The University of Chicago’s Role in the Formation of the Roja Muthiah Research Library

by Mr James Nye


The University of Chicago’s first interactions with Mr. Roja Muthiah date to the early 1970s when Maureen L.P. Patterson, then Bibliographer for Southern Asia, purchased early Tamil imprints from duplicates held by Mr. Muthiah. The books and journals were offered both from his stall in the famous Moore Market in Madras and by lists he mailed to potential buyers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the world. Those early purchases by Ms Patterson, several hundred in number, still grace the shelves of the Joseph Regenstein Library at the University, each bearing the distinctive stamp of Roja Muthiah, the book dealer.

More recently and importantly, our connection with the Roja Muthiah collection began through Dr. C. S. Lakshmi, a visiting fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Culture and Consciousness in 1992, who used Roja Muthiah’s library for her research on women in India. After reading in a Tamil journal a notice of Muthiah’s death in June 1992, she suggested that I correspond with his widow to discuss disposition of the collection. Dr. Lakshmi knew from previous discussions that Muthiah was concerned about the future of his library. She had also experienced the astonishing depth and importance of the collection first hand through her visits to Kottaiyur where Muthiah lived with his collection.

It was immediately clear from Lakshmi’s description that the collection Roja Muthiah had built was perfectly complementary to the Tamil holdings at the University. Most of the Tamil imprints in our Chicago collection, at the time numbering more than 25,000, had been acquired via the South Asia Cooperative Acquisitions Program run by the Library of Congress from its Field Office in New Delhi. Since 1962 that program had delivered a selection of the most important publications in all South Asian languages to participating universities in the United States. Chicago had participated in that program since its inception. But, no U.S. libraries had engaged in systematic collecting of Tamil imprints prior to the late 1950s. In contrast, Roja Muthiah’s collection was strongest in ink print publications prior to the 1960s and especially strong in periodical literature holdings. British libraries did not actively collect Tamil periodicals during the colonial period. This collecting lacuna in England meant the Muthiah collection was even more important for the understanding of south Indian culture during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Within his library’s eclectic range of subject matter – including classical literature, medicine, folklore, religion, cinema, and women’s studies – and materials, such as theater playbills and popular songbooks, Roja Muthiah attempted to capture the essence of the Tamil people.

Intrigued by the contents of Muthiah’s collection and the ways in which it complemented the University’s holdings, my staff and I began correspondence with Roja Muthiah’s family to investigate purchasing the library. Four trips from Chicago to Kottaiyur and Madras followed the letters. All of these activities were guided by a Steering Committee composed in August 1992 of University of Chicago faculty and library staff. That Committee, including Prof. A. K. Ramanujan, Prof. Norman Cutler, Prof. Arjun Appadurai, Prof. Ralph Nicholas, and others at the University, were committed from the outset to keeping the library, an important cultural resource invaluable to Tamil scholars, in Tamilnadu.

The general plan of action devised by the Steering Committee was that the University would arrange with Muthiah’s heirs for purchase of the collection, we would identify a collaborating partner in India to develop the collection into a library, we would raise funds to support the purchase and subsequent processing of the collection, including its preservation, and finally we would cede ownership of the library to our sister institution in India. We believe this to be the first time a research library has raised funds for purchase and preservation of a foreign collection with an explicit commitment to donating the publications to its collaborator in the host country. The University’s plan for access to scholarly publications has not been at the expense of library holdings in India. Rather, the means employed to preserve the collection have enhanced cooperation between the U.S. and India. We hope this collaborative approach to preservation and access will serve as a model for other institutions in their acquisition of early foreign imprints.

Identification of a collaborating partner, a sister institution in India, was a critically important part of the University’s plan. We knew that we could not succeed without a dedicated group of colleagues who would work with us to house the collection and share in development activities. After preparing a set of criteria describing the ideal institutional partner, I led site visits in December 1992 and April 1993 to discuss the program with seven Indian scholarly institutions. Mr. Anmol Vellani, at the time a program officer at the Ford Foundation in New Delhi, was a most important figure in the evaluation of partners. His sage advice and our own impressions led us to decide upon MOZHI in June 1993. MOZHI, a research and documentation center, is a public trust dedicated to developing resources in languages and culture. MOZHI’s facilities in Madras are the site for dictionary compilation, studies in linguistics and grammar, and textual analysis. In addition to the preparation of a Tamil-Tamil-English dictionary of contemporary Tamil, it has also engaged in related projects on modern Tamil language such as creation of a corpus of machine-readable texts; a dictionary of idioms, phrases, and word combinations; and Tamil word-processing utilities including a spelling checker and a hyphenation dictionary for use on computers. As noted by S. Theodore Baskaran, “The trustees of MOZHI saw in the project scope to develop systematically a comprehensive facility that would acquire all varieties of printed material – both book and non-book – and conserve them through preservation microfilming.” The two MOZHI trustees most intimately involved with the collaboration were S. Ramakrishnan, the  owner of Cre-A publishing house, and P. Sankaralingam, Reader in the Library Science Department of the University of Madras. Sankaralingam, about whom Mr. G. Sundar writes in more detail elsewhere in this publication, became the first director of the library and continued to provide inspired leadership for the Roja Muthiah Research Library until he passed away in 1997. Our collaboration with MOZHI continued until the formation of the Roja Muthiah Research Library Trust in 2004 as a successor body responsible for the library.

The University signed an agreement of sale for the collection with Roja Muthiah’s heirs in April 1994. On April 23, 1994, the library, carefully squared into 1,110 specially designed waterproof boxes, was loaded onto four lorries and a trailer. The convoy headed away from Kottaiyur back to Madras where the library was located in a rented structure in the Annanagar area of Madras until 2005. That first facility, designed to meet the needs of the Library, had 5,200 square feet of space. It was adequate for housing the collection and seating twelve research scholars. It included nearly 1,000 square feet of space for the cataloging and preservation units.

Fund raising has been an important part of our work and our success in those efforts has been fundamentally important for the execution of our plans. Since 1994 the University has raised more than $1.6 million from various sources to acquire the Muthiah collection and sustain the Roja Muthiah Research Library. Major sponsors and contributors include the University of Chicago, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education, the Ford Foundation, the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation via the Association of Research Libraries, the University of Chicago Women’s Board, and the Roja Muthiah Research Library Trust. Additionally, the diligent efforts of the library staff in cataloguing the collection and other libraries have produced a substantial flow of revenue for support of the library.

As the value of Muthiah’s library and the University’s efforts to catalog and preserve its materials have become more widely known in the Tamil-speaking world, an appreciation has grown for the need to gather and preserve other Tamil collections. The Roja Muthiah Research Library has received donations of books, periodicals, and other research materials which have expanded the collection by at least fifty percent over the original size of the collection purchased in 1994.

The University is pleased to have begun ceding parts of the collection to the Roja Muthiah Research Library Trust in 2009. As the transfer continues over the coming years, the University is committed to continue its collaboration and support for what has become a model program. It is extraordinarily pleasing to see what has been accomplished over a decade and a half of joint effort. The world of scholarship on Tamil culture is vastly enhanced by the resources now available and the prospects for further improvement in access to scholarly resources are very bright thanks to dedicated work of our colleagues at the Roja Muthiah Research Library.


(This is an excerpt from a Māṟṟuveḷi issue number 4, an exclusive publication on Roja Muthiah and the Roja Muthiah Research Library brought out by Parisal)


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