Rebuilding libraries

The Union culture ministry’s programme to rejuvenate the library network in the country is a welcome step to reintroduce the role of books and reading in people’s lives.

Its project, the national mission on libraries, was launched by President Pranab Mukherjee, who described a public library as a people’s university which should be accessible to all. The  mission  was conceived long ago but is only now being pursed and implemented. With a budget of about Rs 450 crore it seeks to improve the library system by setting up model libraries, creating a national virtual library, undertaking surveys and monitoring of the working of libraries and creating more capacities to cater to the needs of more people. These are laudable aims at a time when libraries are becoming dysfunctional due to various reasons.

There are 64,000 public libraries in India and almost all of them are in a state of disuse and disrepair. There have been attempts in the past to revive them and committees were set up to report on ways for revival. A central autonomous foundation was also established to create a national system and give assistance to libraries all over the country. The aims included modernisation, introduction of information technology to improve services and to create a national grid of libraries. Most of these efforts did not help much and the present initiative calls for better commitment and strategies to achieve results. Many public libraries are run like government offices with all the problems of bureaucratic indifference and even corruption affecting their functioning. The present plan is to improve the working of 5,000 libraries under the leadership of the foundation.

There is a view that the reading habit has declined and the availability of books on the internet has reduced the relevance of libraries. This is wrong. The habit is still strong and only the vehicles and tools of reading have changed. Books and libraries are relevant for vast numbers of people who do not have access to modern methods of dissemination of knowledge. The mission should target those who are deprived of opportunities and  reading facilities, especially in small towns and villages. It should also develop services which will benefit physically and otherwise disadvantaged sections and the elderly. New ways to attract children to libraries should also be tried. Libraries have played an important role in changing society and its attitudes.

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