Libraries can force the case for liberty, justice - Hindustan Times
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Libraries can force the case for liberty, justice

ByMridula Koshy
Apr 11, 2024 10:58 PM IST

The importance of freedom to choose what to read necessarily begins with adequate public funding and adequate ratio of libraries per capita and books per capita

When Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III visited the United States (US), he may have encountered the phrase “palaces for the people,” a term often used to describe US public libraries. He was certainly convinced of the importance of the public libraries system he encountered there; he appointed an American to create one in Baroda in 1910 — and thus, William Alanson Borden created a system of free libraries in modern India.

Students at the Bishop's University Library Learning Commons in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. (AFP) PREMIUM
Students at the Bishop's University Library Learning Commons in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. (AFP)

A publisher recently told me this about Kerala, which has close to 10,000 libraries: “Wahan ki baat hi alag hai” (Kerala stands out from the rest of the country). She reasoned that the state’s near-total literacy came first, and then came the books and the culture of reading. So, if we could just hurtle ourselves forward the Kerala way, then, only a century after Gaekwad and his love of free libraries, we could set about establishing the public library system that India needs.

The publisher is right. Kerala is different from the rest of the country which has an abysmal ratio of one urban library for every 80,000 people and one rural library for every 11,500 people. But she is also wrong because people don’t acquire literacy first and then books. They acquire books first and literacy follows. Kerala’s literacy movement was preceded by a century-long library movement.

And even Kerala may no longer be able to exercise the autonomy of the Kerala way. R Bindu, Kerala’s minister of higher education, at the Union ministry of culture’s Festival of Libraries, voiced her state’s objection to the Centre’s plan to move the library question from the state to the concurrent list. Kerala is worried that if they lose control over their libraries, they will no longer be able to maintain the quality of their system, which provides libraries at a ratio of one per 3,500 people.

The library movement in India has mostly not been led by maharajas or government officials. It has been a people’s movement, led by those who undoubtedly understand that people have a right to places where they can meet, talk, read and think together. Leaders in the movement have come from various places and times in India: Motibhai Amin in Baroda, Sir Iyyanki Venkata Ramanayya in Andhra Pradesh, PN Panicker in Kerala, Monindra Dev Rai Mahashaya in Bengal, Master Motilal in Rajasthan, Sant Ram Bhatia in Punjab, Kumudeshar Barthakur in Assam, among others. SR Ranganathan, who conceived of the movement on a national scale, understood the importance of the connection between free libraries and the nation. Ranganathan is responsible not only for the Madras Public Libraries Act, the first library legislation adopted in India, but also for the Model Library Act, which alas was never adopted nationally.

The present library movement in India is also a people’s movement. It is led by over 300 library practitioners and leaders from around the country and operates over 200 free library organisations. Nearly none of the libraries in the Free Libraries Network have access to the resources that would allow them to do what they do, which is to welcome all people and bar none from free membership in libraries in which literature and community thrive. The seemingly miraculous has less to do with miracles and more to do with a commitment to meet the urgency of people’s need for access to information.

The free library movement describes itself as an anti-caste movement because it recognises the role caste has played in keeping people outside libraries. It recognises the role of libraries in annihilating caste. It begins with the assertion that libraries must be free to be anti-caste.

These are combative words in India, where active exclusion of people from a reading environment occurs when a child in Rajasthan is beaten by his teacher for reaching for the ‘wrong’ container of water.

The People’s National Library Policy 2024 (PNLP24) of the Free Library Network begins with the premise that libraries should be free of cost to all people, of all castes, religions, genders, classes, ethnicities, abilities, and should bar no one whatsoever, and further that people should be free to choose from the ideas curated within the library. The importance of freedom to choose what to read necessarily begins with adequate public funding and adequate ratio of libraries per capita and books per capita, and most importantly with local autonomy over libraries.

We can trust autonomy to create the libraries people need and good national policy, on the lines of PNLP24, to ensure a baseline rooted in the Constitution’s promise of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. The Constitution could as easily have been describing the best public library system as it described the nation we are trying to become.

Mridula Koshy, a writer, is a board member of the Free Libraries Network. The views expressed are personal

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