An obligation to build libraries!

Mridula Koshy ponders on why it is important to build libraries and why it is important for the whole industry to work together.


Some time ago I met with a publisher who worried aloud that the books they donated were not reaching the right people and were not the right books. She was right to worry. By right people, she meant those who do not already read, those who are too poor to buy books, those for whom a free book may spell entry into reading. By right books, she meant books that would attract these same people, most of who are first generation school goers and first generation readers.

In India, those who publish in English, and even some of those who publish in other languages, may worry similarly because this is the worry that called them to work in publishing in the first place, the worry about India reading. But I’d wager a guess that this is not the worry that informs decision-making in publishing. On the sidelines of a session devoted to a study on reading habits in India – a study that excluded the majority of Indians and their reading habits simply because there is no model in publishing to address them, no model outside the marketplace understanding that most of India cannot afford to buy books and therefore need not be considered in the business of selling books – on the side lines then, this publisher and I worried about the excluded.

Rise of Book Clubs

In Sheikh Sarai, a small group of teens gather every Sunday to read Manto. Earlier the book club read Chugtai and earlier they didn’t care for the poor translation of Anne Frank into Hindi and abandoned it mid-way, and earlier still they gamely tackled Little Women in English. When some of the book club members participated in theatre workshops, they worked their way through Safdar Hashmi’s poetry. Later they wrote their own chapter of Ramayana and performed it. This was some three years ago. Some months ago, some of these same teens, now older, wrote original poetry, invited their fathers to a special Fathers’ Day assembly in the library and linked arms to find strength as they recited for their fathers: ‘You’ve allowed us education, father. Now don’t stop us from using this education.’ Some of those who read Little Women are now college students who intern in libraries and talk about creating libraries. They are now old enough to worry about where they will find books for their libraries and if the books they find will be the right ones. Meanwhile they continue reading.

Let children read what they like

On a reading forum on Facebook devoted to parents of children who read in English in India, i.e.,a tiny slice of Indians, parent after parent posts about their experience.There are multiple posts daily. They all begin and end the same way. The person posting has a child and this child has a book, or two or three they love, and they have as well an area of interest, and how is this parent to find more of those books that fit this interest, and fit ultimately their child. Typically these posts invite dozens of responses. A sort of crowd-sourced answer emerges; a list of two or three titles that sound like they speak directly to the child’s stated interest, and a list of other books the child could be persuaded to read?

Importance of libraries

No one responds to the parent’s posts by urging them to go to their local library. There is so much more on the book shelves there than you or I can ever conceive of. There are thousands of other books, suggestions for a fertile mind on what they might read next, suggestions that far exceed the crowd-sourced answers of India’s impoverished readership. Without access to libraries, even privileged India is impoverished, struggles to list more than a few books they have purchased and read.

We live in a country with a long history of excluding the majority of its people from reading. This exclusion was practiced through a caste system that prohibited reading and education for all save a select few. We live in a country where a long history of purposeful exclusion is kept alive today by expunging reading from the school curriculum even as it was expunged in colonial times. In a country with few libraries, these few make membership prohibitive by charging fees or by requiring the candidate for membership to jump through hoops that are first set on fire.

Open & free libraries

Today’s children include some who live in Sheikh Sarai Phase 1, New Delhi, inside one-room homes that even in winter have only a tarpaulin door. They are among the rarest of rare children in Delhi, who enjoy a free library that is open to all. It is run by The Community Library Project (TCLP), inside Deepalaya NGO, housed by the Narang Trust in a building named for the family elder, a freedom fighter, Ramditti J R Narang. It is stocked with thousands of books donated by publishers. The donated books are not always the right ones. Publishers have made amends by selling the library deeply discounted books. The Animal Kingdom collection is dominated by DK titles. It is A and A’s Hindi translation of Pippi Longstocking a generation of children know so well that they have singled out one amongst them for the title of Pippi. Harper Collins’ Usborne Young Reader titles – deeply discounted by the publisher – have been a gateway for Hindi medium children to move into English. First the yellow and then the pink spines and so on till a child is reading an abridged Jane Eyre in the purple spined last section of the series. Meanwhile over 1300 children have crossed the 10 books read mark, most of them cutting their teeth on Pratham’s titles.

In another branch of the library, this one in Sector 43 Gurgaon, an eighteen year old wants Moral Man and Immoral Society. An endless list of requests for Pokemon are fulfilled till the librarian wises up to how fast they and the members who borrow them disappear from the library, and now Pokemon is classified as a reference title, for reading in the library only. There is hardly a publisher that hasn’t donated or discounted books for TCLP’s libraries. To mention them all is impossible but it would be wrong to not highlight a few who have been heroic in their support: Duckbill, Penguin, Tulika, Pratham, Katha, Eklavya, Ektara, Harper Collins India. The question is how can publishers be persuaded to work with TCLP and other free libraries that exist throughout the country. The network to which TCLP belongs includes dozens of such free libraries and they need books – free books and discounted books.

In all, TCLP’s three free libraries serve some 4,000 members. Though they are open to all, the three libraries cannot, of course, serve all 21 million people in the NCR region any more than the Delhi Public library system’s three or so dozen branches can. So the other question is how can publishers and the network of free libraries forward a powerful argument for the 1000 libraries missing from Delhi and the 1,000,000 libraries missing from India.

Role of publishers

For publishers, a different India will be one that purchases more books. Some of the books sold will be written by those whose parents did not read, others will be library editions destined for thousands and hundreds of thousands of libraries, and still others will be books purchased as they are now for personal consumption, but by a market that came into existence because libraries came into existence in India.

Mridula Koshy is a writer and library movement activist. Her short story collection If It Is Sweet won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Award. Her novel Not Only The Things That Have Happened was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award. Her latest novel is Bicycle Dreaming. She runs The Community Library Project, which advocates for free, publicly owned libraries that are open to all.

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