Nepal rushes to save libraries after earthquake

Nepal's librarians and students are trying to salvage the collections before the monsoon rains

Photo by: AA
Photo by: AA

Updated Jul 28, 2015

Librarian Gebanath Nyaupane steps gingerly into the magnificent two-story building in this tree-lined sanctuary tucked away in the hills overlooking Kathmandu, the Nepali capital devastated by last month’s quake.

A wiry man wearing a couple of days’ stubble, Nyaupane surveys the damage at his library, pointing to a crack here, shattered glass there.

As he wades into the library’s newspaper section, his heart drops; it was the corner where he had spent most of his time since joining the Tribhuvan University Central Library in 2000.

The half-century old library, Nepal’s largest, houses half a million books, 100,000 journals and periodicals, thousand-year-old precious Hindu manuscripts and rare genealogies of the country’s dynastic rulers.

A handful of employees of the library huddle around a canteen, lamenting the loss, too scared to venture inside the white building but keen to salvage the collections.

Once, between 500 and 1,000 students a day visited the library, located within the premises of the Tribhuvan University, Nepal’s largest public education institution.

But an eerie silence has fallen upon the complex, which on any other weekday afternoon would have buzzed with students attending classes or strolling towards the library or sitting on the green grounds, sharing a joke.

Engineers had deemed the building unsafe, but a week after the quake, the employees began to rearrange the bookshelves, hoping to re-start its service in a week or so.

The last thing the chief librarian, Janardhan Dhungana, expected was a second powerful earthquake.

On May 12, when a magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck the country, about 100 students and library staff were working to restore the bookshelves.

Dungana was in his first floor office sending an email to an official at Oxford University, with a detailed assessment of the damage and the cost for the reconstruction. He estimated 1 billion rupees ($10 million) for the reconstruction and about 3.5 million rupees for a temporary structure to house the collection.

But the email remained unsent.

“I felt very sad. We have spent 40 to 50 years cataloging the books. Now all that has been wasted,” Dhungana told Anadolu Agency.

“With the disaster, I felt as if the nature struck on the center of learning and knowledge. I thought it was a cruel act. Now I can neither see it remain in shambles nor I can do much,” Dhungana said.

The Central Library was not alone in being damaged by the earthquake; it’s one of half a dozen libraries among a hundred in Kathmandu that have suspended their services after the quake rendered them unsafe.

The Kaiser Library, a century old repository near Kathmandu’s tourist district of Thamel, was destroyed by the quake, forcing librarians to run their office under tarpaulin sheets.

Government engineers have declared the Nepal National Library, hosted in a century-old palace, unsafe, pasting a red sticker on its walls.

The library, which houses 100,000 books and magazines and has the largest collection of ancient Sanskrit literature, was also further damaged by the second major quake on May 12, said Yadab Chandra Niraula, the chief librarian.

“We are concerned about the safety of our books as it has started to rain in Kathmandu. We have taken refuge in a hut after the engineers deemed the building unsafe. But we often discuss on how to move the books to a safe place,” Niraula told Anadolu Agency.

Masons have begun to dismantle the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (MPP), founded in 1995 as a non-profit repository of Nepali language collections, according to Amar Gurung, the director of the library.

Gurung said the decision was taken to prevent the building from further damaging the collections and threatening human lives.

With more than 35,000 books, 50,000 rare photographs, 15,000 posters and pamphlets, over 10,000 manuscripts and audio and audio visuals on Nepal, the red brick house in the Kathmandu Valley's historic city of Patan used to be a stable for Nepal’s erstwhile Rana rulers.

“Our library was a principal source for understanding Nepal’s 19th and 20th century history. Now we are worried about the safety of the collections as monsoon season is around the corner,” Gurung told Anadolu Agency.

A week after the quake, Gurung posted an appeal on the library’s Facebook page, requesting donors fund a temporary structure to house the collections for three years.

“For now, we have moved the materials to huts near the building. We have managed to keep it safe, but we can’t keep it like this,” he said adding that the MPP is raising a fund of $5,000.

“We have been hearing sympathetic words from our fraternity and well wishers. There are other areas (healthcare, shelter, food) that need urgent attention, but we also have to preserve our history,” Gurung said.

Gurung is seeking help from international networks of libraries including the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, the 1,600-member organization headquartered in The Hague.

He has set an ambitious goal to return to the temporary structure after the old building’s demolition: July 1 2015.

On a recent afternoon at the Central Library in Kirtipur, roughly two dozen volunteers from a youth group affiliated to a political outfit of indigenous and ethnic groups, arrived to help rearrange the books.

Some of the library staff declined to accompany them inside but the young men and women in maroon windbreakers and sporting masks, seemed brave enough, even as aftershocks continued to ripple through Kathmandu and remote regions of central Nepal.

“We represent the youth wing of a political party, but ours is a spontaneous, voluntary work,” Prakash Rai, a member of the group, told Anadolu Agency.

“We heard about the library from one of our leaders. When we came here last Friday, we saw that steel bookcases were lying smashed on the floor, wooden bookshelves had fallen down and newspapers and magazines were scattered around,” he said.

“We were moved by the sight and immediately started to work. We have come back to move the books back to the shelves. It’s a huge task, but we feel proud to be part of this,” said Rai.