Making libraries more democratized!

In conversation with K. Elambahavath, Director, Public Libraries, Janani Rajeswari. S traces the history and the journey of the seasoned institution, Tamil Nadu Public Libraries, headquartered at Chennai.

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Tamil Nadu has one of the oldest public library domains in India. It all began with the Madras Public Libraries Act in 1948 by the Madras Presidency. Here, K. Elambahavath, Director, Public Libraries, shares more.

AABP: How do public libraries operate?

Elambahavath: Back in those days, there was no funding provided for public libraries during British rule. S.R. Ranganathan (also known as the ‘Father of Library Sciences’) designed the content of the Library Act and he also designed many classification methods. He developed a classification model called ‘Colon Classification’, which is being followed by us now. This was also adopted by other states in India. When it comes to handling the operational cost of libraries, in places where property tax and house tax are levied by the local bodies, a ten percent cess goes to the library department. The major salary part is funded by the state government.

AABP: What are the initiatives taken to run the Tamil Nadu Public Libraries system?

Elambahavath: We recently formed a committee to manage the operations of the public library system. We are working towards elaborating the work done by the department. One of the major challenges is the accessibility to public libraries. We have our libraries in all wards of cities, towns and villages. There are a total of 4600 public libraries and 13,000 odd village libraries. To fund them, we have our own internal revenue system supported by the local bodies. But the state government supports us when it comes to higher expenditures such as maintaining the buildings and in the case of bigger libraries. Take for example the recently built Anna Centenary Library in Madurai whose building cost is nearly Rs. 160 crores. We have a similar ten-year-old Anna library in Chennai which was around Rs. 200 crores. This is the second-largest library in Asia in terms of space.

AABP: How do you maintain the Panchayat and village libraries?

Elambahavath: Under the ‘Anaithu Grama Anna Marumalarchi’ scheme, the comprehensive development of the Panchayat is being taken care of. The libraries that were started ten years ago come under this scheme. Now the state government has announced a grant through the ‘Rural Development Department under the state budget. These funds are used for revamping these libraries with facilities like constructing/ repairing washrooms, electrical works and for procurement of furniture and so on. The panchayat heads will ensure the procurement of local newspapers and magazines for the benefit of the students and residents of the area.

AABP: How do you determine what books go into the libraries?

Elambahavath: There are experts from different fields who curate a list of books from each genre, which goes into the library. These include books in Tamil and English. But libraries in bordering districts have books from other languages too. However, each reader has his/her own taste. Earlier, there was a physical register in which the readers could request a book of their choice. Today, thanks to the online platforms, we can get real-time feedback from the readers. The government of Tamil Nadu has issued a transparent book procurement policy which will be a game changer in the book procurement process.

AABP: Could you elaborate on the new book procurement policy of the Government of Tamil Nadu?

Elambahavath: The major change in the ‘Transparent Book Procurement Policy 2024’ is a bottom-up approach in selecting books for public libraries. This innovative move is rooted in the democratisation of book procurement, recognising the pivotal role of readers in shaping library collections. By involving readers directly at the library level, the policy ensures that the selection of books aligns closely with the actual needs and preferences of the community.

Democratisation is not just about giving voice to the readers but also about adopting objective selection methodologies that minimize bias and individual subjectivity. The policy introduces a structured framework that includes online applications for book selection, continuous evaluation, and a point-scoring system to assess each book. This methodological shift aims to balance expert opinions with real-world reader demand, ensuring a diverse and relevant selection of books across all library branches.

Moreover, the policy’s emphasis on transparency and accountability throughout the procurement process reflects a commitment to fair practices and equitable access to information. By allowing readers to participate in book selection, the policy not only empowers library users but also fosters a sense of ownership and community around public library collections. This approach, coupled with stringent measures against unfair practices and a robust mechanism for quality and price assessment, sets a new standard in public book procurement, making it more inclusive, responsive, and aligned with the democratic ethos of public service.

In line with the DPL Transparent Book Procurement Policy 2024, the Directorate of Public Libraries has launched a new portal at https://bookprocurement.tamilnadupubliclibraries.org/. This website enables publishers to apply for book selection year-round and allows readers and librarians to participate directly in the book selection process, supporting the policy’s vision for a more democratic and transparent approach to book procurement.

AABP: What message would you like to send out about building and strengthening the public library system?

Elambahavath: Reading habits are slowly waning with the growing popularity of other forms of consuming content: viewing and listening. The demand for audiobooks is significant in improving the reading habit. However, this practice is not new. Nearly 3000 years ago, we transmitted information and knowledge only through oral communication. With the advent of various forms of writing material, information was recorded in written form. However, in today’s world of technological advancement, we are going back to embracing the age-old oral tradition i.e.: listening to what others have to say. Preserving the reading habit is indeed a challenge in this technologically advanced era.

To preserve the reading habit, we need to assess the readership. To support the same, we need to collect books and promote them with various activities. Talking about preserving old books, the 126-year-old Connemara public library is the oldest and has a collection of rare books. We also have other repositories such as Sarasvati Mahal Library (Thanjavur) created by Maratha Serfoji Maharaj. This is the oldest surviving library till date.

Another solution could be adopting multimodal publishing in this fast-evolving era. (print, audio, digital and visual formats). So far, we have digitised around one lakh books, nearly 35-40 million documents and other materials.

Capturing the Essence of Literacy: A Page from Tamil Nadu’s Book

In the bustling streets of Tamil Nadu, you’ll find the heart of the community beats within its teashops and salons, pulsating with the fervour of daily news and discussion. Here, newspapers aren’t just paper and ink; they are catalyst for conversation, debate, and a reflection of a society. It’s a tradition that paints a vivid picture of the state’s ingrained literary culture.

The state government, tapping into this organic intellectual hub, has rolled out an innovative program designed to weave reading seamlessly into the fabric of everyday life: by establishing small libraries in the most unexpected of places – from the hustle of bus stands to the quiet corridors of hospitals. It’s about transforming waiting rooms into gateways of knowledge and imagination.

With an investment of Rs. 4.5 crore this year, Tamil Nadu is looking at setting the stage for a new chapter in the cultural narrative, one where every moment holds potential for discovery in the pages of a book.

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