The concept of a “neighbourhood book policy”, as mooted by Union minister for human resource development Kapil Sibal, is not new. What Sibal referred to is, to translate into less bureaucratic terms, simply the public library, an institution of fundamental social importance. Carl Sagan put it eloquently: “The health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.” The public library is particularly relevant to India, where many people find it difficult to access books of quality. As a massive population rapidly grows more literate, new avenues of knowledge must open up to these millions of new readers.
Sibal did not mention, however, an equally pressing need: reform of the public libraries that already exist. It is ironic that he suggested, for instance, that a task force learn from the model of libraries and reading rooms in Tamil Nadu, because the state provides a fine example of how even a well-intentioned library policy can go awry in its implementation on the ground. In 1948, Tamil Nadu became the first state to pass the Public Libraries Act, and Madras University has been offering a post graduate training programme for librarians since 1937. The state’s network of libraries, as far as numbers go, is impressive: In 2001, there were 18 district central libraries and 1,538 branch libraries.
But over the years, the libraries have tended towards becoming merely storehouses, and not carefully curated selections, of books. Publishers in Tamil Nadu frequently complain that library authorities purchase books as they would vegetables—by weight alone. One anecdote, well-known in the state’s publishing circles, describes how a collection of verse was turned down because there was too much white space around the column of text on each page; presumably it did not deliver enough value for money in terms of the density of its print. Book collections are often outdated or poorly maintained, and librarians have, over the years, grown inconsistent in their capabilities.
The mandate of any library task force should be, therefore, to not only figure out how these libraries can be set up, but also how they can keep evolving and improving.
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