It was in 1877 when Lord Lytton laid the foundation of Mahommadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College at Aligarh. Along with it was established the Lytton Library, named after Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of India (1876-80).
This library which catered to the needs of the students of the College was initiated with the books from the personal collection of Sir Syed. Subsequently many friends and followers of Sir Syed started contributing their own personal collections to it. It was thus that, amongst others, it aquired the Sherwani Collection contributed by Nawwab Rahmatullah Khan Sherwani. The Lytton Library was originally housed near the Asman Manzil, within the precincts of the MAO College campus, now known as SS Hall. After Independence, it was not only renamed after Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first Education Minister of Independent India, but it was shifted outside the precincts of the College. It came to be housed near the Shamshad Market, in the building now known as Sultan Jahan Manzil.
It was there that the then first king of the Saud family to visit India, Ibn Saud; the Shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Arya Mehr along with his second wife Soraiyya; and King Daud of Afghanistan visited it.
In 1955, Pandit Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India laid the foundation of its independent building where it is lodged in till date. Nehru inaugurated the new Maulana Azad Library in 1960.
I have a personal connection with this library. The then Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, Dr. Zakir Husain, in 1954 invited my father Saiyyid Sibtul Hasan, to come and join as the Incharge Manuscripts Section of the Library. My father had been the Librarian of the State of Mahmudabad which was known for its Arabic and Persian collection. Having joined the Library in 1954, my father retired from it in 1972.
Though he was responsible for giving shape to the Manuscript Section, as the most celebrated section of the Library, my father was never given a promotion and made to retire from the same position on which he had initially been appointed! Till his death, the poor man was not even released the pension which was due to him. Reason being that the dealing clerks of the Registrar’s office reported an overwriting on his pension form, and the respective Vice Chancellors till his death in 1978, did not find time to go through his file. His widow, my mother, could finally get his pension only almost 25 years after his death. To discriminate against its own, has probably been a well-established tradition and trait of AMU. Spread over 8 floors and a basement, the library today boasts of atleast 5 massive reading halls, besides seminar rooms, stacks, staff rooms and offices. The process of digitisation of catalogue has been completed and now the process of digitisation of books has been initiated. As in the initial days, the library still caters to the academic needs of the university students- both boys and girls, who can not only sit and study there, but also get books and textbooks issued in their names. So is the case with the entire academic staff of the University who are or can become its members. The only exception till very recently were the students of Abdullah Girls College, who had to depend on the resources of their College. They were told that they have a Library in their college. But after sustained efforts they too are now theoretically allowed. Recently a few separate Girls Reading Rooms have also been added. Yet much more is needed to be done. Unfortunately since some time no visionary University Librarian has been appointed: those who are there are more technocrats and event managers, instead of those who understand books! Even the basic sense of how to display and keep manuscripts is lacking. The Manuscript section, which is the heart of Maulana Azad Library boasts of an unprofessional and incomplete catalogue!
Today the seven-storey building is surrounded by 4.75 acres (1.92 ha) of lawns and gardens. It has about 1,400,000 books.
The library has a sizeable collection of early printed books in many languages including Latin translation of the Arabic work Book of Optics by Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039) published in 1572. The Library holds an invaluable collection of 15,162 rare manuscripts, one of which written on parchment in Koofi script is claimed to be inscribed by Hazrat Ali (the fourth Caliph of Islam) 1400 years ago. Other items in the collection include several farmans (decrees) issued by Mughal rulers (including Babur, Akbar, Shahjahan, Shah Alam, Shah Alamgir, and Aurangzeb); a “shirt” on which the whole Qur’an is inscribed in khafi script; the Ayurved written in Telugu; and works by Bhasa written in Malayalam on palm leaves.
The Oriental Division of Maulana Azad Library consists of about 200,000 printed books and periodicals. Donations received have been designated as special collections by the names of their donors. The Urdu collection with more than 100,000 books forms the largest part of the Oriental Division. A substantial number of rare and out-of-print publications of the 19th century belong to the Scientific Society of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Fort William College (Kolkata), Delhi College, Agra College and from the Royal Printing Presses of the courts of Delhi and Oudh.
Among the large collection of Mughal paintings is the famous painting of Tulip by Mansoor Naqqash, court artist of the Emperor Jahangir. Some valuable Sanskrit works translated into Persian have also been preserved in the library. Abul al-Faiz (Faizi), an eminent scholar of Akbar‘s court translated several Sanskrit works into Persian, such as Mahapurana, Bhagavad Gita, Mahabharat and Lilavati.