Are traditional libraries losing their charm & relevance in new India

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Are traditional libraries losing their charm & relevance in new India
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The beauty of sitting in a library for hours, sometimes from one morning till the next, the occasional breaks over snacks followed by a discussion about some knotty topic, a walk through the stacks of encyclopaedias and databases, or the sheer inspiration from those bending over books all around you… a library has a colour and smell of its own.

Even in an era when most Indians are mobile data empowered, the fact is, for the seeds of learning to develop into knowledge and wisdom, an enabling environment plays a more important role.

Demise of learning spaces
Indian has a long tradition of setting up libraries for the masses. Maharaja Sayajirao III Gaekward of Baroda, who funded education of Babasaheb Ambedkar, is credited with pioneering a public library system for his state during the pre-independence era. Similar examples still abound. For example, Infosys founder Narayana Murthy-funded Murty Classical Library of India at the Harvard and JustBooks, a rental library chain. However, they cannot make up for a fading tradition of learning systems.

Despite such initiatives, the demise of free public libraries in independent India has been alarming. Except public libraries in Delhi or Kerala, most are known for huge vacancies, poor infrastructure and outdated study resources - all perpetuating the declining number of footfalls and a fading learning culture.

When I compare my first experience of books in a rundown building of a public library in my hometown in Bihar – to the well-lit, amply funded and vibrant libraries in the serene surroundings of the top universities in Delhi or Hangzhou in China, I wonder what we could achieve even with the basic library facilities in small towns. Although, the challenge today is a bigger one – to enable people to see through their world view shaped by hyped and cooked information on their mobile.

Towards a library-led learning society
Someone rightly said: “Bad libraries build collection, good libraries build services, great libraries build communities.” I fear if most of the public libraries in India would qualify the above criteria. However, building libraries of books at universities or schools alone – what we have mostly done post-independence – clearly has its limitations. We need to promote a culture of learning or reading to think and engage in informed discussions. Otherwise, we will remain a society where voice prevails over reason, shouts over deliberations, and emotions over arguments – all for short- term benefits.

To strengthen building a cycle of collective wisdom generation, we ought to understand that societies become great when they inculcate a decentralised yet collective culture of learning from experiences, mistakes and achievements. It can be done most effectively by promoting a library-led learning culture.

An idea worth emulating would be the way provinces and municipalities in China subsidise brick-and-mortar bookstores. Official Chinese news agency Xinhua runs huge bookstores across China – often a one-stop shop for all kinds of books – which end up becoming city landmarks. The bookstores usually allow free reading and host games, quizzes and talks.

In India, given connectivity issues and a multi-lingual context, we may encourage setting up of community-led libraries which in turn can incorporate age-specific practices such as reading-listening for the aged, game-based learning for the children and cultural activities and debates for others. Such a library can also bring together vocational skills training and other learning spaces that the community may desire.

We also need to provision creation of abundant learning spaces in our infra planning, market complexes, malls and multi-stories, and at every intersection of urban and rural life. In brief, we need to re-imagine our social learning spaces and integrate it with the wider recreational set up. We may also convince schools, colleges and other institutions to join nearby communities in creating localised learning spaces. Only such initiatives will help create a public sense of libraries as creative, inclusive space and merge it with the society’s DNA to inspire all towards learning by every available means.

(The author is assistant professor, Times School of Media, Bennett University)

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