There are 28 state-level libraries in India with 80% coverage. In the districts, the coverage is 76% with 461 libraries. But in the talukas and villages, the coverage drops drastically to 12.5% (501 libraries) and 4.9% (28,820 libraries), respectively. Most of these government libraries are ailing and are either dysfunctional or on the verge of closure. To top it all, most librarians are meagrely paid, if they get their salaries at all.
The Maharaja Harendra Kishore Singh District Library of West Champaran district, located in its headquarter in Bettiah, is no different. There are only 12,000 books in the library, most of which are literally falling apart. People who visit the library only read daily newspapers. There is only one librarian manning it. In a campus of more than two acres, the library consists of three rooms and a big meeting-cum-conference hall, which can easily accommodate more than 50-60 people. Out of three rooms, two are always closed. The librarian lives in the toilet, having converted it into a small room for himself since he cannot afford a rented place.
Chaturbhuj Mishra, the 60-year-old librarian, has not been paid his shamefully meagre salary of Rs.700 a month for the past seven years. But, even such a state of affairs has not prevented the Bettiah library to become a hub of activity.
More than 1,500 youngsters visit the library everyday, inspired by their librarian Guruji. Mishra is truly a guru. He is a litterateur, bibliophile and a shining beacon to the young. As much as 90% of the daily visitors are those preparing for various competitive exams to land jobs. The library opens at 9am and closes at 6pm, but since its premises are big, the youth occupy the space in the corridors of the library since 7am in the morning. What do these students do in the library? They do not have much to do with the assets of library like its books or newspapers. For them, it provides a calm and convenient place to study, practice for their exams and prepare in groups.
There is a unique trend in this library campus, which was started in 1984 by Mishra. In response to some college students seeking guidance, he formed a small group comprising 30-40 students and guided them in their studies, resulting in great success. It became such a trend that without even involving him, graduates started making groups of 25-40 students. Each group has a name, a group leader, attendance sheet, monitoring system, performance test mechanism and, most importantly, a democratic value system. The monthly membership fee for each group is Rs.50. There are 50 such groups totalling 1,500 members preparing for various job-oriented competitive exams.
I must share that the reason I visited the library was because we are exploring how we can work with public libraries to integrate digital tools to take them on a revival path besides introducing digital technology tools, including Internet and computer devices such as tablets to enable not only library staff but also the neighbourhood communities. This is to regenerate interest of the local communities in the library, where one can find not only brick and mortar knowledge resources, but also online resources and services, which can double the relevance of knowledge culture among the emerging generation.
If all goes well, the West Champaran library will be one the first in India to go digital and show the way to about 30,000 libraries across the country, where the government can consider making them digitally inclusive, thus linking to integrate the local masses into making themselves a part of the information society.
Osama Manzar is founder director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and Curator of The mBillionth Awards. He is member of the Working Group for Internet Proliferation & Governance, Ministry of Communication & IT. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar