We are going through turbulent times both existentially and socially. The pandemic pushed us indoors, limiting our social interactions to a virtual world against the background of a massive digital divide. At the same time, as fault lines around caste, gender, religion, ideologies deepen, we continue to pull further away from each other losing valuable friendships, relationships, our multicultural diversity and the ability to think critically and act compassionately in the process. In these times of growing isolation and hatred, the significance of libraries as spaces to preserve, discover and cultivate wisdom, freedom, empathy and democracy cannot be overemphasized. Free public libraries have the power to save democracy. They democratise reading and give everyone equal access to knowledge and information; wisdom and wonder, stories and experiences. Libraries help us learn from our past and prepare for the future. They give us the ability to think critically, stay informed, ask questions and become active citizens. They feed and nourish us; empower and enlighten us. Libraries are not just the keepers of wisdom but also sanctuaries for lost souls, refuge for the homeless, safe spaces for the marginalised, public spaces for collaboration, discussions and debates, support networks for the socially isolated and gathering spaces for communities. Libraries have the power to transform individuals, communities, societies and nations. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s words, “A great library is freedom”.

What does it take to start a library? Some common answers would include books, a librarian, shelves, and a room to house all of these. 14-year-old Kingshuk, and his parents Kumkum and Kalidas Haldar, living in Patuli neighbourhood of Kolkata, however, would say that all it takes is intention and then, even an old broken fridge can be turned into a library. And this is exactly how the Patuli Street Library came into existence on 21st February 2021, with 600 books stocked in an old fridge and a few racks attached to a grocery store opposite their house. The idea of the library was conceived by the Haldars during the pandemic, the time when schools and most other channels of real-life interactions were closed to children. Kalidas, who is a senior teacher at Metropolitan Institution in Kolkata, was worried about children either spending too much time in front of screens, or children being completely cut off from all constructive ways of engagement during the pandemic. He uses the words “depressed and lonely” to describe the perceived impact of this drastic and sudden change on children he interacted with or observed. “And that’s when I discussed the idea of starting a library to bring some relief to the children, with my son and wife,” shares Kalidas. Kalidas, having grown up in a remote village near Kolkata, had limited access to books in his early years. However, his son Kingshuk has been an active member of the neighbourhood libraries since he was a child, encouraged and often accompanied by his mother Kumkum. Being an avid reader, Kingshuk eagerly contributed his pocket money to buy the first batch of books with which Patuli Street Library was started. “I always have books when I want to read and they bring great joy to me. It’s unfair that some children don’t,” Kingshuk shares when asked about his motivation to do so. Today, the family-run street library boasts of a diverse collection of more than 3000 books in Bengali, English and some in Hindi of which more than 50 are issued each day to both young and old alike for no fee.

Patuli Street Library started with 600 books stocked in an old fridge and a few racks attached to a grocery store in Patauli, Kolkata.

A similar sentiment moved other individuals who are making the mighty world of books and libraries available to children across the country. This sentiment is based on the conviction that access to books should be a right of all children irrespective of the place, religion, caste, class, gender they were born into. As Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, one of the founders of Cosy Nook Libraries in Bangalore, and a veteran in the children’s book publishing industry writes “Children need books the way they need clean air and healthy food. That access to a library should be a basic necessity of life.” 

As someone who grew up in a home with a library and a strong literary culture, Sujata Noronha, who founded the Bookworm Trust in Goa in 2005, took children’s access to books for granted. It was only when she began training to be an educator for primary school children that she was astounded to find the experience of books to be a privilege that many children simply did not have access to. In her own words, “I grew up with books and they have been very important to me. I was able to find resonances of my quirks and weirdness in those books… and the stark reality hit me as an educator, that this stimulus, which is a necessary component of our learning, was absent for many children. That was my first introduction out of my cocoon of privilege into the reality of the lives of many children.” Sujata, then started Bookworm as a way to address this gap – initially as a standalone library in Panaji, Goa which later expanded to a resource centre, a mobile library, a professional development centre for aspiring library workers, and a catalyst for many more libraries to sprout up across the country.

