With a crunch of funds, resources and staff, a majority of public libraries in the country are in a state of despair. What’s needed is an urgent action plan to make these knowledge hubs relevant
Unbearable stench, incessant honking, hawkers peddling mundane items on the footpath. This isn’t what you expect to encounter at the entrance of a library. But once you enter the Delhi Public Library (one of the oldest libraries in India) in New Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, all the unpleasantness is forgiven. What you see is a veritable treasure trove for a reader, with over 18 lakh titles, a dozen-odd computers with free Wi-Fi connection and ample space to sit and read. The library, which started as the first Unesco pilot project in India in 1951, though in need of a fresh coat of paint, has a separate section for children as well, which has 16,000 titles on offer. Neatly placed rows of books of current favourite Geronimo Stilton compete for space with classics like Enid Blyton and Charles Dickens.
“This is one of Asia’s biggest public libraries with 37 branches in Delhi and five mobile libraries. We have close to 1.75 lakh members,” says RS Gaur, chairman, Delhi Public Library (DPL). The library has currently undertaken the project, ‘Ghar Ghar Dustak, Ghar Ghar Pustak’, whereby a control room has been set up at the main centre and anyone can call in to check the availability of a book or other such details. “If there is any member who, for some reason, can’t visit the library and needs a book, they can call on our number and we will try to deliver it to their house,” says Gaur. The library also regularly conducts workshops of interest to children, as well as adults. “Our workshops try to spread awareness about the library and generate interest among the youth,” he says.
But not every public library in the country is working on the lines of the DPL. The third edition of India Public Libraries Conference, hosted by the Nasscom Foundation and held in the national capital last month, brought to light the apathetic condition of public libraries in the country and highlighted the need to tap their potential. “The main objective was to bring all key stakeholders in the public library space on one platform to deliberate how these libraries can best reach the unreached,” says Shrikant Sinha, CEO, Nasscom Foundation. The two-day event, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Library Initiative, was a multi-stakeholder initiative, wherein officials from across the country discussed the current scenario and debated on recommendations for reforms in library legislation. More such efforts, however, are needed to help the struggling public libraries of India stay afloat.
A basic comparison of the number of libraries between Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka throws up astonishing figures. UP, which has a population of more than 200 million, supports only 70 public libraries, while Karnataka, with a third of UP’s population, boasts of around 7,000. “This is because there’s huge disparity in public spending in the domain of public libraries,” says B Shadrach, founding chair and honorary adviser, Indian Public Library Movement (IPLM), which organised the India Public Libraries Conference. UP spends roughly Rs 24 crore annually on libraries, while Karnataka spends Rs 186 crore. So even as the DPL celebrates its 67th year with a month-long free membership drive this month, not every public library in the country is teeming with books or resources to attract new members. Take, for instance, the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library in Patna.
Under the administrative control of the ministry of culture, it has been running without a permanent director for a few years now.
In Punjab, too, around 75% libraries are running without the required manpower—of the 96 sanctioned posts of librarians in 62 libraries, 74 are lying vacant. A library in Hoshiarpur, in fact, was shut down, as the only worker—a class IV employee—retired in March this year. “Staffing in public libraries is an important challenge. In many states, public libraries are understaffed with no full-time librarian to take care of library functions. A huge number of libraries have vacancies that need to be filled immediately with qualified staff capable of addressing the knowledge needs of present and potential users,” says Shubhangi Sharma, executive director, IPLM.
But spending needs money and obviously libraries are low on priority. Budgetary allocations for libraries differ from state to state. “Unfortunately, states where public purchasing power is low, spending on services such as education, libraries and health is abysmal. We have this disparity because of a lack of national policy that could provide generic guidelines on per capita public spending on libraries,” says Shadrach of IPLM. No wonder then that while Karnataka spends Rs 186 crore annually on libraries, Rajasthan, a state almost same in size, spends just around Rs 16 crore. “It’s simply the lack of political will,” says Sharma of IPLM. “Till the time state authorities understand the importance of these institutions and take action to improve their condition, nothing can change.” Sharma has a point. A majority of public libraries across the country are in need of urgent attention. Bihar, a state with a population of around 99 million, spends only `10 lakh on the purchase of books per year. As per reports, the per capita annual expenditure on library books in the state is hardly 1 paisa, while the national average is 7 paise. No wonder then that more than 5,000 libraries have shut down in Bihar in the past two-three decades.
The Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF), the nodal agency of the government, offers grants to 16,000-17,000 public libraries every year. It sanctions these on the basis of applications received from libraries with recommend- ations from state/UT library authorities. After utilisation of the grant, each library has to submit a ‘utilisation certificate’ and some other documents for settlement of the grant. RRRLF field officers and assistants also visit the libraries for verification of utilisation—the RRRLF supported 12,673 libraries in 2012-13 and, in 2016-17, that number shot up to 16,870. Many a times, however, states don’t send in proposals to the RRRLF, as they don’t have the requisite knowledge or staff. Hence, due to poor fund appropriation by state governments, the RRRLF isn’t able to show utilisation of all the funds received from the central government and this leads to a reduction in their proposed budget in the following year. “Library is a state subject. So whatever proposal for grants comes in, we review it and allocate grants accordingly. The state has to take the onus of running it efficiently and increase the footfalls,” says Arun Kumar Chakraborty, director general, RRRLF.
Besides lack of funds, another reason cited for the shutting down of libraries is the shrinking number of visitors who, in turn, complain of the despairing conditions of libraries. “Libraries in India don’t offer inviting and inspiring spaces. Also, with time, the book collection in a library grows, which takes up visitors’ space, as an increasing number of shelves are required to accommodate the growing collection,” says Jagdish Arora, director, Information and Library Network (INFLIBNET) Centre, an inter-university centre run by the University Grants Commission. Many libraries fail to implement the periodic weeding policy, wherein old and rarely used books are disposed of. “In many developed nations, public libraries are places which youngsters visit to realise their goals. In India, due to lack of policy and resource support, both at the central and state levels, public libraries are unable to match the expectations of the young populace. This is the main reason why the youth today is highly disappointed with the public library system,” says Shadrach of IPLM.
A few positives
Since the enactment of the first Public Library Act in India (the Madras Public Library Act of 1948) only 20 states have passed public library legislations. There are some states, however, which have done a commendable job in reviving public libraries. “Though most public libraries in India are a neglected lot, states such as Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have reasonably well-equipped public libraries,” says Sinha of Nasscom Foundation. These successful states have devised their own ways of working. Unlike most states, where the topmost executive post of a public library is held as an additional charge by the director of the department of education or culture, in Karnataka, for instance, a qualified library and information science professional holds the position of director. He has decision-making, approving and financial powers, which he can exercise in consultation with the state government. “We have five lakh books in our public libraries and 50,000 books are available as e-books. We have even started mobile van libraries,” says Satish Kumar S Hosamani, director, department of public libraries, Karnataka.
In Kerala, the public library system is not government-controlled, but more of a people’s movement, whereby there’s no director in charge, but taluk-level secretaries chosen by the community. In Arunachal Pradesh, there’s a separate cabinet minister of education and libraries. Jammu & Kashmir, which follows the national policy on public libraries, is another example. “Having a library legislation is not as important as a national policy on public libraries, which can go a long way in achieving the goal to develop a knowledge society across the country,” says Mukhtar-ul-Aziz, director, libraries and research, J&K. The state has 140 public libraries, catering to its 12 million population. “We are the only state that provides students appearing in various competitive exams with offline curriculum-based video lectures, e-books and printed notes. This has found huge support from the community and footfalls in the libraries has improved tremendously,” says Aziz.
There are other states, too, that are finding innovative ways to increase their footfalls. In several places, libraries have started organising activities such as book-reading, storytelling, life skill sessions and career counselling. The Central State Library, Allahabad, initiated a 10-day course in multiple batches to provide computer training. Erode District Library in Tamil Nadu has kiosks for farmers to impart agricultural information, while Jaichrist Library in Adimalathura and Coastal Public Library in Kerala have set up kiosks for fishermen to impart fishery-related information. Then there is the Delhi Public Library, which keeps reinventing and innovating. “At DPL, we constantly try to innovate ourselves. We are in the process of digitisation… we weed out old books continuously and have an exhaustive list of e-resources, which our members can access,” says Lokesh Sharma, director general, DPL. The library, which used to receive 100-150 visitors around three years ago, now sees a footfall of 250 visitors per day, with the number doubling during days when there are activities on offer.
Public libraries have been neglected for a long time now and any change would need substantial time and effort from all directions—state, community, private sector and non-governmental organisations. “There are some north-eastern states such as Meghalaya and Mizoram, where the rural library network is very strong… still, the libraries there face funding issues. On the other hand, there are states like Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar, which need to work on almost all aspects of library transformation,” Sharma of IPLM says. The RRRLF can be a huge help in this regard. It works in collaboration with state governments and has several schemes to support the various components of public libraries. The IPLM, too, runs several educational programmes. Recently, a number of young librarians were chosen under the International Network of Emerging Library Innovators (INELI) programme, run by the not-for-profit trust MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. The programme aims to transform library workers into innovators and leaders to drive community development through knowledge and information services. More such programmes, however, should be in the offing.
“Bringing in a robust public library legislation, combined with concerted efforts to put legislative framework into practice, is needed urgently in states that lack a state legislation. The states, which have legislation, need to get it reviewed and see how it could be revamped to take care of changing knowledge needs and priorities of people,” says Sharma of IPLM. Corporates are also being asked to take up library funding as part of their CSR projects.
It’s time to turn over a new page.