Libraries seeing revival under Smart Cities mission
Cities in India are investing in the revitalisation and digitalisation of libraries to improve cultural, intellectual and academic vitality. More than 80 digital libraries have been developed as part of the Smart City Mission, including the Modern Doon Library in Dehradun and the Nalanda Parisar Oxy Reading Zone Library in Raipur. The Allahabad Government Public Library in Prayagraj is also undergoing a revamp. These libraries are not only offering a diverse range of academic resources but are also becoming centres of community engagement and cultural activities.
For decades, libraries in India, which are crucial to the cultural, intellectual and academic vitality of cities, have suffered from neglect, mainly due to inadequate funds, leading to the deterioration of infrastructure and depleted collections. Now, a transformative shift is underway in many cities, from bustling metropolises like Ahmedabad to smaller ones like Dehradun, Belagavi, Prayagraj, and Raipur, which are either building new libraries or revitalising and digitalising the existing ones.
In fact, more than 80 digital libraries have been developed as part of the Smart City Mission alone.
Dehradun’s Modern Doon Library, the splendid four-storey building, which opened earlier this year, has a capacity for seating 500 readers. The library offers various amenities, including a cafeteria, community hall, multi-purpose hall, a computer lab, open- theatre, and smart toilets. It boasts of 35,000 books and over 5,000 members. “Dehradun has several prestigious educational institutions, and we wanted the library -- which offers a diverse range of academic resources -- to become a centre of scholarly pursuits, community engagement, cultural activities, and an extension of the city’s academic infrastructure,“ said Sonika, (she uses one name) CEO, Dehradun Smart City, which has built the library.
Similarly, Raipur has built the Nalanda Parisar Oxy Reading Zone Library with an investment of ₹15.21 crores. Its 6-acre campus has a three-storey library building with over a lakh books, cafeterias, a book stall, a stationery outlet, a medical store, a sports goods shop, a restaurant, a bank, an ATM, a bio-diversified garden, complete with a gazebo, pergolas, and a canopy housing 18 interactive zones, and round-the-clock indoor and outdoor reading spaces with a capacity of about 1,000 people
“The city’s educational and coaching institutes attract thousands of students from across the state, but its existing libraries had monotonous environments, limited book availability, and lacked proper facilities. Nalanda Parisar has been set up to provide world-class library facilities to them. In fact, we are building another library, essentially a massive reading facility, to accommodate another 600 students,” says Mayank Chaturvedi, CEO of Raipur Smart City, which has built the library.
“In a short time, the library has become hugely popular. We currently have 2,450 members, mostly those preparing for competitive exams, and there is a 6-month waiting period for aspiring members. We regularly organise seminars and workshops to help students,” says Manjula Jain, head librarian at Nalanda Parisar Oxy Reading Zone Library.
About 600 km away from Nalanda Parisar in Prayagraj, the 160-year-old Allahabad Government Public Library is undergoing a ₹6.6 crore-revamp. The library is situated in the sprawling Chandra Shekhar Azad Park. The granite and sandstone building, designed by Richard Roskell Bayne, is a remarkable example of Scottish Baronial Revival architecture.
Chandra Mohan Garg, CEO of Prayagraj Smart City, outlines the three components of the library’s revitalisation project under the Smart City Mission: “We are undertaking the restoration of the building, for which we have engaged conservation architects; and preservation of manuscripts dating back over 400 years, and digitisation of all library services,” he said.
Evolution of public libraries
Established in 1864, the Allahabad Government Public Library is one of the oldest and grandest libraries in India. The origins of public libraries in India can be traced back to the year 1808 when the Bombay Presidency proposed a plan to register libraries, which were to get books published from the “Funds for the Encouragement of Literature.” In the mid-19th century, the three Presidency towns—Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta—established public libraries, chiefly funded by affluent European residents. The most significant among them was the founding of the public library in Calcutta in 1835.
The period between 1900 and 1937, often hailed as the golden age of the Indian library system, saw significant developments. In 1902, the Imperial Library Act was passed, and in 1906, Lord Curzon converted the Calcutta Public Library into the Imperial Library. Post-independence, it was renamed the National Library. During this period, subscription libraries also emerged in several Indian cities, catering primarily to a limited, affluent section of society.
In 1910, Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III of Baroda, inspired by the educational role of public libraries in the United States, invited American expert William Alson Borden to create a public library system in his state. This led to a network of public libraries across the entire Princely State of Baroda.
Between 1937 and 1942, approximately 13,000 village libraries and travelling libraries emerged in Assam, Bihar, Punjab, and Travancore.