However, for Furkan Latif Khan, the founder of Karvaan Book Project in Kashmir and a multimedia journalist-producer, access to books did not come as easily as a child. In the conflicted region of Kashmir, the lives of residents are frequently interrupted by curfews and lockdowns. Furkan recalls that as a student, each time the city was under curfew and schools were shut, she would escape into her father’s study which was well stocked with books. Even though the study hardly had enough books catering to her age or interest, she would spend hours reading or browsing through the ones that caught her fancy. Outside the study, her memory of libraries is marred with restrictions and conditional access. “We were never allowed inside the school library, and had to read that one book the teacher gave us during the library period. I would finish my book quickly but the teacher would refuse to give me another,” she recollects. She further adds, “Hailing from a privileged middle-upper middle class academic family, it was so difficult for me to access libraries that would let me enter and roam freely in them. I didn’t even want to think about how hard it would be for children from lower-income backgrounds.” Furkan believes that books are the healthiest escape that children of Kashmir, or any conflict-ridden region can have. “Books can transport you to 15th century Russia or wherever you want. In that way, for me and a lot of my friends, books became an escape from reality. Books can help the kids confined to the valley realise that there are people out there just like them, and places just like theirs. That, a child in Bangalore can be very similar to them,” Furkan says. So, it was with the mission to help children of the valley feel less isolated that she started Karvaan Book Project in 2016. 

“Books can transport you to 15th century Russia or wherever you want”, says Furkan Latif Khan, the founder ofKarvaan Book Project

Karvaan was initially conceptualised as a roving or a mobile library taking crowdsourced books to, and starting seed libraries in rural schools of Kashmir. However, in a place where mobility remains a privilege, a roving library has been a difficult dream to continue chasing. The idea of a mobile library had to be completely transformed following the extended lockdown in Kashmir after Article 370 of Indian constitution which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir was revoked in 2019, followed by pandemic based restrictions on movement. The state-imposed lockdown lasted almost three years. Fortunately, in 2020, when Furkan was looking for ways to take the books piling up at her home to the children across the region, she was introduced to another young Kashmiri woman Sadaf Mir. At the time, 22-year-old Sadaf was independently working to set up a library in an orphanage in Baramulla, Kashmir where she was volunteering. Sadaf, who had been working as a Teach for India fellow in Bengaluru, Karnataka returned home to Kashmir when the city closed down during the pandemic. During this time, she visited the orphanage to find that the girls there hardly had any channels of engagement available to them- “I realised that they had not had any contact with the outside world since the valley was shut down after the article was scrapped. For two years, they were just stuck in their shelter home, no outside interaction, no entertainment, no TV, no internet, nothing at all. It struck me that a library could help them not just academically, but also in keeping them entertained and engaged- a space where they could spend time during these long and unpredictable spells of lockdown.” Having initiated a library as a Teach for India fellow, Sadaf had witnessed its power to engage children. She, then, convinced the manager of the orphanage to turn his newly constructed office into a library for the girls. Furkan and Sadaf have since worked together to bring a well-stocked library for girls in Baramulla to life and are currently setting up another community library in Srinagar.

Around the same time that Karvaan was initiated in Kashmir, Lakshmi Karunakaran, a corporate engineer turned educator, began working relentlessly with her team to build The Buguri Community Libraries. Through Buguri she sought to make one of the most marginalised groups of children hailing from informal waste picking communities in and around Bengaluru experience the many promises of a library. The library project was started under the aegis of Hasirudala– an organisation working for the rights of informal waste workers in and around the city. Laksmi shares that she was introduced to books through her older brother, who along with a group of friends had a good collection they read and exchanged among themselves. “That was my first introduction to a library organised and operated completely by children,” she says. Her brother’s enthusiasm for books drew her in as well, such that she would read everything her brother was reading, and more. While taking us through the journey of Buguri, she reflects that it was perhaps the refuge that she found in books during difficult days of her young years that made her choose free community library as a model to engage one of the most vulnerable groups of children in urban India. 

A library can become a safe space for children from marginalised communities.

