book conservationist. “They need to be preserved not only for posterity but for us to understand our past.”

While the Society was started 200 years ago, the building was constructed in 1912.

Sevvel and her classmates, as student of architecture, would draw sketches of the building, to understand how it was designed to function as a library.

The high ceilings are meant to accommodate the bookshelves so tall that staircases are needed to navigate them. A steep ladder brings visitors to the first and second levels – a daunting climb for those afraid of heights. However, this only adds to the experience of browsing through the remnants of a different era. There is even a pulley to bring the books to the ground floor.

The bookshelves are 60-feet high.

Preserving history

The library has a number of windows high up the walls, from where sunlight filters into every part of the room. Even if it did not have fans and artificial lighting, Sevvel said the building would let in plenty of breeze and natural light.

Sevvel became fascinated with the library when she found a 15-foot-long map marking the contour lines of the Ganga river, which is considered to be one of the most detailed and intricate works available on the river. Eager to learn more, Sevvel studied the art of book conservation. She soon began training other volunteers in the subject. Together, they have restored 150 books by fumigating them and dusting each page of the book.

“When I joined the library, they used to tease me at home," said Sevvel. “They would ask if there were really books of my interest here, because they all look so old.”

Mohan Raman, a former naval officer who is the general secretary of the Madras Literary Society, tells me how what was once a centre for knowledge and learning fell into neglect.

Raman said that it its peak, access to the library was restricted only to its members – largely the British and elite Indians. Non-members were not even allowed entry to the library. So when it was opened for public use a few decades ago, only a few people knew about it. Even fewer joined.

“Down the same road, there are two other colleges,” said librarian Uma Maheshwari. “But if you ask any of the students about this library, none of them will even know of its existence.”

But over past couple of years, the Society invited a number of art and photography volunteer groups like the Chennai Weekend Artists and Chennai Photo Walkers to visit the library and understand its heritage.

In 2014, Sevvel started conducting tours of the Madras Literary Society during the Madras Week, a series of festivities in Chennai on the anniversary of its founding date, August 22,1639. The 2016 Madras Week concluded on Sunday.

Volunteers helping out at the library.

This year, the number of members touched 290. “Although we have a long way to go, there have never been so many members in the history of the Society,” said Raman.

Eight months ago, the Madras Literary Society launched its Adopt-a-Book campaign, as part of which a donor could pick an old book of their interest from the library's catalogue and donate money for its restoration. The amount would be decided based on the extent of restoration needed. Till now, 30 rare and important books have been restored through donations.

“We are all trying to bring draw more people and attention to the library,” said Sevvel. “There is so much to explore here, and so few who know about it.”