The city central libraries now have decent infrastructure, but the quality of books falls short of expectations

The weekend gone by marked the conclusion of two important annual events: the Bangalore Book Fair and the celebration of National Library Week.

The sales figures at the book fair are adequate indication that Bangaloreans continue to read, notwithstanding theories about the death of the reading habit. The turnover this year outstripped last year's by crores of rupees.

The library scene too is not dismal if the infrastructure in the main public libraries — such as the centres at Vijayanagar, Malleswaram, Jayanagar, South End Circle — is anything to go by. They are packed with people on an average day and the places seem well-maintained.

Good network

Bangalore has about 120 public libraries spread across five zones, which makes it among the cities with the best network. The Department of Libraries hopes to soon have at least one library in every ward. Karnataka also takes credit for being the first State to spread the library network down to the villages by setting up 5,766 gram panchayat libraries.

However, take a closer look at the bookshelves at any of the libraries in the city and the situation seems less glowing. The latest books in the market on any subject, or for that matter books that are regarded timeless classics, are conspicuous by their absence in most.

Pearl and pebbles

As S.N. Swamy, who is part of a cultural troupe called Avishkara, put it: “Looking for a good book in a public library is like looking for pearls in a heap of pebbles.” He went looking for the complete critical essays of rationalist thinker M.N. Murthy Rao and could not find it even in the best-stocked libraries. “Every public library should stock the best in world literature and in Kannada compulsorily,” he said.

On the other hand, most people at the well-maintained and refurbished Cubbon Park State Central Library, who were quite happy with the infrastructure, complained that a large part of reference books were “not up to date”.

No wonder then that the thickest traffic in all libraries is around the newspaper and magazine sections, which are always stocked with a wide variety of languages. Clearly, our public libraries need to address several issues before they can become one-stop centres for the best of books.

Budget constraints

S.B. Hondadakeri, Director of the Department of Libraries, admitted that the libraries have “not fully succeeded in giving what people ask for”. He cited constraints of budget and rules on procurement of books as the main reason for this.

The department has a clear policy of procuring 90 per cent of books only in Kannada, which itself puts a large quantity of reading material out of the ambit of public libraries.

“Besides, our budget does not allow procurement in dollars or pounds. We have to wait for Indian editions,” said Mr. Hondadakeri.

Funds

Funding for book procurement for Bangalore libraries this year stands at Rs. 6 crore, from Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation set up by the Union Government, matching funds from the State and library cess collected by the BBMP.

Even among Kannada books, those which sell like hot cakes in the open market often don't come before the selection committee.

“Some don't apply when we call for applications to procure books because they are anyway making a profit in the market,” said Mr. Hondadakeri.

A Kannada publisher who spoke to The Hindu, and who didn't wish to be named, said there is no dearth of publishers who print books exclusively for libraries as procurement of about 300 copies by the department, besides bulk purchase by every division in Bangalore, adds up to a tidy sum. “Is it any wonder then that the public libraries have so many substandard books?' asked the publisher.

The Government started a single-window system on book procurement and fixed the maximum money that can be given to one publisher at Rs. 1 lakh per annum to streamline the system. But that has not entirely cleansed the system.

Staff shortage

Another big problem is the acute staff shortage in all the libraries.

For instance, as against the requirement of 636 librarians, 92 are sanctioned posts and out of them, only 75 have been filled.

The shortage of assistant librarians is 1,018, with 82 posts filled as against the requirement of 1,149.

A librarian who spoke to The Hindu on condition of anonymity described himself as “one-man army” doing everything from lending, keeping records and keeping the place tidy.

He was recruited as a supervisor for a gram panchayat library, which now falls within the BBMP limits.

After years of service, his salary still remains at Rs. 2,500.

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