Tolesh Borikar, who started Kalpakta Reading Rooms in his native village Sirsi in Maharashtra, however, discovered the world of literature much later in life. As someone who studied in a government-run school till class tenth in his village, Tolesh had no exposure to libraries while growing up. “When I was introduced to children’s literature as an adult I realised how powerful it can be and how much I had missed. I wanted children of my village to grow up having the choice to read books, unlike me”, says Tolesh who completed his Master’s in Education from Azim Premji University, Bangalore in 2020. However, Kalpakta, like Patuli Street Library, was a response to the disruption and inequality of access to education during the pandemic, made worse by the wide digital divide in the country. Tolesh returned to his village Sirsi during this time, as the international school he had taken up a job with shifted online. Once back in his village, he was deeply concerned to see that even as children attending private schools had the option to continue their education online, those enrolled in government-run schools (which included the majority of children in the village) were either spending time loitering around or helping their parents in farms. “They were completely cut off from the world of books,” he adds. After some brainstorming with his professors at the university, Tolesh, along with his friend Sachin Dekate started Kalpakta with 60 children’s books and eight children in his own room. Today, they have two independent reading rooms, more than 1000 books and more than 250 children visiting the library regularly. Along with that, Tolesh and Sachin have also set up their first library in a government school in their district. Based on his experience, Tolesh reflects on what a good library should be like- “Library generally evokes an image of a dusty dingy room meant for serious work by adults and scholars, with signs ordering you to maintain silence stuck all around. But libraries should be alive.” He continues, “A library can be a social place where people can meet each other and share their thoughts, experiences and stories. It should be a place to start conversations on pertinent issues around gender, class, caste, religion and more.” 

Libraries should be alive

One way in which libraries are brought alive is through reading aloud sessions, a practice common across most children’s libraries. A read aloud is the act of reading to someone, often a group of participants, to tell a good story animatedly with sounds and expressions; to encourage participants to pause, think and start conversations on relevant themes; to build language skills and a culture of reading by helping associating reading with joy and connection. Prachi Grover, the co-director and curriculum manager at The Community Library Project (TCLP), says that reading aloud is not just an activity, it’s a methodology to realise one of TCLP’s guiding beliefs- reading is thinking. In fact, TCLP has its seeds in a read aloud book club which has now grown into three community libraries taking more than 4000 books to children in the National Capital Region. “Reading aloud has the potential to take on a life of its own such that the members who are frequently read aloud to, end up reading to their siblings, parents or neighbours and even younger members in the library,” adds Prachi as she explains how read-alouds help build a culture of reading.

A read aloud is the act of reading to someone, often a group of participants, to tell a good story animatedly with sounds and expressions.

The experience of her first reading session is recollected vividly by Anandita who has been working with Bookworm, Goa for the past four years as a part of their Mobile Outreach Programme. She describes the first mock session she observed at a home for boys from vulnerable backgrounds, “I still remember that session as if it is happening in front of my eyes right now- their hands coming together, the eyes shifting with every line read. It was very powerful to witness how immersed the boys were in the story.”

Read-alouds can, thus, be significant in overcoming the barrier of literacy in accessing libraries in at least two ways. Firstly, by taking the pleasure of a good story to children who cannot yet read them. And then, by making books and reading less intimidating and even inviting to the children. This is explained best by Radhika Sathe, the co-founder of Cosy Nook Libraries in Bengaluru and a retired educator for children with special needs- “I saw how books and stories transform children in a classroom, and in life.. I saw how it can make somebody who is very shy or very afraid of the alphabet suddenly realize that it’s not all bad and is actually fun to read.”

Yet, read-alouds are not the only way in which libraries help raise literate children. 

Helping Raise Literate Children

Deepika Sujawat, Kanta Rawat, Saba Kohli Dave, and Uma are a part of the team that manages the Rural Community Libraries Programme at the School for Democracy (SFD). They share their struggles with literacy level among children in rural Rajasthan where the SFD libraries are located. Deepika, a local from Goma ka Badia village in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan, and the librarian at the SFD library in the village informs that there are older, school-going children who cannot yet write their names and have difficulty reading books much below their levels. Saba, however, recalls meeting two 6-7 year-old girls at SFD library in Sohangarh village who were coherently reading a small book in Hindi. She recounts, “Anita, who runs the library on the terrace of her house, casually remarked that they could hardly read when they started coming to the library a few months ago. But, they would come every day regardless because they enjoyed their time here. It had been four months and they were reading a book in Hindi with ease, something they could not pick up in 2-3 years of going to school.” Anita is a part of Constitutional Values Fellowship at SFD, and a resident of the village where the library functions.

