Nearly 40km from Dibrugarh in upper Assam lies Borbari, part of Borbam No.1 village, in Tengakhat block. It is home to around 40 families, primarily from the Adivasi community. These days, a 25x15ft bamboo structure there is the cynosure of all eyes. Called Kuhi Paat, tender leaf in Assamese, it’s the first library in the village.

Opened on 31 August, it hopes to evolve into a community space. In fact, the inauguration itself brought families together—some picked the dimoru paat (fig leaves) to pack boot-maah as prasad, while others presented a welcome song for guests from across the state.

These days, nearly every community activity happens around the library space. On weekend afternoons, one can find children engaged in a game of frisbee outside the structure, before those studying in classes VIII-X head inside for lessons by student volunteers from the Centre for Management Studies (Dibrugarh University). Within the library, neatly constructed bamboo shelves hold nearly 500 books for children aged 4-15, and more are likely to come in the following days. Adults too can be seen, reading Krishok Bandhu (Farmer’s Friend), a monthly agricultural magazine.

The idea of starting a library came to Dibrugarh-based photographer Anjan Nag in 2015 during a visit to Borbari—his ancestral village. He realized that while the neighbouring villages had developed, both in terms of education and trade, his was lagging. “The school dropout rate is very high. The villagers work in tea gardens and farms and hence don’t set much stock by education. I wanted to change that and the only way to do this was through a library—one which the community took ownership for," says Nag.

Of late, there is a growing effort across the country to raise readers. Initiatives are coming up—driven by individuals and not-for-profit organizations—to develop libraries that involve entire communities. The idea is not just to introduce alternative spaces for learning but to encourage critical thinking, promote curiosity, collaborations and conversations.

LEARNING LABS

In Delhi, thousands of miles from Dibrugarh, one can find a group of children lounging over a pristine green carpet or on comfy bean bags, with shelves after shelves of crisp, colourful books lining the walls behind them. Classified as award-winners, general, biography and more, this set of 21,000 books forms part of the unique OneUp Library, Bookstudio and Learning Lab in Vasant Vihar. The book studio morphs into an events space for book readings by authors; at other times you can find scientists and experts gathering here to curate games and talks related to the theme of the month. Children are free to paint over expression walls, pen their thoughts, or simply discuss the books they have been reading.

OneUp was started in Amritsar in 2011 by Dalbir Kaur Madan, who has a master’s in education and describes herself as a lifelong learner. “I wanted to raise my own two children as readers. But I wanted them to be connected with other readers, and not just engage with a book as a solitary act. Hence I visualized libraries not as silent spaces but as playgrounds or exploratoriums for 21st century learners," she says. In 2017, Madan shifted OneUp to Delhi when she moved to the Capital.

She also curates libraries for schools in the National Capital Region, such as The Shri Ram School (Vasant Vihar and Aravali campuses) and Step by Step School, Noida, and in Mumbai, such as Cathedral & John Connon School and the Oberoi International School. Madan offers guidance to teachers and librarians on innovative ways to draw in non-readers. To motivate school librarians, she has recently instituted an award to acknowledge best practices in nurturing learning environments across the country. With advisers such as Bal Sahitya Puraskar-winner Paro Anand, author Mahesh Rao and publisher Hemali Sodhi on board, the award will be announced on 9 November.

Madan sees libraries as spaces for both children and for adults—children don’t just want adults to narrate the sequence of events in a book but also talk about how it shaped their thinking. “They are not looking at retellers. They want us to share what was confusing for us in the book, what was surprising. And that’s what we hope to do at OneUp," says Madan, who issues nearly 8,000 books monthly to members.

The curation at such libraries ensures a mix of books that allow children to find themselves in the stories and those that serve as windows to faraway worlds. “The idea is to cover varied topics. We have books that talk about emotions, friendships, disabilities and more," says Radhika Timbadia, co-founder, Champaca Bookstore and Café in Bengaluru, who will be launching a library for children under 12 on 6 October. The focus will be on Indian publishers such as Tulika Books, Pratham Books and Katha as well as smaller publishers. “It’s nice to have Indian books which cover both urban and rural themes that resonate with the children. But we also have international books about topics not familiar to Indian children—for instance, about the struggle of the African American community," she says.

Champaca Library will open with a selection of 1,000 books that will be updated monthly. The team also hopes to work with communities and schools to open small libraries in Bengaluru.

At OneUp too, the focus of the curation is on diversity—to bring up sensitive topics that might be brushed aside in school or at home. For instance, what are the different kinds of families in the world—like those with same-sex parents, or with just grandparents as guardians. At the moment, children are being introduced to The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman, in which two sisters run away from home owing to domestic violence and end up on the streets as garbage-pickers. It looks at how the two end up finding a foster home.

