Many of India’s greatest scholars would have lived obscure lives if it were not for public libraries
Last week, to mark its 125th year, the New York Public Library (NYPL) released a list of the 10 most checked-out books in its history. NYPL is the world’s third largest library, after the US Library of Congress and the British Library. Of the 10 most checked-out titles, more than half were books for children and young readers, such as The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone (The full list). For me, two titles stood out—George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, about a future society where books are banned.
Libraries are the bedrock of civilization; they are a gateway to progress. Nearly every social reformer in India has been involved with setting up libraries. A few months ago, I had a wonderful experience in Kumudavalli in West Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, the village of the late B.V. Raju, former chairman of Cement Corp. of India and founder of Raasi Cements. Originally set up in a hut in 1897, today the village library is a three-storied building, thanks largely to donations from Kumudavalli’s most illustrious son.
This 100% literate village strongly believes in the transformative power of education, and the library is its pride and joy. Kumudavalli even imposes a “library dowry"; for every wedding in the village, the family has to donate something to the library, even if it’s just ₹10. Every Diwali, each household has to pay up ₹20. All collections go into the corpus fund. The library houses tens of thousands of books, lovingly cared for, from age-old palm-leaf scriptures to recent PhD theses—every research scholar from the surrounding area has to submit a copy of their thesis here.
My own association with libraries, like everyone else’s, started in childhood. From the Ballygunge Institute in Kolkata, to a circulating library in Mumbai (where the stern Gujarati owner made sure that an early-teens customer could borrow Alistair Maclean, but not Harold Robbins), to the British Council in Kolkata, where a 20-year-old with few friends in the city could find a cozy refuge and expand his horizons.
Once, stranded for a month in the town of Karimganj in Assam, the public library kept me on an utterly inexplicable diet, from first-person Bangla accounts of our freedom struggle to seven exquisitely produced volumes of Giacomo Casanova’s autobiography. Little-visited tunnels in the gold mines of the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur and the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta taught me about art, cinema, philosophy.
Sadly, the only reports we read today in the media about public libraries in India are about their decline and decay. If we go by the 2011 census numbers, India has one rural library for every 11,500 people, and one urban library for over 80,000 people. And, there is little information available on their quality, capacity or service levels.
There is no uniform, country-wide system of administration for public libraries. They are run by state governments, but many states don’t have any relevant legislation in place, or any regular budgeting provision. There also seems to be no relationship between a state’s capacity to spend on libraries and its willingness to do so. While money is available at the central level, many states do not bother to seek funding for developing libraries. There is a clear correlation between outlays on arts, culture and libraries, and the growth of literacy, but spending on libraries has been consistently neglected by states. One can also safely assume that when states do allocate money to buy books, many of them do so only to push the ruling party’s ideology or the current chief minister’s literary output.
India spends 7 paise per capita annually on the development of public libraries. The figure for the US is $35.96 ( ₹2,548). Some years ago, a friend took me to the public library in a Boston suburb. “This is one of the best proofs that my tax dollar is being put to some good use," he said. He wanted his sons, US-born-and-bred, to learn more about their roots. So, he had requested the library for books on India, from the great Indian epics to cricket, and the library had got them all, either by borrowing from other libraries or buying the books.
While our demographic class worries about the threat to paper books from e-content, and the decline in spelling aptitude and vocabulary in the age of texting and emojis, the vast majority of young Indians and children need free and easy access to books.
Many of our greatest scholars—from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar to B.R. Ambedkar—would have lived obscure lives of little societal worth had it not been for public libraries. Education is essential, but school curricula come with boundaries; a good library sets you free to explore beyond them, where your heart and mind want you to go.
Many private and non-governmental organizations are doing admirable work in this area at the grassroots level, but that’s not enough. The people of Kumudavalli were a revelation to me, but we need a hundred thousand Kumudavallis. The government has an absolutely vital role to play here, and must do so, if at all it is interested in an enlightened nation.
Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines
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