At Kalpakta, 10-year-old Pranali, who has been an active member since its early days, recollects a similar experience. She shares that she struggled to read fluently in Marathi when she started visiting the library, “and today I can read not just in Marathi but, I have also started reading in English”, Pranali adds excitedly. When asked about her favourite part of the library she says that she really enjoys reading stories with other children, and that “bhaiya and didi at the library do not scold when we ask them anything, unlike our teachers at school.”

Saba too feels that in schools children are constantly reminded of their inability to read and write, and thus, it makes it harder for them to pick those skills up. “But at these libraries they are provided a non-judgemental and safe environment where they can pick any book of their choice. This, along with encouraging facilitators and a culture of storytelling helps them befriend the written word with greater ease,” she adds.

In response to the needs of the communities they cater to, some of these libraries work intently with children to improve their reading and comprehension skills in different languages. TCLP, for instance, has a curated programme for reading efficiency in both Hindi and English. Bansa Community Library, started by three young law students Jatin Lalit, Malvika Aggarwal and Abhishek Vyas, in Jatin’s native village in Uttar Pradesh, has collaborated with an organisation called Global Dreamshala for a literacy and numeracy programme.

Libraries, Art and Healing

Apart from addressing the literacy gap, there are other ways in which these libraries turn themselves into inclusive spaces irrespective of the literacy status of their members.

Sujata shares about the multimedia approach that Bookworm adopted to cater to children who might not have the skill to immediately read the books in the library. Play, theatre, and art have been major components of the Bookworm’s work. What, then, began as a response to the needs of the community, was gradually systemised into an integral feature of the organisation’s multimodality approach to knowledge, stories, and wisdom. 

At Buguri Libraries, however, art has been a medium to heal. In Banashankari locality in Bengaluru, where the first Buguri Library was started in 2017, addiction, violence, elopement, early marriages are everyday realities, Lakshmi informs. Apart from helping prevent at least six underage marriages, interventions in space of gender and sexuality were made with the adolescents to address the issue of elopement and early marriages in the community through creative arts therapy. As the culmination of one such intervention, a book called Aye Reena! authored by, and documenting the experiences of adolescent girls of the Banashankari community around menstruation was published in 2018. The illustrated book, which is available in Kannada and English, records the rituals of the community around menstruation, while also scientifically answering the many questions that young adolescents might have around it.

For young boys of the community, after some brainstorming, cooking emerged as an interest that they wanted to explore. This was also because they rarely got a chance to try their hand at cooking at home given the established gender roles. Months of observing the women in the family cook, budgeting and shopping for ingredients, recreating some of the recipes during the sessions then resulted in an illustrated book of local recipes by the boys called Oota Aayitha?! In these cases, one can say that a library is, thus, transformed not only into a space to challenge gender norms, or even heal, but also a space to preserve community wisdom and knowledge.

Lakshmi shares another instance of a transformation of a young girl during her course of association with the library- “At the beginning, this child would talk about how she does not feel very confident or happy at school. How most of the teachers didn’t even know her by name. However, since she started coming to the library, she has grown in so many ways. She is now a part of several cultural activities at school. Teachers call her to guide other children. She is much more seen, has a much more dynamic personality.” She goes on to add that it has been almost magical to see the dropout rates in schools fall and the regularity and performance of children improve over the course of five years of Buguri’s existence in the communities.

Lakshmi also shares about a boy from the community who lost both of his parents. “Anything could have happened to him,” Lakshmi says. “But we stood by him, and he continued coming to the library and going to school while fighting the pressure from his relatives to drop out. Today, he is a digital artist and thinks of Buguri as his family.”  

It would be safe to say that the power of a library lies in its potential to build not just a more literate, but also a more empowered and empathetic world.