Meanwhile, libraries that have come up in rural areas of Assam, Nagaland, Odisha, Jharkhand and Kerala are relying on crowdfunding for their books and infrastructure. Nag, for one, has started a campaign on Ketto to get books and equipment like projectors and screens. “They pick the best (tea) leaves for you. Now it’s your time to help their kids pick books," is the way he describes his fund-raiser.

The Maati Community‘s Akonir Puthighar library in Majuli.
The Maati Community‘s Akonir Puthighar library in Majuli. (Photo: Courtesy Maati Community)

‘GREAT LIBRARIES BUILD GREAT COMMUNITIES’

A similar crowdfunding initiative for books can be seen in Assam’s river island of Majuli, home to the Mishing community. It has been started by the Maati Community—a grass-root organization focused on alternative education and livelihood in an effort to promote the state’s cultural heritage. “It is said that great libraries build great communities," says storyteller Yuveka Singh in a video about the project.

In March 2018, the team started a library, Akonir Puthighar, in Majuli, since residents didn’t have access to very many books. Just like Kuhi Paat, here too one can see a small bamboo structure stocked with books donated by residents of Guwahati. On most days, adults and children within a 2-3km radius come here to read or simply engage with one another.

“It has become a fulcrum for cultural activities as well. We host the Living Art initiative here, with Akonir Puthigar serving as a space for music, dance and showcase of art," says Rishi Raj Sarmah, who co-founded the Maati Community with like-minded people—artists, musicians, poets and film-makers. The library acts as a binder, as a space for knowledge-sharing and free expression.

The Maati Community has been helping Nag with Kuhi Paat and hopes to set up a library up in Kaziranga by next year. “Not everyone has turned into a proficient reader but at least they are now turning pages," he says.

Many of the library initiatives are driven by personal stories. For instance, Prem Prakash, who runs Project Paper Bridge—which hopes to open 1,000 libraries by 2020—was inspired to start community-led initiatives during the 2015 Nepal earthquake. “Horrendous images of destruction were being shown in the media, and a group of friends and I wanted to do something to help. We ended up raising 1.25 lakh for health relief, and that’s when it hit me that if we take the initiative, people will come and help," says Prakash, who completed a degree course from Amity Law School, Delhi, in 2014.

Soon after the Nepal earthquake, he headed to Assam to participate in flood relief, and travelled to Nagaland. That’s when he realized there was a strong disconnect between the North-East and so-called “mainstream India".

“I wondered what one could do to integrate communities across the country. I felt the more awareness people have of a particular community, the less likely they were to discriminate against them," he says. An ardent reader, he could only think of libraries as a means of bridging that gap. He started conducting book-donation drives, encouraging people to write messages on books. “For instance, if Shailja from Mumbai writes a message for a community in Nagaland, a strong connection is forged then and there," he says.

Today, Project Paper Bridge has developed 170 libraries in schools and government institutions in Nagaland—including one at the district jail in Dimapur—Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Jharkhand, Haryana and other states. It has collection centres in Delhi, Noida, Gurugram, Mumbai, Pune, Leh in Ladakh and Bengaluru. “We are targeting existing government institutions only. We don’t want to increase the carbon footprint by creating new buildings but would rather refurbish old ones. We need libraries in schools to create readers," he says.

Project Paper Bridges doesn’t stop at curation—it helps monitor the libraries too. A basic library can come up in a budget of 2,500, with 60% of the funds allocated to books, while a more advanced one with a computer and projection screens costs 2 lakh. Most schools now have a library board, comprising a headmaster, teacher, paralegal volunteer and woman representative from a local self-help group to involve the community. “One of our volunteers is assigned to every 10 schools to monitor the libraries and troubleshoot queries to us," explains Prakash.

One such library can be found in the Government Upgrade High School—with 314 students—in Jharkhand’s Simdega district. The school already had a library but it only featured curriculum-related textbooks. Project Paper Bridge approached the district administration and worked with the school by providing 200 books and an almirah to display them.

“The team keeps coming regularly to motivate the community. A baithak takes place in the middle- and high-school premises where the community is assured that this is a space for all of them," says Devendra Tiwari, a teacher who has been with the school since 1994. While the children have been lapping up stories of iconic personalities, bravery, mythology and nature, the challenge, says Tiwari, lies in the attitudes of their guardians.

Yeh bohot hi pichda hua ilaaka hai. Guardians bilkul jagrook nahi hain (this is a very underdeveloped area). But we, along with Project Paper Bridges, have been working very hard to make them understand that instead of idling around, they can come and spend time here. Mindsets are changing slowly, but it’s happening," he says.

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