A LIBRARY LIKE NO OTHER
The Victor Melder Sri Lanka Library Spreading the message of Sri Lanka
Melbourne is home to a unique library on Sri Lanka – perhaps the only one of its kind overseas. This library was established by Victor Melder in 1968 when he migrated to Australia. At the time, he had only one book; but today, over 7,000 books, 2,000 magazines and journals, and a collection of video and audio tapes on Sri Lanka are part of the library.
Melder, who grew up in a village in Peradeniya, states that he has savoured village life to its fullest and credits it for his love for his motherland. He wishes to share this love, admiration and respect for the beautiful island with everyone in Australia.
This motivation gave birth to the Victor Melder Sri Lanka Library, which is used by many people across Australia as a primary source of reference on Sri Lanka.
Melder recalls that in 1968, many Australians were ignorant of Sri Lanka with most thinking it was a town in India. He knew he had to set the record straight, and make known its rich and diverse history, and culture and social standing, which dated back over 2,500 years.
“I knew why I was here – I had to get the message of Sri Lanka across,” he explains.
Melder was pleased when those around him at work and in the neighbourhood began asking about Sri Lanka: “I could not answer all of them so I decided to get a book or two down from Sri Lanka that would assist me in this quest.”
And soon, like an argument where one word leads to another, one book led to another… and today, he oversees a unique library.
Over the last 48 years, its popularity has grown – so much so that queries about Sri Lanka come from every state in Australia. Melder proudly states that the Sri Lanka High Commission in Canberra often refers people to the library, for there among its collection lies an answer to every question.
He describes it as a learning process, noting that “I learn something new about Sri Lanka every day while researching material for others.”
This large collection has been compiled with the help of friends both in Sri Lanka and Australia as Melder hasn’t returned to the land of his birth since his arrival down under. But with a trace of a smile on his face, he says: “I cannot go back to a place I haven’t left. I’m here only physically; and I am there in spirit and still traverse those beaten tracks.”
Like his father, Melder was an engine driver for Ceylon Government Railways and has travelled to many places around the island.
“A number of friends in Sri Lanka would send me books and more materials, and those going back on holiday would contact me prior to doing so, to check what books needed to be brought back,” he explains.
With the help of a few individuals in Sri Lanka who donated books from time to time, the library has grown into what it is today.
The library’s books are classified into many categories, some of them being history; geography; tourism; politics; religion; culture; language, literature and writing; law; sports; poetry; the Portuguese, Dutch and British periods; economics; art and architecture; dictionaries; yearbooks and commemoratives; agriculture; education, anthropology; wildlife; flora and fauna; cookery; and the ethnic conflict.
Students from primary, secondary and tertiary institutions use the library frequently. For primary students, the ‘lesson’ begins with a giant map of Sri Lanka, which adorns the wall.
Presently, four tertiary students are using the library for research purposes for their dissertations and writings. As a point of reference, 18 students accompanied by three teachers from Peninsula Grammar in Mount Eliza visited the library and spent the morning looking up references on Sri Lanka for a joint project.
Expatriate Sri Lankans also use the library to stay in touch and read the Sunday newspapers from Sri Lanka, which are available by noon on Mondays.
A number of NGOs and quasi-government departments also use the library’s services. Melder spends most of his day in the library, researching material to cater to requests or preparing news summaries on Sri Lanka for various Sri Lankan organisations’ newsletters, which are distributed across Australia.
Several authors writing books on Sri Lanka also keep him busy.
Melder helped Paul Croucher, an Australian Buddhist who wrote ‘A History of Buddhism in Australia 1848-1988.’ And currently, two Australians are using the library for novels with Sri Lanka as their backdrop.
A number of schools invite Melder to display Sri Lankan artefacts at their open days. Additionally, he visits schools, groups, clubs and organisations to talk about Sri Lanka, and arranges video and slide displays.
Melder’s proudest possession is a copy of ‘Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon,’ which was donated to the library by Galboda Gnanissara Thera of the Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo.
Another is the complete set of the Journals of the Dutch Burgher Union (DBU) in bound volumes, which have been issued since 1908.
These journals, along with the indexes to the Wolvendaal Church, and baptism and marriage records (which the library has), help those undertaking genealogical research into their family histories.
Furthermore, the library has copies of two volumes of the Dutch Company Servants in Ceylon.
The library’s services are free with the only charge levied on those writing theses or dissertations and so on being that a copy of their writings be lodged with the library so that they can help someone in the future.
In 1993, the Government of Sri Lanka bestowed on Melder the national title of Sri Lanka Ranjana in recognition of his then 25 years of meritorious service to Sri Lanka in Australia. This is something he cherishes: “To be honoured by one’s motherland is the highest accolade a man can receive.”
“Sri Lanka seems to be in the news today for the wrong reason – i.e. the ‘ethnic conflict’ that raged in the island. But Sri Lanka is much more than that,” he declares while noting that one has to get this message across and adds: “Sri Lanka has enough knockers – she needs all those who are willing to support her and support her we must.”
The library has its own website and the titles of its entire collection of books (7,000) have been catalogued online. Presently, the articles contained in the many journals and magazines housed in the library are being catalogued to make their contents easily accessible to all (almost 3,500 articles have been catalogued already).
An up-to-date listing of all Sri Lankan associations, groups and so on in Australia is also maintained on the website, and serves as an easy point of reference to many.
Melder is currently seeking a permanent home for the library and whoever takes it over will be expected to maintain it in its entirety as a research library.