With funds down to a trickle and e-books in hot pursuit, libraries are being sapped of life

In 1914, a 16-year-old boy from Palkulangara arranged the 25 books he had in his possession inside a metal trunk in his room and invited his acquaintances to borrow from his collection. Thus was born one of Thiruvananthapuram city’s oldest libraries, the Sree Chithira Thirunal Library, now located at Vanchiyoor, which is celebrating its centenary year now.

The boy, who later became popular as ‘Vayanasala Kesavapillai,’ was setting in motion a revolution in the cultural sphere of the city, when he opened his metal trunk to the outside world. When the Kerala Granthasala Sangham started in 1945, his library was one of the 47 member libraries.

The Chithira Thirunal library now boasts one of the biggest collections in Malayalam literature and history in the district, including some special personal collections. On the shelves are rare palm leaf manuscripts and issues of now-defunct magazines like the health magazine ‘Dhanwanthari’ and the women’s magazine ‘Lakshmibhai.’

Challenges aplenty

But for this and many other libraries in the district, adding new books to their collection or even plainly surviving has become a serious challenge. Fund-strapped and having to fight for attention with smart phones and e-readers, it is a daily battle for them to stay relevant.

“Since we are not affiliated to the library council, we do not get grants. A portion of the library is rented out to an institute, which takes care of some of the expenses. Rest of the money we find from membership fees. The employees here are now almost doing it like a service, as there is not much of a monetary benefit,” says S. Haridas, librarian of the Chithira Thirunal library.

Thiruvananthapuram district has 491 active libraries, according to the latest survey conducted by the Kerala State Library Council (The Granthasala Sangham became the library council in 1989) for the year 2013-14. But this figure does not include all libraries. The Chithira Thirunal library, for instance, opted out of the collective after the transition in 1989.

Contrary to popular perception, the number of libraries is increasing annually. In 2012-13, 13 new libraries were affiliated to the library council in the district, and a total of 116 in the State. A library is affiliated to the council after one year of starting of operations. Annual grants are provided by the government according to the library’s grade. They are graded from A to F, depending on the number of books and membership, ownership of building and other activities promoted by the library.

Too little?

The maximum annual grant is Rs.20,000, provided for A grade libraries. At the other end of the spectrum, the F grade libraries get a paltry sum of Rs.7,500. From the grant, 75 per cent needs to be spent on buying new books and from the rest, all of the other expenses need to be met. Most of the libraries graded D, E and F are working out of rented buildings and the rent has to be paid from the grant. But sadly even this meagre grant does not reach the libraries on time. This year, none of the four instalments has been given. There seems to be some politics at play too in this, as the library council is considered a stronghold of the Left.

“One of the reasons cited by the government for not giving grants is that the council has not replied to the audit report, which had raised some technical objections. Another was on the appointment of 13 new employees in the council. Since the matter is sub-judice, the council cannot do anything about it. Even the Plan fund for the year has not been handed over till now, with just a month to go for utilisation,” says K.P. Satheesh Kumar, Development Officer at the Kerala State Library Council.

The 5 per cent library cess which the local bodies collect as part of various taxes has also not been handed over to the library council in the past two years. With the expected funds not reaching them, the smaller libraries depend on monetary and book donations from individuals and institutions. The digital cataloguing of books in these libraries is still lagging behind, except in cases such as SNV library in Peringamala, which has a fully functional website for members to check availability of titles online. To stay connected to the local population, projects like home distribution project, by which women volunteers take books to local households, have been implemented in some areas. In coastal villages, libraries also double up as study rooms for students who do not have enough facilities to study at home.

Some other libraries maintain their connect with the locality by contributing to its cultural sphere. The Chithira Thirunal library still keeps up with its annual tradition of presenting a play written exclusively for the occasion. Many big names, from N.N. Pillai to T.N. Gopinathan Nair, have written plays for the library.

It is imperative that new ways are devised to keep alive these institutions, to prevent them from fading into oblivion. But sans government support, it’s a big ask.