“Ladies and gentlemen,” Robert Bourke, Baron of Connemara, started. “I wish to say that it has been for a long time, the wish of my colleagues and myself to see a free public library established in Madras; we have recognised it for a long time as one of the most urgent wants of the educated people of this Presidency Town.” The Governor of Madras from 1886 to 1902, Lord Connemara, as he was called, was a barrister at law and a Conservative party MP before coming to Madras as Governor. Aside from being credited with establishing the East Coast Railway Line connecting Chennai to Kolkata, Lord Connemara was instrumental in one other very important aspect, to the people of Madras, now known as Chennai. He is said to have founded one of the most important literary structures in the history of the city which would go on to remain just as iconic even today. Lord Connemara laid the foundation stone for what is today, known as the Connemara Public Library.
“In all populous places a free public library is a very great boon, and I am quite sure that where a great number of students and educated natives of India have not got the means of providing themselves with the books that one needed for their study, in their business, a want of this kind is very deeply felt. I trust that this want will be supplied by the free public library of the building of which I am now going to lay the foundation stone,” he said in his address on the founding day of the structure, 22nd March 1890.
Today, the same structure stands tall and majestic in the heart of the city that continues to attract tourists, intellects and readers, alike who flock there to quench their thirst for knowledge. It is one of the four National Depository Libraries in the country which receives a copy of all books, newspapers and periodicals published in India. Established in 1896 the library is a repository of centuries-old publications, wherein lie some of the most respected works and collections in the country. It also serves as a depository library for the UN. But, there's so much more to the Connemara Public Library which has gone on to become an inherent part of Chennai's cultural complex that attracts visitors. Today, the library is an expansive complex that houses buildings that reflect architectural unity in style and structure, even while demonstrating the various stages of Indo-Saracenic development, from Gothic-Byzantine to Rajput Mughal and Southern Hindu Deccani.
The structure that caters to the needs of all kinds of book lovers was originally designed by H. Irvin, the then consulting Architect to the Government of Madras. The flooring of the library has been done with marble slabs brought from Krishna District (Andhra Pradesh) through the Buckingham canal, in boats and the book racks have been carved out of the costliest teak wood at the time. Back in the day, the cost of the construction cost the management a whopping amount of Rs.5,75,000 which was steep for its time. In 1973, the then government added yet another building to the library to house its overflowing collection of books.
But, aside from being an art and architectural heritage monument of the city, the library is also home to over a lakh rare books and periodicals that are not easily found anywhere in the world; including original works by Plato, D. Hieronymi Strido, an original copy of the Bible and various other such manuscripts.
In his inaugural address, Lord Connemara went on to say, about the structure that was going to become an architectural and literary landmark in the history of the country, “I hope, therefore, that in this library those books will be found and also books of various kinds which shall enable them to study in their higher branches of literature and science. But beyond all this, I hope that there will be a free public library and that young man and old men, possibly ladies, may come here and enjoy the pleasure of literature and reading for its own sake”.
And so it continues to be… The Connemara Public Library in Chennai is open, every day of the week, from 9 AM to 7:30 PM and on Sundays, from 9:30 AM to 6 PM, with memberships opened to all city residents from the age 17 and above for an annual fee of INR 50, only.