Strengthening Democracies

Bansa Community Library stands as a model for all that a library can do for its community. “We want to adopt a holistic approach to community empowerment,” says Abhishek. Through their legal literacy programme Kanoon ki Pathshaala, the team seeks to make law accessible to the community members. This is especially relevant for rural India where lack of economic resources and lower literacy levels make recourse to legal remedy much less approachable. The team also seeks to introduce sessions on best practices in farming, and a centre for women to enhance and monetise their sewing and stitching skills apart from introducing cultural activities like music, dance, art for children. Another important area of work undertaken at Bansa Library is arranging resources for the community youth preparing for competitive exams. Jatin says that earlier young people would go to cities like Lucknow and Kanpur to prepare for various competitive exams. This would be an added monetary burden on the parents, and they could not help their families with work either. And those who could not afford to shift to cities and prepare, had little chance to get through these exams. “At Bansa, we seek to help students to stay back and prepare for various competitive exams. We try to make available any book they request within seven days.” TCLP, too, has books and other resources available for the youth of the community to help them prepare for competitive exams. Supporting the youth in their job applications such as CV building and interviewing skills is another way in which TCLP serves the needs of the communities. The key is to listen to the demands of the community, and respond to it so as to make the library truly relevant for them, the librarians emphasize.

Library as a resource centre for the community.

Another way in which Bansa was quick to respond to the needs of the community was at the time when the second wave of the pandemic hit the country early this year. During this time, as the library closed down, the team took it upon itself to provide relief in the form of ration, medical assistance, spreading awareness about the virus and later transforming the space into a vaccination centre for the members of the community. “The library has slowly become a community anchor where they can walk in anytime to read books, meet their peers, borrow stationery or just to get someone to help them read their letters written in English,” Jatin shares. “We need to constantly adapt based on the situation as a community anchor,” he adds.

“We did not expect it to turn into such an inspiring and sustainable model when we started. We even had someone on Twitter comment- A library in Eastern Uttar Pradesh? Well, good luck! But now, it’s become the pride of the community with people from neighbouring villages demanding similar spaces,” Jatin goes on to share. The fact that local candidates for panchayat elections in the state early this year promised to build libraries like Bansa if elected, only confirms that the library has caught the popular imagination of people in and around the area it serves.

At TCLP library in South Extension, Delhi, one comes across a shelf titled Reading for Justice which has sub-sections labeled- Gender, Against Caste, Struggles. At the top of the shelf is a framed illustration of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Bhawna, the co-director at TCLP who also manages the book selection and curation, tells us that it was after much deliberation within the student council, community volunteers, and the team, that it was decided to label the shelf Against Caste instead of Caste. A discussion which led to participants sharing their thoughts, ideas and personal experience with caste. She later adds that Reading for Justice is a very popular section among the members of the library in South Extension. This makes Bhawna especially hopeful. As someone born into Dalit-Bhaujan community, Bhawna shares that she had many questions about what she experienced, and what she observed around her as she was growing up. Experiences that made her feel isolated and question her own self worth. However, the answers were rare to come as she found no resonance of her struggles in her textbooks. As a school student, apart from her school books, all Bhawna had access to were newspapers as libraries were either non-existent or locked rooms. In the absence of answers, she recounts feeling suffocated, confused and sad by her experiences of discrimination, a feeling that she describes in these words- “I know what it’s like when you don’t have exposure; when you don’t have books; you don’t have literature; you don’t have tools to think. How suffocated you feel. You feel caged. You blame yourself for everything. In reality, however, it is the historically unjust and discriminatory system which is continuously reproduced to make you feel like a failure, a good for nothing.” It was when she discovered literature on caste along with other social issues, as a college student that she found resonances of her experiences in them, that her sadness began turning into anger. “Why is it that some people have an entire library at home, some only have access to their textbooks, and some don’t have even that?” she questions. “This is why we need free libraries. It is about equal access.” Bhawna adds towards the end.

Duniya Sabki, an online library started by TCLP during the pandemic, is another example of libraries turning into catalysts for building aware and empowered communities. The WhatsApp group created to share read-alouds, information and books, turned into a platform to take conversations on social issues into the homes of the members, soon after its inception. “We realised very early that Duniya Sabki had to be that platform where we were talking about these pertinent issues. WhatsApp has the reach that physical spaces don’t. This reached their homes where parents and relatives were also listening in,” Prachi shares. “We once shared a movie on homosexual relationships and two teenage members replied that the movie made them very happy and it should be okay for boy and boy to be together,” she adds. 

