A Dying Tradition: Libraries

Over a decade ago I did a regular column for Business World. It was on the business of publishing. Here is the original url.


Musharraf Ali Farooqui, author and translator, was in Delhi in April to launch his third novel Between Clay and Dust. The exquisiteness with which the book has been written is not only a credit to Farooqui as a writer of fiction in the English language, but to a translator who is equally proficient and comfortable in the source (Urdu) and translated (English) language. (At times, he himself is not quite sure which language is he writing in.) The point is that when it comes to Farooqui’s elegant use of language and his ability to understand and convey the nuances of the language he is translating, a large part of the credit goes to the many hours the writer spent browsing through the vast collection of Urdu literature in the Toronto Public Library to produce his masterpiece translation of Amir Hamza.

Ancient libraries, such as the ones in Alexandria and Nalanda, are legendary for the collections they contained. 2012 is being marked as the centenary of the library movement in India. According to Mr Jayarajan, Member, and K. K. Banerjee, Director and Member-Secretary of the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation in Kolkata, “It was in the year 1911, the great Maharaja Siyajirao Gaekwar III of Baroda, mooted the idea of a public library system in his princely state of Baroda.  He invited W. A. Borden to set up a public library network in Baroda.” They inform that the Maharaja-Borden team set up many public libraries in Baroda, which included a Central Library in Baroda, with a large stock of books for lending as well for reference, libraries in town and villages, including remote villages. Children’s libraries and even many travelling libraries were also set up during this period. Sadly, none of these pioneering initiatives could be sustained in Baroda due to the return of Borden in 1913 and the demise of the Maharaja in 1936.

“The arrival of S.R. Ranganathan on the Indian library scene in 1924 was an important milestone in the library history of India. He worked on every facets of librarianship, including public library development and made a concerted effort — which started in 1934 — to get the public library movement accelerated in the country,” Jayarajan and Banerjee state. Ranganathan travelled through different states and prepared the ground for introducing library legislation in each of these states. He succeeded in getting library legislation passed by the erstwhile state of Madras (now Tamil Nadu) in 1948. That was the first library legislation in India. Till the demise of Ranganathan in 1972, only four states enacted library legislations, though many states had initiated the process by that time. “Library” is a state subject; only 18 states have passed the library legislation during 1948-2009.

Incentives For Change
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh commissioned a National Mission for Libraries, anchored in the Ministry of Culture. “The Mission will focus on improvement of the public library system of the country particularly concentrating on the States where library development is lagging behind. The National Mission hopes to cover approximately 9,000 libraries in three years. It will conduct a national census on libraries, work towards upgradation of infrastructure of reading resources, and seek to modernize and promote the networking of libraries,” he announced. For Dr. Chauhan, Librarian of O. P. Jindal Global University Library, libraries are important and at their library, they are constantly engaging with some of the best librarians and specialists around the world to ensure that the best facilities are offered, and also that a good selection of literature is available on the shelves and in digital formats.  Since most institutional libraries are under-utilised they are encouraging members from outside the university to enrol.

Apart from this, there are scattered and fascinating initiatives elsewhere in India. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, Basic Research Education and Development Society (BREADS) is nurturing over a 1000 high school libraries. (They select schools based upon performance.) In addition there are initiatives like Hippocampus Reading Foundation (HRF), Friends of Books and Rent a Book that are creating spaces for books to be lent easily. Well before these were established, the National Book Trust and the Delhi Public Library had and continue to have mobile libraries that travel through the cities and rural areas. According to M. A. Sikandar, Director, National Book Trust, “Mobile Exhibitions are the heart of NBT which touches every district/taluk of the country. Now the GoI approved book promotion centre for each state/UTs with exclusive mobile van to cover rural population under the 21th Five Year Plan. At present there are ten vans (five more to be added later this year) that cover about 2500 points mostly rural and remote in a year.”

Peter Booth Wiley, Secretary of Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, believes libraries are extremely important social spaces for their positive impact on the local community and the exchange of ideas. Some of the library’s programmes are to provide grants that support library programmes and events, raise funds for capital projects for the library; advocate for today’s libraries, recycle more than 600,000 books each year through their Book Operations and offer readings, organise author signings, poetry festivals and other events that support the literary community. As a publisher too, Wiley can appreciate the importance of libraries as repositories and regular customers of their books.

End Of An Era?
On the other side of the Atlantic, the rapid closure of libraries in UK is a disturbing trend. According to Alan Gibbons, an award winning author and organiser of the Campaign for the Book, “Libraries are one of the great British institutions, probably second in popularity only to the National Health Service. According to the National Literacy Trust, a child who visits a library is twice as likely to read well as one who does not.” It is unfortunate that the UK, the country of Shakespeare and Dickens, Austen and the Brontes, now languishes in twenty-third place in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reading rankings, laments Gibbons.  PISA is worldwide evaluation of educational standards in OECD member countries. “Our government’s policies of making 28 per cent public sector spending cuts and putting libraries at the top of the agenda are for funding reductions are threatening 600 branches. Opening hours are being cut, book funds are slashed and we have lost 10 per cent of our full time librarians. South Korea is near the top of the PISA rankings. It has its own economic challenges but it understands the importance of high literacy levels in a global market and it is building 180 new libraries. In addition to their cultural and educational role, libraries are at the heart of our communities, providing a hub and a place to meet. Campaigners for the public library service have a simple message for the British government: we will not go gentle into that good night,” he opines.

Despite these initiatives in India, there are not enough libraries. There is no doubt that internet activity has eaten into the library movement and there is plenty of funding required to maintain a library, especially with high standards. Maybe CSR initiatives or public-private partnerships could be encouraged some more to establish more such social places. In fact, William Kamkwamba, who’s been working on creating libraries across Africa, realised that libraries can act as engines of economic growth.

15 Jan 2021

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