On 18 August 1947, the American magazine Life carried a photograph of BS Kesavan, who would soon become the first national librarian of newly independent India. Captured by the photojournalist David Douglas Duncan, the image shows Kesavan, a young man with his hand buried in his hair, sitting at a table between two large stacks of books. The stack on the left is topped by a white placard that says “PAKISTAN,” while one atop the other says “INDIA.” The caption reads, “In the Imperial Secretariat Library, a curator tries to divide a 150,000-volume collection into equal parts for each new state.” In August of 1997, Time magazine—by then Life’s parent publication—reprinted the image in a commemorative issue for the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence.
The photo has been the subject of considerable confusion. In recent years it has gained prominence on the internet, where it is often incorrectly described as having been taken in the National Library, in Kolkata—not the Imperial Secretariat Library, which is in Delhi, and is now called the Central Secretariat Library. When I contacted the Central Secretariat Library, Y Avanindranath Rao, an information officer, confirmed that the photograph was taken in the library, in 1947. BS Kesavan’s son, the academic and essayist Mukul Kesavan, confirmed to me that his father was a curator there at the time.