Managing the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur

The Hindu has an interesting article on how books are conserved in the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur.

Via The Hindu

And if it’s tough to take care of a few hundred books, imagine what it would be like if one were responsible for the welfare of 49,000 manuscripts and 65,000 books. That’s the responsibility which rests on the shoulders of Dr. Perumal, Conservator and Librarian of the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur.

“To keep book lice and insects at bay, fungus formation has to be prevented. Four factors have to be controlled, to prevent fungus formation – dust, light, heat and humidity,” Perumal says. “If you see a silver fish on a wall, you can be sure there is fungus there. The silver fish is our scientific monitor of conditions.”

“What’s the science behind our traditions,” I ask him. “There’s a lot. I’ll just give you a glimpse. Palm leaf manuscripts used to be wrapped in red cloth, because the colour red is an insect repellent. In many old houses, there would be a broad red band on the floor, running along the length of the wall, because insects tend to keep close to walls, and they would be put off by the red colour. For our kolams we use kaavi, which acts as a repellent,” he explains.

He says manuscripts and books would be dusted before Saraswathi puja, in order to air them before the rains. During Bhogi, fungus affected manuscripts would be cast into the fire, after a copy had been made.

Palm leaf writing began in South India and spread to Indonesia, Thailand, Ceylon and Burma. The juice of the Dhandhura leaves and kosina indica (kovai in Tamil) was mixed with lamp soot, and applied on manuscripts. This served two purposes – it highlighted the writing, and also repelled insects, because kosina indica is bitter and dhandhura is mildly poisonous.

What would they do during the monsoons? “If people had palm leaf manuscripts at home during the monsoon, they would put them on a wooden plank, which would be suspended from ropes in the kitchen. The warmth from the kitchen fire would keep away fungus. And the plank doubled as a school bag. They’d just pick up the plank by the ropes, and walk off to school!”

Read the entire article here.

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