She also shares about the continuous attempt to make Duniya Sabki a community-driven space by encouraging members to create content of their own. For this, they have formed an editorial team of community members. “The members are trained to critically analyse the news, to ask if it represents their interests and raises their issues. And since their voices are rarely included in the news, they learn skills and are offered tools to tell their stories in their own language and grammar,” Prachi adds. “It has encouraged a lot of questions, and the urge to seek answers to those questions. And this is what Duniya Sabki is for- to create and share information and news that is relevant to their lived experiences, to find their own answers.. Duniya Sabki is a very political space for us,” she adds conclusively.

Through mindful selection of books, theme based read-alouds, non-discriminatory practices and simply by creating a space for people from all backgrounds to coexist, free libraries, amidst growing polarisation, create equalising experiences for their members. Sujata shares that sometimes even a simple act of holding hands while doing activities in the library with someone you are not allowed to be friends with, can go a long way in humanising the other person. 

In Rajasthan, where the presence of polarising forces is strong, School for Democracy libraries were envisioned to help nurture empowered, aware and empathic citizens. 

“The libraries were started to sow the seeds of political education and constitutional values among children. These days, every medium is used to spread hatred- WhatsApp, news, social media and even schools. And there is hardly any source from which they can get a different perspective. That was one of the motivations to start libraries, to provide an alternative space, where young people can learn, unlearn, discuss and engage,” Saba articulates. 

She further elaborates, “It is a common perception that political education is only for adults. Chidren too should be familiarised with the constitutional values of equality, justice, fraternity. It is at this age that socialisation happens. And these values are neither a part of socialisation that happens through family nor in schools.” Uma and Kanta add how interventions with the age group of 6-15 years through songs, games, dance, and colourful books are necessary so that when they grow up it would be easier for them to turn into compassionate human beings.”

Saba goes on to share an instance from their library at Thana village in Bhilwara- “It was around Christmas when a rumour was doing rounds on WhatsApp that Christmas trees release carbon dioxide and spread poison. And they gave it a religious colour by saying that on the other hand the Tulsi plant, considered sacred by Hindus, releases oxygen. During this time, we had a small Christmas celebration at our library where we sang songs, played games, and talked about the festival. We also had a little tree. When two boys went back home after the celebration, a neighbour retorted saying that the Christmas tree is poisonous and that celebrating Christmas is a bad thing to do. These children were, however, quick to correct their elders by sharing what they had learnt at the library about the festival and how much fun they had celebrating it. Instances like these help disrupt falsities and hatred in small yet powerful ways.” 

Libraries for All 

However, what makes these libraries truly accessible and inclusive is that entry into them is not determined by one’s family’s ability or willingness to pay. These libraries are free. And those that have some fee, have programs and models which offer free library services to ones who cannot afford them. 

Jatin says that even a fine of Re.1 can be a barrier for some families in his village Bansa to access the library. “And that would defeat the entire purpose of our library,” he adds. Instead, to account for a lost book, the child spends time volunteering for maintenance of the library. 

On the other hand, Kalidas recalls that he was warned people would run off with books when he shared the idea of Patuli street library with some of his friends. “We have hardly lost any books till date. Instead, we have had instances of people donating books from their own collections while returning the ones they borrowed,” Kumkum adds.

The message is clear – affordability should not be a determinant of who gets to access books and libraries, and who doesn’t. And neither should be accessibility.

In that case, what would it take to ensure that every child in the country has access to a library? 

Sudeshna, the co-founder of Cosy Nook Libraries in Bangalore says- “there is a need for a library in every neighbourhood. But that can’t happen just by the efforts of individuals or even non-governmental organisations. The government has to step up and step in.”

Lakshmi believes that the biggest constraint to building a sustainable community library model is funding. She shares the example of Karnataka where the government has undertaken the task of upgrading slums to housing complexes. “Hasirudala and Buguri have been in talks with the government to create safe spaces for public engagement within these complexes. And a community library can be imagined as one such safe space of engagement for the children,” she adds.