“The Madras Public Libraries Act was passed in 1948, the first of its kind in independent India. In 1951, with collaboration between Unesco and the Indian government, the Delhi Public Library was established to serve as a model public library in Asia,” says PB Mangla, former professor and head, department of library sciences at Delhi University. He further notes that in 1972, the Union government established the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF) to promote and support the development of public libraries in the country.
“Libraries is a state subject, and today about 19 states have public libraries law, but most libraries have suffered from a lack of funding, which is very unfortunate,” says Mangla. “Libraries are known to be universities of citizens due to their role in imparting informal education. I hope the new libraries will remain well-managed and funded.”
Libraries and urban development
Experts say a public library plays an important role in creating an informational city by advancing knowledge, encouraging the exchange of ideas, and building community. The informational city refers to an urban environment characterized by the widespread use and integration of information and communication technologies, shaping various aspects of life, work, and governance. In the past few years, planners have emphasised on establishing smart libraries as anchor cultural institutions in cities. In fact, libraries figure prominently in urban revitalisation plans in many cities in the West. Seattle Public Library and Salt Lake City Public Library in the US for example, have been rebuilt as community spaces and anchor cultural institutions--- facilities within a community or city that play a central role in preserving, promoting, and disseminating cultural heritage, arts, and education.
Pooja Sagar , a senior consultant with Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), says sustainable urban spaces are built over time by a growing community of intelligent and empathetic citizens who have access to knowledge and the wisdom to make difficult choices for the benefit of the future. “ Libraries continue to play the significant role of making knowledge accessible, fulfil information needs of communities, and create a nation of informed and active citizens. But in the current context, they have also shifted gears to become a catalyst for social interaction in the public domain that actively shapes the urban public.” Sagar said.
Talking of the role of libraries in community focused urban development, she says outreach has become central to the function of many libraries in cities. “With this recent shift, they do a better job of recognising the socio-cultural and economic diversities in the city, and cater to different tiers of society rather than operate within the imagination of a homogenised public,” she says , adding that the second important role the library plays in a society is that of fostering an attitude of lending and borrowing. “One doesn’t always have to buy a new book, they can be borrowed, read, and carefully returned. This is an attitude that is slowly disappearing when buying seems simpler, but it is an attitude that speaks to the core of sustainability,” Sagar says.
Libraries as smart learning centres
Prof Mangla says what cities need is an interconnected network of smart libraries that make best use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools to enhance their services and reach.
Many cities are now doing so. Ahmedabad’s digital transformation of its famous 85-year-old MJ Library involves the integration of cutting-edge technologies, and introducing computers, LED display screens, eReaders, digital library software, a Mobile App, online services, and experiential kiosks, allowing members to access lakhs of ebooks, videos, ePapers, eMagazines, journals, from their homes.
“All municipal corporation libraries in Ahmedabad are now integrated with the main library. In all, the library has over 600,000 books with RFID tags, and we have also digitised over 6,000 books of historical value, including hundreds of those donated to the library by Mahatma Gandhi,” says Mihir Patel, deputy commissioner, Ahmadabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) and CEO, Ahmadabad Smart City. “ We have transformed the conventional library into a modern digital learning centre,” adds Patel.
Similarly, Belagavi Smart City has invested Rs2.5 crore in establishing the cutting-edge public library, Ravindra Kaushik e-Library. The facility integrates AI/ML technologies to enhance the library experience. It also features a cognitive language lab and a smart publishing desk—an instant book-building programme. The library has collaborated with Columbia University in New York for its neuroscience program.
“The library is geared towards the future of learning, featuring a dedicated Kids Zone for the age group of 2–10 years. It focuses on early brain development through monitoring, measurement, and management, enabling teachers to improve a child’s academic performance with Cognitive eFlashcard and Smart eBooks with interactive features like auto-read, auto dictionaries, and editing options for font and text sizes. Every cognitive eFlashcard comes with multi-language voice support,” says Srinivas P, a director of Nestor, the company which has set up and operates the library on a PPP model with Belagavi Smart City.
Sagar of IIHS says libraries need to respond to the technological shifts in the nature of readership. “ Libraries can support regions with digital services, such as e-resources and reference services, as well as undertake the digitisation of resources, archiving of technologies, and data sets,” she says.
The problem, she points out, is that many institutions do not have either the permission or the infrastructure required to hold e-resources, and they still depend on the publisher’s hosting facilities for archival access. “The challenge is that institutional repositories which can hold the ‘book’ in different forms today should also be perceptive of what form this book could take in the future, and at the same time archive the existing physical materials for the future. They have to be smart enough to look forwards and backwards in time.”