More than the spread of e-books, poor infrastructure and pathetic services are endangering the future of libraries in India. The role of public libraries in particular is fast shrinking and they hardly meet their community objectives. In a recent written reply in the Lok Sabha, the government tried to provide some hope by pointing to the creation of the National Mission on Libraries and the enhanced allocation of Rs 400 crore in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan to strengthen the library movement. The National Mission, which was set up a year ago, is a welcome initiative and its ambitious objectives could help rediscover the importance of libraries. But the question is how the new mission would succeed where earlier initiatives and committees failed. For the last four decades, the government had tried various projects to modernise libraries, introduce information technology to improve services and interlink libraries. It even established the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation, a central autonomous institution to build a national system and provide assistance to libraries across the country. Though these initiatives ushered in some progress, there is still a lot left to be done.
The state of the National Library in Kolkata is a case in point. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report (2010) severely admonished this premier and Centrally funded institution for its lack of professionalism and poor service. Inordinate delays in the processing of procured books denied users the benefit of reading three lakh books and in 40 per cent of the cases, the library did not issue books to readers despite these being available on the shelves. In the past 10 years, the library has digitised only about 9000 books and, worse, damaged many of them in the process. Funding is not a major impediment to improving libraries as is usually made out. Most local bodies levy a library cess as part of property tax and collect large sums of money. Unfortunately, they do not transfer the amount towards library improvement. There are instances in States such as Andhra Pradesh where concerned citizens have often moved the courts to ensure local libraries get their due share. The shortcoming is in providing service and demonstrating commitment. Hence, the priority has to be on finding ways to improve our libraries rather than on creating new rules and hierarchies. Equally important is the need to reinvent libraries as public spaces that host multiple functions such as art exhibitions and small assembly areas. As a community node, they could offer free and easy access to more digital content and help bridge the knowledge divide. This would enhance their importance and social role, and keep them relevant for decades to come.