I love libraries. I love everything about them — the hush, the slowly spinning blades of the ceiling fan, the sunlight spilling in from tall windows, the magazines lying open on polished wooden tables, the readers slumped over books, taking notes, the rows and endless rows of books on shelves. Half my childhood was spent in libraries. Living in the different places where my father was posted, my mother would take us along after kindergarten — my sister, three years younger, and me — to the nearest library. She would sink into an armchair with a novel by Somerset Maugham or Nevil Shute, and we would settle down to play quietly on the floor. I think we started reading by sheer osmosis, somewhere during those peaceful, sunlit afternoons. Whether it was the library at the club, the city public library, or the circulating library down the road, my sister and I grew up surrounded by the conviction that books were for devouring and sharing.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” said Borges. I knew exactly what Paradise felt like.
Karnataka has over 5,600 rural public libraries in its gram panchayats. By late 2020, the pandemic had forced schools to close for months on end. Rural children needed a way to stay connected to reading. ‘Oduva Belaku’ — the light of reading — began as a programme across Karnataka to revive rural public libraries, help children stay connected to reading, and build a library culture within communities. To ensure that no children were left out, library membership was made free. In the months that followed, one million rural children enrolled. They received little yellow cards so they could take a book home to read, a first for many children. Rural libraries were taken up for revival in phases. Book stacks in dingy corners were tracked down. Many were given new spaces and some got new buildings. Next came electrical connections, book racks, furniture, reading rooms or balconies, study desks for students, armchairs and garden benches for seniors.
A donation drive was taken up. Civil society organisations readily came forward. A ‘Pustaka Jolige’ — an initiative to sow the seeds of a public library movement — was launched. The slogan went: Naavu nimma mane bagilige, nimma ondu pustaka namma joligege (We are coming to your doorstep; please give us one book for our knapsack). A small procession shared the message about libraries and reading. They were welcomed warmly, with one village even arranging a musical band to welcome the initiative. In Gangavathi taluk in Koppal district, over 8,000 books were donated to libraries.
The re-imagining of the rural library was exciting, even moving. A panchayat officer in Belagavi spoke about how, as a student, she would walk several kilometres to access the library. “Now I can make it available locally for today’s students.” Many had struggled with education in these difficult conditions; everyone understood the importance of free public libraries.
The ideas were as full of common sense as of beauty: there should be bean bags, indoor plants, colourful curtains, child-sized sofas, world maps, chess sets. And, of course, computers. Pictures of Karnataka’s Jnanpith awardees went up on library walls. There were murals of Shivarama Karanth, Savitribai Phule, S.R. Ranganathan. There were murals of children: a girl on a swing; a child dreaming under a tree; a child hugging a book.
In a coastal Karnataka library, children created a wall magazine. In a Koppal village, a schoolteacher celebrated his child’s birthday by repainting the library. In Khanapur in Belgavi, an open-air library came up, a bayalu granthalaya , in a garden around an old well. In a Gadag panchayat, government school teachers organised weekly sessions, over several months, for students to talk about books they had read — Naanu odida pustaka.
Dinosaurs to computers
Children spoke about what the library meant to them. Fatima*, a student in Bidar, said she read about dinosaurs in a library book. In Davangere, Nandini said the library gave her space and privacy to study. Manjula, in Raichur, asked, heartbreakingly, if a small library could be set up in her village please because she stayed far away, and although she wanted to come to the library every day, her family asked why she needed to go so far to read; what was she going to achieve?
The effort continues. Over time, its impact will become apparent. Already, young people have formed study circles in many libraries; some have organised computer classes, exam coaching, and career guidance workshops. Seniors drop in for a quiet look at the morning paper. Children, especially girls, come in groups to study in the calm library environment. In a Chikmagalur library, I saw children of different ages seated around a table, deeply engrossed in picture books and stories, with a dictionary in front of them. My heart brimmed.
The 2011 census reported that around 61% of Karnataka’s population was rural. While the State literacy rate was around 75%, rural female literacy, at around 58%, was around 20 percentage points behind urban female literacy. Rural male literacy hovered at the level of urban female literacy. There are also sharp variations across districts. In Yadgir, the female literacy rate was 41%. There are similar variations in literacy rates across India. While there are historical reasons for such imbalances, they reflect unequal access and inclusion. The ability to read and analyse information and to learn new things is a fundamental part of development. Not being able to read, write, or communicate is an acute deprivation.
