It is said that Roja Muthiah Chettiar, a bibliophile who was in the sign-painting business, spent his money on collecting books, periodicals, oleographs (including rich holdings of oleolithographs from Raja Ravi Varma's workshop), invitations, notices, pamphlets etc, all totaling to more than one lakh items at the time of his death, with the earliest being Kantarantati, a Tamil book published in 1804. The books were related to a wide range of subjects – from classical and modern literature to medicine (including various forms of indigenous medicine such as Ayurvada, Siddha and Unani), cinema, folklore and women’s studies. According to a report in The New Indian Express, when Chettiar died in 1992, age 66, due to slow poisoning caused by Gamaxin, the chemical he used to preserve his treasure trove, his family had no means of maintaining the library he had built. But scholars, writers and researchers teamed to ensure that the collection remained in Tamil Nadu.
In his column in The Hindu, noted historian S. Muthiah writes that it was in 1992 that C.S. Lakshmi (the Tamil writer Ambai), who had used the library for research on women in India, mentioned her concerns about the collection to A.K. Ramanujam during a visit to the University of Chicago. Ramanujam in turn got James Nye, chief bibliographer of the university’s South Asian collection and a leading player in the Centre for South Asian Libraries, interested in the collection. Nye raised a million dollars from several American foundations to purchase the collection, microfilm and catalogue it, and store it in Madras.
In other words, the University of Chicago bought the entire collection and entrusted it to a trust that maintains it. The university also gifted 5000 volumes of official publications of the Government of India published during the British rule. The private collection of Roja Muthiah was shifted from Kottaiyur to Chennai in 1995. Today, the collection has 2.5 lakh items, mostly contributions from individuals, foundations and organisations. The New Indian Express was a donor of many books that were received for review in Dinamani. Today, the collection can be assessed by anyone anywhere in the world.
The Government of Tamil Nadu, considering RMRL’s request as well as Iravatham Mahadevan’s (an expert in the Brahmai and Indus scripts) recommendation to save the collection, provided the present building on lease for 30 years. Till 2004, the library was functioning in Mogappair. The library got off to a good start thanks to the painstaking efforts put in by its first director, P. Sankaralingam, in microfilming and cataloguing material; the good work was carried forward by S. Theodore Baskaran, the second director. The technology used to create machine-readable catalogue records was the one developed by the Centre for Development and Advanced Computing, Pune. Welcome Research Institute, London; the Ford Foundation and the Government of India supported the initiative.
Initially, the Mozhi Trust was the chief collaborator with the University of Chicago. Sankaralingam was part of the trust and he was teaching library science in the University of Madras. Sundar, then working at the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems in the area of traditional Indian sciences, was invited to join the project and asked to set up the microfilming unit in 1994. He gladly took it up, having a background in physics and an interest in photography, history and Tamil literature. There is no single ownership of the project as such. After about ten years, the Mozhi Trust withdrew from the MoU and the RMRL Trust was born in 2004 with a board of trustees to govern the functioning of the library.