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Let reading be free

A file photo used for representational purpose only.  

I was seven years old when I stole my first book from the class library. I wonder if it was the thrill of stealing or the fear of returning the book past its due date. I did not have the money to pay the fine and so, lying seemed like the right decision. Later that year though, my brother got me the same book, Sarojini Pritam’s Laut Ke Buddhu Ghar Ko Aye. Over the years, I lost both copies and recently, when I tried to find the book online, I realised it is out of print. If the library of my childhood had been run without late fee charges, I would have returned the book. And if I had been allowed to do that then, today I would perhaps be able to revisit a cherished childhood memory.

The ghost of late fee charges and membership fees remained with me for a long time. Some books got lost, some were returned late. The ghost created an indescribable gap between the world of reading and me. Every time I tried bridging the gap and entering the world of words and stories, the ghost made sure it was farther out of reach. I come from a family which did not set much store by reading. The access to books I had while growing up was through the school library. Or rather, a room which had books stored in cupboards and shelves, some locked, and where silence was the expected bribe in order to get to read.

Our school libraries often do not create a space that welcomes thinking along with reading. They are just like dungeons that make reading an isolated. silent and insular activity. When in fact, it is a dynamic act of thinking, discussing, and reflecting.

The importance of an inclusive, accessible library struck me when I started teaching in a government school in Delhi two years ago. Most of my students could not access storybooks and literature beyond their course books. While this might seem like a simple enough problem, it reeks of an age-old class and caste divide. We have made intellectual spaces so exclusive and inward-looking that claiming these spaces seems impossible for many a child and an adult.

It is a myth that children do not want to read, and that reading is only a leisure activity. The denial of such interactive spaces as a library is a matter that should concern us all, because reading as a leisure activity is also a political act. It leads to critical thinking and questioning the structures that exclude and deprive the most marginalised among us. A lot of schools today do not have a proper library. And if they do, the weekly ‘library period’ is seen as an extracurricular activity when it should be considered an integral part of one’s learning and growth.

The school I taught in had a cupboard meant to function as a library. Most of the students in school were oblivious of its existence or even of the word . The library cupboard’s Hindi titles lacked any readers. Some colleagues and I thus decided to build a school library that could function as a community library, only to find ourselves at a loss. What does it mean to build a community library? What sort of a library do we want to build for our students? Certainly not the libraries we grew up with, everyone agreed.

But is it possible to create a library without a strict librarian? Can a library function without a code of conduct? It was these questions in 2018 that led me to a library that realises the full potential and limitless possibilities of its space. It is a library that regards its readers more than its books. It is a library that understands that books mean nothing in isolation; books create meaning when they have readers.

The Community Library Project (TCLP) charges no membership or late fee. You do not need an ID card or address proof for enrolment. The project brings life to its tagline: “Reading is thinking”. Thousands of its members come from under-served communities in Delhi NCR. That is, thousands of passionate minds coming into a space that welcomes all, thousands of individuals claiming spaces that they have been denied. It has redefined reading by making its readers the locus of importance.

I introduced the project’s curriculum in my classroom and saw gradual changes in my students’ learning process. My students become more attuned to their social-emotional self through our daily read-alouds, and they performed better in academic subjects. The daily read-aloud helped them wonder aloud and ask questions stemming from deep listening, curiosity and reflection. They learned to be more empathetic with their fellow classmates and themselves.

Our new school library not only brought forward readers but also storytellers, writers and dreamers. Physical books were not the only way to tell or read a story. Children were writing and discussing their favourite bits of a story. They volunteered to do read-alouds for their peers, and ask questions to invite their audience into the experience. Students learned to read on their own and to take their beloved books home. They felt valued in the library.

During one of our read-alouds, we read Rinchin’s Pyari Madam. It is an epistolary book that talks about several key issues like displacement, exploitation, and community through the eyes of a child. Following a rich conversation around the book, my students began writing letters to me in which they talked about their lives, struggles, and achievements. One of them spoke about how she felt in the classroom, around her peers. Writing that letter and thinking about the book gave her a language to express her social-emotional self. This was the true power of a good read-aloud which invited thinking. As a teacher, it helped me understand my students better. The letters I received that year taught me, too, the relationship between the reader and the text — something I was learning anew by observing my students’ engagement with their texts.

This March, when the lockdown was announced and schools closed, educators and parents were instantly worried about their children’s academic learning. WhatsApp groups, Zoom classes and Google Classroom became sought after to facilitate the child’s education. In this chaos, access to the library and its literature was lost. Some private schools in Delhi went on to incorporate sports period in their online classes while rendering libraries disposable.

My fourth graders found themselves without their library. They missed going to a space where they had the power to choose. The power to hold a book and not feel like an outsider. Again, I turned to TCLP. Soon after the closure of schools and libraries, TCLP redefined what it means to be a library in a pandemic. Librarians and volunteers at TCLP started recording low data audio and video read-alouds for thousands of its members and educators. They started asking themselves how to serve their readers, even the ones without Internet or smartphones. My students started receiving a new read-aloud twice a day, on each of three days a week.

Just like TCLP, there are several free community libraries active in different parts of the country, libraries that are thinking of their readers when schools are forgetting about them. Schools need to see children not as cogs in the wheel of a traditional formal education. They are dynamic individuals with imagination, questions, and curiosity. To make libraries redundant is to extinguish readers. It also reduces reading to an exclusive “hobby”, accessible only to those who can pay.

It brings us to a question: what does it mean to be a free library? It certainly means freedom from the ghost of membership and late fees. It is also freedom from age-old ideas of reading and discipline. A library could mean anything, and its meaning should be defined by its readers. And its seven-year-old members should certainly be able to go back to the library with the copy of Laut Ke Buddhu Ghar Ko Aye past its due date, and issue another book without any fear.

amitanowal4@gmail.com

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2020 12:05:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/let-reading-be-free/article32703888.ece

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