Equality and inclusion
In terms of Amartya Sen’s vision of development as freedom, development is the removal of barriers to people’s exercise of agency. Rural public libraries can make a key difference to people’s lives by redressing this deprivation. Libraries promote learning and help to open readers’ minds to diverse perspectives. They collect and store information, arrange it systematically, and make it available to people, allowing them to participate more fully and equally in contemporary life.
Literacy is not merely about teaching or testing; it depends on the availability of diverse books to interest readers. Not only for language development and education, libraries offer books for leisure, entertainment, and to spark the creative imagination. Rural public libraries offer books for laughter and warmth, for the heart and soul. I’m reminded of Doris Lessing’s words in her Nobel lecture: “The villages, unlike what is reported, are full of intelligent people... People want to read the same kinds of books that we in Europe want to read — novels of all kinds, science fiction, poetry, detective stories, plays, and do-it-yourself books, like how to open a bank account.” In promoting quiet and focused study, and providing equal access to all, rural libraries promote equality and inclusion.
Village libraries can help address rural isolation as well, by providing access to information and opportunities for higher education and employment. They can support users to acquire skills such as digital literacy and participate more actively in the contemporary world. By providing information on education, employment, health, and legal entitlements, rural public libraries can create a more informed, caring and compassionate society.
Public libraries have a long but uneven history in India. The first free state-supported library network was set up in Baroda. When Sayajirao Gaekwad III visited the U.S. and saw how public libraries had promoted education, he decided to set up a network of free public libraries in Baroda. He appointed William Borden, an American librarian, to manage the library system. This included village libraries, travelling libraries and even a visual branch for the illiterate. Later, two public libraries were started in Mysore and Bengaluru in 1915.
In 1924, Madras University appointed S.R. Ranganathan as the university librarian. Ranganathan would go on to be regarded as the father of the library movement in India. Ranganathan came to the field of library science because of a discriminatory colonial-era practice. He had started his career teaching mathematics, but at the time Indian lecturers were paid a fraction of what their British counterparts received. When Madras University advertised for a librarian, Ranganathan applied and was selected. At first, the prospect of being a storekeeper of books was alarming, but he changed his mind after studying library science in England. He returned with a new understanding of the role of the public library in the life of communities. He extended the university library working hours, opened it to undergraduates, and built a diverse collection based on user requests. Aware that a robust public library network was essential for nation-building, he introduced a mobile bullock cart library service for rural areas.
Ranganathan’s famous Five Laws of Library Science were his great gift to the public library movement:
- Books are meant for use
- Every reader has their book
- Every book has its reader
- Save the reader’s time
- See the library as a growing organism
Ranganathan’s strong advocacy for free public libraries led to the Madras Public Library Act in 1948. Karnataka enacted the Karnataka Public Libraries Act in 1965, under which a network of libraries was set up and a library cess introduced, so that collections could grow in response to evolving needs.
Kerala’s celebrated library movement not only built a network of libraries across the State, but also grew into the State’s literacy mission, enabling it to achieve near-universal literacy. Today, several States have passed library legislation, though not all of them have provided for a library cess to fund the ongoing development of public libraries. Such legislation could help in the growth of local public libraries to meet the aspirations of rural students.
Libraries have not always been promoted only by governments. As part of the resistance to colonial rule, freedom fighters also set up libraries. Library activists started a village library in Andhra in 1898, in Kumudavalli. An All India Library Conference was organised in Madras in the 1920s, alongside a meeting of the Indian National Congress. Paturi Nagabhushanam of the Andhra library movement introduced ‘boat libraries’ in the 1930s. A few years before Independence, a large number of village and travelling libraries appeared across different regions. One estimate suggests that there were 13,000 such village libraries by 1942. The association of libraries with the sharing of ideas and the quest for freedom was clear.
Today, small but sustained initiatives to set up community libraries are beginning to take shape. In the 21st century, the rural public library is an essential civic institution. It is an open and accessible space. It can reduce information asymmetry, bridge the digital divide, and reduce the gap between the privileged and the less privileged, especially children. It is a space of social equality, where anyone can enter and seek information: a grandfather to read the newspaper; a women’s collective wanting to know how to set up a small business; a teenager to register for open school; or a child who just loves everything about the library — the hush, the readers taking notes, the magazines lying open on the tabletops, and the rows and rows of books.
*Names changed for privacy.
The writer is in the IAS.