Calling all bibliophiles! Are you looking for India’s best libraries? Do you need resources to help you dive head first into your academic research? Do you need a quiet place to unwind with a good book? Or, do you just want to escape the heat and immerse yourself in Indian literature? Look no further than Asia Options’ pick of the ten best libraries in India.
If you know where to go and how to access them, India has some incredible libraries bursting with resources and charm. Here, we’ve put together a guide to take you through India’s best libraries in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and a few little gems in between, including how to access them as an international researcher.
Delhi Public Library is one of India’s biggest book repositories. Here you’ll find over 1.6 million books, one of the most enviable collections in the subcontinent. Covering a dizzying array of subjects, this library is particularly known for its wide selection of early Indian literature and law. If all this choice wasn’t exciting enough, you can also access books in a diversity of languages, notably Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit. They even have a Braille library. If you want to tackle learning an Indian language to read these texts in their original form, check out our guide to studying Hindi online.
To become a full member you have to provide proof of residency in Delhi, but you can become a six-month temporary member by showing your passport and/or student card from your institution as well as providing an INR 1000 security deposit. To become a member, fill out this form and return it to the library. You need to be a member to borrow but you are welcome to browse as a non-member.
There are branches of the Delhi Public Library all across the city, find out which one is closest to you. They all have different opening hours but generally close between 6pm and 7pm.
If you are looking for the old-school, timber panelled, dusty book library experience, then the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library is for you. Predictably, this library has some of the most important resources on Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and the independence movement, including photos, newspapers and books. It is also famous in Delhi for being the best library for resources on social sciences, with a huge collection of PhD theses, reports and journals.
Many prominent academics like Ramachandra Guha have relied on the library’s extensive collections. Currently, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library is undertaking a mammoth digitisation project meaning that members can access huge quantities of rare literary material at the click of a button.
The library is only open to ‘bonafide researchers’ who must pay a tiny membership fee of INR 500 a year. However, what qualifies as a ‘bonafide researcher’ is flexible! This membership allows you to borrow books from the library, which considering the rarity of the collection is an amazing opportunity! To become a member you will have to physically visit the library and speak to a librarian between 9am-6:30pm Sunday to Friday or 9am-5:30pm on Saturdays.
Address: Teen Murti Bhawan
Parliament Library of India designed by Raj Rewal. Image: Parliament Library of India
The Parliament Library in Delhi is your go-to library for research in Indian politics and national affairs. It’s Acts and Bills, and Gazettes and Debates sections include everything from both central government and state government acts, ordinances and rules, joint select committee reports and debates from the Lok Sabha, Raj Sabha and state legislatures through to acts and parliamentary records from selected foreign countries. It also has a broad collection of books and periodicals in Indian regional languages, covering nearly all the official languages of India. Designed by famous Indian architect Raj Rewal, it is well worth a visit just for the building alone.
Unless you are a member of parliament, accredited to the press gallery or an Indian public servant, you will need to first apply to access the collection as a ‘ bonafide research scholar’. You can do this as an Indian or international researcher. You just need to organise in advance a letter from your university and embassy or high commission, if you are from abroad. Full details on how to apply for a researcher pass including the application form are available under the Parliament Library rules.
Address: Gokul Nagar, Central Secretariat, New Delhi, Delhi 110001, India
Contact: +91 11 2303 4295
Sahitya Kala Akademi is an important institution on the Indian literary scene, being famous for its extensive collections on literary theory, translation studies, women’s studies and cultural histories. Beyond this, it is notable for its incredible linguistic diversity with texts in twenty-four different Indian languages.
Incredibly well stocked, and a favourite of Delhi’s literati, the library is open from 9:30am-6:30pm everyday except Sunday. To become a temporary (15-Day) member you can download the online form and make a deposit of INR 50. You can visit for free but to borrow you must be a member.
Address: Rabindra Bhavan, 35 Ferozeshah Rd
Asiatic Society of Mumbai
Founded in 1804 as a compendium of knowledge on India for the British Raj, this library is one of the most historic in India. The Asiatic Society of Mumbai has about one hundred thousand books, fifteen thousand of which are considered rare, valuable or antiquarian. The focus of this library is, naturally, on India, but it is renowned as a significant resource in the fields of Asian Studies. If you feel like escaping the sticky heat of Mumbai to peruse the 16th century Sanskrit manuscript Aranyaka Parvan of the Mahabharata or even look at an original Italian manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, this is the library for you. The library annually publishes the The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay and holds regular events and lectures.
There are a number of different types of membership options and applications are reviewed by a panel who judge on the basis of ‘sustained interest in the aims and objectives of the Society’. Feel free to come in and have a look but only members can borrow. Non-Indians are only eligible for limited membership. You can find the membership form here.
Address: Town Hall, Fort, Shahid Bhagat Singh Rd
The Akshara Centre is an Indian-led social justice activist organisation that lobbies for women’s uplift, empowerment and education. Its library program is hugely successful and involves a physical node Akshara Library that serves as a base for literacy programs across the city. The library is notable for its social justice and activist materials including books, journals and newsletters. For a completely different library experience and to learn about how libraries can be used as tools for community development, drop into the Akshara Library between Tuesday and Saturday 10am to 6pm. It’s completely free!
Address: Balasheth Madurkar Marg, Elphinstone Road (West)
This is the stately grandmother of Indian libraries. It is the biggest library in India and the library of official public records has over 2.2 million books in its collection. With its eighty-six thousand maps, three thousand two hundred manuscripts and forty-five kilometres of shelf space, there is no easy to way to categorise the National Library. It is great for research involving government records and colonial papers, but is really just a great place for nearly all kinds of research.
Accessing a lots of the resources can be a little difficult though and you will have to navigate a fairly arcane bureaucracy, but that’s all part of the fun! To access the Bhasha Bhavan (main reading room), you need to fill out an online form to get a Reader’s Pass, which then has to be attested to by a Government Gazetted Officer. These Passes are only issued between 10am and 1pm, and 3pm and 4pm Monday to Friday.
A lot of the website seems to be permanently under construction but for a detailed explanation of the different levels of membership, click here. The library is open Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm and on Saturday from 9:30am to 6pm.
Address: Belvedere Estate, Block A, Alipore
‘The Pride of Patna’, set up in 1891 Khuda Baksh Oriental Library is known for its impressive collection of Mughal miniatures, documents and military history.
Address: Ashok Rajpath Rd, Patna, Bihar
The official library of Aligarh Muslim University, Maulana Azad Library is the second biggest library in Asia. While its collections are expansive it is known particularly for its resources on the independence movement, South Asian religious history and theology and the Mughal period. It has an extensive collection of rare, valuable and antiquarian texts.
Address: AMU Rd, Aligarh Muslim University Campus, Aligarh
Inlay at the Saraswati Mahal Library (Wikimedia Commons)
Founded in the sixteenth century, Saraswati Mahal is one of the oldest libraries in Asia, originally set up for the Nayak Kings of Thanjavur. The library is a treasure chest of invaluable artefacts like one of the world’s best preserved sets of palm-leaf manuscripts. Most of the texts are in Sanskrit but you can also access resources in a range of classical South Indian Languages. The library is set in the stunning Thanjavur palace complex.
Address: E Main St, Rajakrisnapuram, Thanjavur