Restored library in Sri Lanka signals hope for Tamil minority

In the heartland of Sri Lanka’s minority, Jaffna’s newly restored Tamil library is a potent symbol of decades of ethnic strife.

Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi/Reuters
Students cycle to the rebuilt Jaffna library in the heartland of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Decades of civil strife have left their mark on Jaffna, the heartland of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. Bombed-out buildings are a reminder of the fierce battles waged over the historic city.

The most potent symbol of the struggle, and the uneasy peace since fighting ended last May, is Jaffna’s public library, which was torched in 1981 by an anti-Tamil mob. Nearly 100,000 books and manuscripts, including irreplaceable palm-leaf Tamil texts, went up in smoke. It was an act of cultural vandalism that fed the Tamil resistance movement.

Eventually the library was rebuilt by Sri Lanka’s government and reopened in 2003. It has plenty of new books in Tamil and English on its wooden shelves. But restoring the spirit of the library presents a far greater challenge, says the chief librarian, S. Thanabaalasinham.

Peace has brought some relief: Military checkpoints that blocked access roads to the library have been lifted, making it easy to walk or ride there. An influx of Sinhalese tourists from the rest of Sri Lanka means more visitors are entering its airy lobby. But inquisitive visitors aren’t what the library needs, says Mr. Thanabaalasinham. “We don’t have enough readers. There’s not many here,” he sighs.

Back in its heyday, the library catered to a steady stream of students from Jaffna’s prized schools and colleges. The city was a center of learning and its library was its gem.

In recent years, as few as 150 people a day visit. Thanabaalasinham wishes it were far more, not for his own job security, but for the community’s sense of pride and ownership.

Some of Jaffna’s residents, who scattered during the war, have come back. But a depressed economy and lingering political tensions mean that most return to their comfortable lives in Britain or India, or farther south in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.

On a brief tour, Thanabaalasinham points to a prewar black-and-white aerial photo of Jaffna. In the center, stands the original library, opened in 1934 during British rule. “It was the best library in Southeast Asia,” he says.

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