The biggest cost for any library is space, Tolesh agrees. To overcome this challenge, Tolesh and Sachin have repeatedly reached out to the local bodies to reclaim old vacant buildings and turn them into Kalpakta Reading Rooms. Today, two of their independent reading rooms run in government buildings- a community centre and a dilapidated school building that they renovated. At Bansa library, which is built in a vacant temple compound, Jatin has been in constant talks with the local authorities to bring community libraries under the purview of Gram Panchayat. Currently, they are pushing the district administration to convert Panchayat Bhawans into open libraries across the district, “One such library would soon open in Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh,” Jatin informs us. 

Radhika adds that it has to be a grassroots movement and the community will have to demand libraries for their children and all the other children in the country. Sujata, too, believes that civil society has a major role to play to turn the demand for free libraries into a movement. “There is a need for collective energy and public will to give momentum to the free library movement,” she says.

Currently, only 19 out of 29 states in India have legislations for libraries and only five states- Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have an exclusive library cess to fund the setting up of libraries in the state, as per the policy review report of 2018 by Indian Institute of Human Settlements. The report also suggests that in the US where public-funded libraries cover 95.6% of the population, the per capita annual expenditure for the same is $35.96. In India, however, libraries have largely emerged from initiatives of the civil society and per capita expenditure for the development of public libraries by the government is approximately 7 paisa. 

While the libraries we spoke to have set a model for collaboration of civil society with governments to bring the joy of reading to all children, much needs to be done before the dream of Libraries for All can be realised. There is a need for greater public funding dedicated to building libraries accessible and open to all. And the fact that the demand for this needs to come from the citizens, seems to be the unanimous opinion of those working to realise this dream in their own capacities. 

After all, it was a free community library that helped Pranali learn to read fluently; children of rural Rajasthan experience the joy of Christmas; the young boy at Buguri find a family, continue his education and become an artist and the young  girl to discover her confidence; children of Kashmir feel less isolated; the community members of TCLP to ask for their rights and; the young girls and boys of Banashankari to write their own stories. It would, thus, hardly be an exaggeration to assert that our collective future as an empowered, compassionate and a democratic society is closely tied to each of us having the right to a library, and its many wonders. 

We thank the following individuals and organisations whose powerful experiences supported us in curating this story. If you want to know more or support their work, please click on the links below.

Jatin Lalit, Malvika Aggarwal, Abhishek Vyas and Julie, Bansa Community Library

Anandita Rao, Nayan Mehrotra and Sujata Norohna, Bookworm

Radhika Sathe and Sudeshna Gosh, Cosy Nook Libraries

Tolesh Borikar and Pranali, Kalpakta Reading Rooms

Furkan Latif Khan and Sadaf Mir, Karvaan Book Project (Find their Amazon wishlist of books here)

Kingshuk, Kalidas and Kumkum Haldar, Patuli Street Library

Deepika Sujawat, Kanta Rawat, Saba Kohli Dave and Uma, School for Democracy Community Libraries

Lakshmi Karunakaran, The Buguri Community Library Project

Bhawna Singh and Prachi Grover, The Community Library Project

Written by Ritika Chawla

Illustrated by Subhash Vyam

Ritika is passionate about words and believes in their transformative power. She recently completed her Master’s in Sociology from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is interested in intersections of Psychology and Sociology, agency and structures and in imaging a better, more just world. Before this, she has worked with non-profits in urban and rural India, in the education and environment sectors. Ritika takes refuge in reading fiction, traveling and being radically hopeful of a better future.

Subhash Vyam is a Pardhan-Gond artist from Madhya Pradesh who after his initial forays in clay and wooden sculpture began to practice the Pardhan-Gond tradition of stippled painting. He was awarded the Rajya Hastha Shilpa Puraskar by the Government of Madhya Pradesh in 2002. He likes using the colour black and often uses ink on paper as his medium. His favourite themes are of aquatic life, which he saw while growing up in the village of Sonpuri, near Patangarh.

courtesy https://www.compassion-contagion.com/