All libraries exist to serve their communities of users. Sitting here in the historic, centuries-old Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford where I have come on a fellowship, I am deeply conscious of the central role played by libraries in the advancement of knowledge.
Developed countries have long understood the importance of public libraries.
Public libraries support progress in their societies by storing, sharing, and circulating information and ideas. It is now time for developing countries to invest in their public libraries.
Karnataka’s rural public libraries have played an especially important role in the lives of children and young people during the Covid pandemic.
The state’s network of over 5,600 rural public libraries serves 60 percent of the population living in around 30,000 villages. These rural libraries have been set up over the years and funded through a library cess as a result of the state’s library legislation, enacted in 1965.
‘The Light of Reading’
In 2019, as an exercise in decentralisation, the rural libraries were transferred to the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR) Department, Karnataka, to be managed by the gram panchayats.
During the Covid pandemic, while schools and colleges were closed, the RDPR in Karnataka launched a programme to revitalise the rural libraries, titled Oduva Belaku — the “Light of Reading”.
The library working hours were extended from four to six hours daily, and they were kept open during weekends.
— Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta (@readingkafka) September 30, 2022
Based on these enabling guidelines, Karnataka’s gram panchayats — which are elected rural local bodies, nearly 6,000 in number and with over 90,000 elected representatives — invested time, effort, and resources in their public libraries. They began to set up vibrant new children’s sections, enrol rural children free of charge as members, renovate their premises, and revitalise their functioning.
In the two years of the pandemic, these efforts have resulted in the new enrolment of over 2.2 million rural children as members. Further, communities, donors, and civil society organisations gave over a million books to the libraries, thus sowing the seeds of a public library movement.
Computers, study tables, bean bags, and more
Computers and internet connectivity have already been installed in over 3,300 rural libraries, and the rest will be covered in the next phase.
More than two-thirds of the rural libraries in Karnataka now have a completely new look and environment, with child-friendly murals, study tables, bean bags, indoor plants, and other attractive features.
School and college students have started coming to the library every day after school for homework and group study. Many gram panchayats have built gardens around their rural libraries, providing benches for library users, especially senior citizens, to sit and read; other gram panchayats have added terraces on the first floor to help students who want to stay and study long after the library closing hours.
— Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta (@readingkafka) September 29, 2022
Such an effort can meet with success only with the active involvement of civil society organisations.
Multiple non-governmental and civil society organisations have joined with the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RPDR) Department, Karnataka, as partners in these efforts, including the Azim Premji Foundation, Sikshana Foundation, Pratham Books, Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), Concerned for Working Children (CWC), Yuva Chintana Foundation, CMCA, Adhyayan Foundation, Akanksha Charitable Trust (ACT), and others.
They have introduced activities like read-aloud programmes, STEAM education (STEM + arts), mentoring, digital learning, and citizenship education within the libraries.
With the support of Dell Technologies, and in partnership with Sikshana Foundation, an RDPR initiative titled Grama Digi Vikasana has been launched to set up digital learning hubs in 1,300 rural libraries until now.
Around 500 rural libraries are also being made accessible and barrier-free, with learning aids and Braille books, to support the learning needs of students with disabilities.
In order to build strong foundations for a reading culture among rural children, RDPR is taking up new initiatives in the rural libraries on a regular basis.
A programme titled “Odina Manege Hogona” (“Let’s Go to the Library”) was launched to build a school-library connect and encourage students to go to the libraries after school and during weekends.
Schoolteachers took up library-based programmes such as “Nanu Odida Pustaka” (“The Book That I Have Read”) to encourage children to reflect on their reading and write or talk about it.
Chess in Karnataka rural libraries
In August this year, RDPR launched a campaign to play chess titled “Chess Aadona Abhiyana” to encourage children to learn to play chess.
ಗ್ರಾ ಪಂ #ಭೂಪಾಲ_ತೆಗನೂರ ತಾಲೂಕು/ಜಿಲ್ಲೆ ಕಲಬುರಗಿ.
ಸರ್ಕಾರಿ ಪ್ರೌಢಶಾಲೆಯಲ್ಲಿ #ಚೆಸ್ ಆಟ ಆಡುತ್ತಿರುವ ಮಕ್ಕಳು.@PMOIndia @CMofKarnataka @b_mattimadu @lkatheeq @readingkafka @shilpa_nag @CommissionerNR1 @PD_ZPYadgir @ZP_Kalaburagi @CEOZPKalaburagi @EKalaburagi @SwachhBharatKa1 pic.twitter.com/2di5N18Ayr
— Gram Panchayat Bhupal Tegnoor Kalaburagi (@GPBhupalTegnoor) October 1, 2022
Rural libraries across the state have been equipped with chess sets. Children are encouraged to play chess and other board games regularly, as this practice will not only help them to gain skills of strategy, memory, and confidence, but will also encourage them to visit libraries often and become readers.
Much more than repositories of books
In October, a new initiative titled “Ammanigagi Ondu Pustaka” (“A Book for Mother”) has been taken up to encourage children to come to the Karnataka libraries with their mothers and family members, and to borrow books that they can take home.
This is aimed at building a habit of reading.
— Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta (@readingkafka) October 1, 2022
Arts and crafts activities are encouraged in the libraries, and the children’s work is often displayed on the walls. In Dakshina Kannada district, all gram panchayats have installed little free libraries or “Pustaka Goodu” (“Book nests”) at public bus stops and other spaces.
For their communities, it is now clear that rural public libraries are emerging as much more than repositories of books. They are emerging as hubs for decentralised learning. They can facilitate new forms of association. They provide access not only to books and online learning resources, but also are safe spaces for girls, children with disabilities, SC and ST children, and children from other marginalised groups to read, reflect, and interact.
Often these children are first-generation learners for whom the libraries in Karnataka provide multiple perspectives to support their learning in the classroom.
Efforts are on to strengthen the role of the rural libraries as socially and culturally inclusive, inter-generational, community spaces. Indeed, the rural public library network is a vital development intervention for rural communities.
(Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS. She is currently on a Chevening Gurukul Fellowship at the University of Oxford. These are her personal views)