Almost a couple of years after the government decision to demolish the present Public Library building, followed by students' protests, sledge hammers have begun striking the minutely planned structure. To people attracted by a building's architectural beauty, the 'new public library' remained an eye-soothing installation for decades. The library was originally located on the eastern fringes of Dhaka University campus. It had stood there since the mid-1950s, with 18,000 books received from the then Dhaka College and Law College. It was shifted to its Shahbagh venue in 1983. A large number of its books had been transferred to the Dhaka University Library (established in 1958) bringing the latter's total number of books to 6, 80, 000. Unlike the Central Public Library, it was not open to all. Its entry remained limited to the students of the Dhaka University only.
In terms of architectural interior beauty, the large space of the main reading room, books kept in tidy rows inside glass-fenced 'almirahs' and the unbroken silence proved the Central Public Library's uniqueness. Readers of all ages would start entering the library from 3 in the afternoon to stay up to 8 PM. Sunday was a weekly holiday.
That the growing Dhaka city didn't have any dearth of its avid readers was amply demonstrated by the book lovers' nonstop visits to the Public Library. There was a 'children's corner' for the teenage readers. To speak briefly, the inside view of the then Public Library remained filled with a rare kind of solemn sanctity and silence. Except the sounds of occasional coughing and that of turning the pages, there were few sounds. Murmurs, and even whispers, would prompt the on-duty librarians to pan their watchful eyes in search of the sources of sounds. An added beauty of the library was that many octogenarian readers would visit it throughout the week.
Inside the main reading room, the upper segments of the high wall just below the roof displayed a long mural done by the artist Murtaja Baseer. Outside, the well nursed garden was filled with dozens of open-air, stone-block sculptures carved out by sculptor Novera Ahmed. The solid stone-cut art pieces lay there for many years, even after the library was shifted to its 'new' location at Shahbagh in 1983.
No matter whichever authorities planned the entire old Public Library complex in the mid-1950s, they deserve the book lovers' warm compliments. Instead of making it an aesthetically rich venue for mere reading traditionally printed books, they could have finished their official task assigned to them. Why should they have bothered to get emotionally involved with the project? Many associated with the project may have thought they are a little touched in the head. They were indeed; so were the people who used to visit the library almost every day or at least twice or thrice a week.
Interestingly, in those days the regular library-goers included amateur young readers, students on holidays, unemployed youths, middle-aged office-goers, writers and teachers from outside Dhaka. These people were evidently mesmerised by the magic elements latent in books. Rabindranath Tagore heard between the cover pages of a book the sounds normal humans are not acquainted with. He used to hear sound of waves.
A total rebuilding of this much-adored institution has raised many queries. Can the authorities in charge of this presumably massive makeover bring back the book-centric character of the institution? Of late, the library has allegedly become a centre supplying 'made-easy' solutions to qualify in higher and competitive exams. Books on serious subjects have mostly been replaced by those containing objective questions and answers. Sources close to the library renovation hint at a project aimed at creating a mega complex engaged in year-long cultural activities at a single venue. Self-absorbed readers have started feeling worried.