The public library is a portal to a better future

The pandemic has once again illustrated the worth of the rural public library: the example of Karnataka

Updated - May 06, 2022 02:43 pm IST

Published - May 06, 2022 11:59 am IST

Karnataka has over 5,600 rural public libraries in its gram panchayats.

Karnataka has over 5,600 rural public libraries in its gram panchayats. | Photo Credit: Tejas Chandra K.M

The COVID pandemic has disrupted our lives in far-reaching ways. Its impact on children has been devastating. Schools and colleges across many parts of the world had to close, leaving rural children largely disconnected from reading.

Rural libraries began to fill the vacuum. In little over a year in the midst of the pandemic, Karnataka’s rural public libraries, over 5,600 in number, enrolled 15 lakh rural children as members, free of charge. This was possible not only because of enrolment efforts as part of Oduva Belaku (‘Light of Reading’), the State’s rural library revitalisation programme. It was possible because children themselves wanted to come to the library. Rural communities have now taken this forward to create study circles, library gardens, book nests, art and craft activities, and more.

More than just books

At a recent consultation with civil society organisations from across India for the development of rural libraries as community information centres, one of the many thoughtful suggestions was to place chessboards in the libraries. We agreed that this would help develop children’s confidence and their skills at strategy. Two days later, I was travelling in Kodagu, where I visited a gram panchayat in Mullusoge. Its library is spread over three rooms — one for a regular library with tables, books and computers; another, a quiet space with school textbooks for school students to come and study; and the third, a room with indoor board games for children. Four little girls were perched around a table, playing chess. Another girl, with a Rubik’s cube in her hands, was watching the chess game carefully. Just two days previously, we had been talking about placing chessboards in the libraries; here, in a rural library, the children were already playing chess. Communities are often well ahead in identifying their needs and acting on them. They only need some basic enabling conditions. 

The report of the National Knowledge Commission titled ‘Libraries: Gateways to Knowledge’ describes the vital role of libraries in social life: “Libraries have a recognized social function in making knowledge publicly available to all. They serve as local centres of information and learning, and are local gateways to national and global knowledge.” Public libraries are spaces for lifelong learning. They organise and share knowledge. They build communities. They are repositories not only for books, but for the ideas contained in them; they are community spaces; they are indeed gateways to the world.

A library at the COVID-19 hospital at Sagar in Shivamogga district.

A library at the COVID-19 hospital at Sagar in Shivamogga district.

Open access

An important role of the rural public library is to reduce inequities by providing free access to learning resources. Public libraries don’t ask users for money, social status, or documents. Instead, they strengthen communities by ensuring that users from all sections of society have access to knowledge that is relevant and useful to them. As Albert Einstein said, “The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.”

Amartya Sen showed us the vision of ‘development’ as freedom. If the meaning of development, in practical terms, is to eliminate obstacles to the individual’s exercise of agency, then in this great project, rural public libraries can make a significant difference on the ground. 

To remove barriers to rural students’ learning, Karnataka has extended rural library working hours, and kept them open on weekends. Over a third of rural libraries now have computers and Internet, while around half have been renovated, some with new buildings, furniture, murals, and study tables. In some cases, panchayats have thoughtfully set up terrace reading areas above the libraries, where students can continue to study even after library working hours. 

The power of example

Recognising the importance of public libraries, communities have started strengthening them. Hoddur, Kodagu has a well-stocked gram panchayat library. By the end of the year, it had inspired the setting up of a new library in a tribal hadi in the same panchayat, funded by the local community and donors. Last month, in a panchayat in Ramanagara, the local milk cooperative funded a second library in a nearby village.

Libraries are liberating. Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “Inside a library, we feel as if we are standing at the crossroads of thousands of avenues. Human emancipation is contained within the four walls of the library.” This is because libraries are spaces for many kinds of learning — not only the formal learning that is found within the covers of a textbook or the four walls of a classroom. Indeed, the tiny rural public libraries offer a very different vision of education from that of the typical university library with its vast collection and imposing facade. 

A public library in Mandya.

A public library in Mandya.

For rural children, especially those in primary school, attaining reading proficiency is not merely about assessments, or reading their textbooks over and over again; children need diverse books to interest them. They need to be able to hold those books in their hands, take them home, gaze in wonder at the pictures, and laugh at the stories. Especially for rural girls, libraries provide safe spaces for them to study in a quiet environment.

Not only children, but all rural users, including women and senior citizens, deserve to be able to access reading material that interests them and is relevant to their lives. Rural public libraries can create a more informed society where communities can participate effectively in decisions about their local development.

Little, free ‘book nests’

“Bad libraries build collections, good libraries build services, great libraries build communities,” according to the American library expert David Lankes. Little free libraries — Pustaka Goodu (“book nests”), started in public spaces across all the gram panchayats in Dakshina Kannada district — take this idea forward. Books are kept in these wooden boxes at public bus stops, primary health centres, and public parks. People can pick up a book or magazine to read while waiting. In a transactional world where few things are based on trust, little free libraries are a powerful way of promoting decency and integrity.

Not least of all, rural public libraries offer the possibility of diverse perspectives. They embody Mahatma Gandhi’s wish for a home for the free expression of ideas, and the calm within: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

The ideal public library

What might a robust public library system look like? It would have a network of branches across rural and urban areas. It would also have mobile libraries for migrant groups and semi-nomadic communities. In urban areas, it would have city libraries, with branches in slums and migrant settlements. It would have a training programme for new recruits and continuing professional development for librarians within the network. 

It would follow S.R. Ranganathan’s famous five laws of libraries, which have been his legacy for the public library movement: that books are meant for use; that every reader has their book; that every book has its reader; that a well-functioning library should save the reader’s time; and that the library should be regarded as a growing organism. Above all, a good public library system would have a central role for local communities to be involved in running their libraries as community spaces.

“The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter,” wrote the French novelist, Marguerite Yourcenar. Her words remind us of the function of libraries as reserves of knowledge, meant to replenish the stock of ideas within our communities. Whatever the cost of setting up public libraries, it is cheaper than the cost of not having them.

The writer is in the IAS

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