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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Free libraries are a big hope in need of policy support

Free libraries are a big hope in need of policy support

The idea is to create not just easily accessible learning resources for children and adults but also spaces for people to discuss ideas and engage in meaningful conversations.

We need a national library policy to create a network of public libraries open to everyone without any fee. Private efforts  in this direction have revealed robust demand for them.   Premium
We need a national library policy to create a network of public libraries open to everyone without any fee. Private efforts in this direction have revealed robust demand for them.

A member of a small free library in the national capital of the world’s largest democracy shares her thinking about the choice of red as the background colour for a poster she has created. She is addressing the ‘art collective’, a programme within the library. “I chose red colour to represent communist ideology. I feel the concepts of a library and communism are very relatable to the thought of sharing."

This could be a nightmare come to life for anyone who fears the disruptive power of free libraries and the unfettered access to information they afford everyone, and especially those who have been long excluded from such access. But in a country without a national library policy, there is little to fear from a girl with that rare membership to a free library.

In any case, in that same library, just the previous day the librarian noted yet another Urdu book marked in pencil with a handwritten “Jai Shree Ram." And there has been some debate among library members about whether the library shouldn’t also have a shelf marked “Against Hinduphobia" to sit alongside the one marked “Against Islamophobia".

The power of a library that offers free membership (no security deposit and no fee for the use of its reading room, the internet, book issuance, late returning of books or for losing them) does not reside in its capacity to produce an automaton-like desire among people for revolution. It offers something much more complicated: the possibility of dialogue among disparate elements of our democracy, among people walled apart from one another long before there was a largest democracy in the world. A free library addresses the caste system so it can undo it.

There are about 100-150 children and adults coming through the library door daily, seven days a week. These numbers are repeated across three branches of the library and also across a network of 153 library organizations that together form the pan-India Free Libraries Network (FLN).

These libraries all want the same thing: they want a national library policy, one that ensures free library membership and a thriving public library system. Their survival depends on it. Unless we formulate a national library policy, small free libraries will eventually be crushed under the weight of multitudes who would like to come through a door designed for 100 or 150.

Not far from the library in Delhi, an older woman approaches the librarian, who stands with his leaflet. Always the leaflet! “What is it you have for us today?" she asks, and without waiting for his answer, “What I want to know is if that labour card you helped me create will be of any use to me in a hospital." The leaflet is handed over and the woman is invited to a legal aid meeting for an answer to her question.

No one on stage at the ministry of culture’s upcoming conference, Festival of Libraries (5-6 August), can honestly say that people don’t want libraries. No one should fret that people don’t want to read anymore. The truth is that on any street anywhere in India, there is a woman who wants to know how to get a labour card, or how to use one. There are children who want someone to read them a story and some adults too who wish to hear stories, and there are also teens who want to be able to name their body parts and articulate their feelings. There are parents who wish to know how to manage children, and teachers who are looking for teaching resources, and students who are looking for learning resources. There are also many people looking for places of conversation and community.

To say no one wants libraries is to not think as a librarian does.

A librarian hears “where is the library" when a child says “I am bored." She also hears it when a child says, “I feel different from others. Even my father knows I am different. He doesn’t like it." She hears the same when a woman says, “I left school in class 2." She hears it when a woman says I only have a half-hour break at midday between the houses in which I sweep and mop and cook. She hears it when a woman says, “He is five now and heavy when I strap him on my body, so I take him out of the house only for doctors’ appointments." A librarian wants free libraries that welcome all people. For the child who is bored, there are multiple daily read-alouds that invite her to read independently as well. For the woman who left school in class 2, there are adult literacy classes. For the busy woman, the library is held in a park and she can bring along her friends who similarly dash from house-to-house, and for half an hour, they get to listen to and discuss the books being read to them. For the woman with the paralysed child, there is a plan that may involve the library hiring a special educator-librarian.

At the Festival of Libraries, where lurk such dangers as the paltry solution of digital libraries or study centres passed off as libraries, the FLN will argue for a national library policy. This will engender hope for a country in which people have yet to learn to live as equals. Or to ‘share’, as the girl who made the red poster would wish.

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Updated: 03 Aug 2023, 09:37 PM IST
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