In these days of shrinking shelf space, Shabir Musthafa’s e-library of books in regional languages, Mera Library, has set the trend.

Reams of poignant prose have been written of libraries. Doris Lessing called it the “most democratic thing in the world”; Albert Einstein said, “The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library”; and T.S. Eliot wrote that the “very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man”. However, with rising economic and environmental costs of paper, a bookless world in our imminent future is quite believable. Hope still arises though in the realm of e-books. And an e-book library of works in Indian languages, named Mera Library, is what founder Shabir Musthafa has set his store by.

Acquiring books

Mera Library is home to over 4,000 books in eight Indian languages besides English, written by 2,000 authors through 250 publications. Officially launched in 2011, Shabir says this labour of love has harboured in thought from 2009. As an employee of a large electronic publishing company in Bangalore, Shabir observed that few smaller publishers, especially those in the bhasha (vernacular) languages, put out e-book versions of their publications. And for those who did, avenues for display and distribution were rare. “So I quit my job, took a year off to research the concept and slowly approached publishers, initially asking them for their backlists because I didn’t think they would give their new works to a start-up.”

With Mera Library, publishers enter into a non-exclusive partnership where earnings on books given are split 50 per cent between the two. Scouting for books has been an eye-opening experience says Shabir. They began with acquiring works that had outgrown their copyrights. The Gutenberg project was a huge resource for English books. “Our focus though, was to acquire the classics in regional languages, such as Kumaran Asan's works, which are difficult to find even in print today.” A daunting task with old works is preserving their frail bodies while converting to e-books. “I remember the entire Boban and Molly cartoon series by V.T. Thomas was almost crumbling in our hands.” Besides publishers, the team has also approached independent authors for their works. For instance, in Kerala, late Ponjikara Rafi’s family gave the e-library his entire works at once, as did Pratham Books with their extensive children's collection.

Mera Library now possesses over 40,000 works, which will be made available online in phases. “The process of creating this library has been rather manual,” says Shabir. “Besides converting the books to e-publishing formats, we also encrypt each page of the book since publishers fear subscribers could pirate their books.”

Today, Mera Library is manned by seven “content and acquisition” editors who spread their time between Kochi, at Shabir’s home-office in Kakkanad, and Bangalore. Since the e-library, thus far, showcases books in Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati, each editor handles one main language and approaches publishers in that sphere for books. “We follow the long-tail business philosophy where we believe every product will have a reader. Since we also don’t face a shelf-space problem in the virtual world, we don’t curate the library according to our preferences.” The team is now also generating e-readers for right-to-left languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, besides including more languages especially from the North-East, and from nations such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Of all the genres the e-library catalogues, Shabir says traffic has been most in their young-adult and religious reading sections. They have also enjoyed audiences from over 18 countries with the UAE scoring highest among them. Subscribers can access the e-library with an internet connection on a computer or on their Android or Apple devices. “E-literacy is growing at an immense pace, and however attached one may be to physical books, we have to acknowledge that they’re dead trees.” Since that’s a luxury we can ill-afford in the long term, Mera Library works to make the online reading experience as similar to the offline one. “Readers can bookmark their books, and even make personal notes on the side.”

What Shabir hopes for though, is to someday make his e-library available to less-privileged educational institutions. That way they’re saved the trouble and expense of curating a library of their own, and can instead plug into this ready-made digital resource. For now, Shabir looks to create a community of readers on Mera Library, those that grow together through books, in true spirit with what author Ray Bradbury said, “Libraries raised me.”

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