Jules Verne has just reached 16-year-old Lakshmanan Kuppuswamy. Turning the pages of Around the World in 80 Days is making Lakshmanan both proud and a trifle embarrassed. He can read the title, but is not sure how to pronounce Phileas Fogg, the name of the travelling hero of the book. Lakshmanan is a first-generation learner and a farmer’s son, who has been living in the AIM for Seva’s Free Student Hostel in Haripad, Kerala. The authorities have set up an in-house library in the hostel with the support of donors. “At school, we read textbooks.
But I like reading all books,” he says. Currently, he is reading the Bhagavad Gita in Malayalam, apart from Verne’s exploits. As the 125th birth anniversary celebrations of SR Ranganathan, master architect of the library movement in India, unfold, ‘mini-libraries’ and ‘reading corners’ across unconventional spaces are full of the rustle of pages turning, read-alouds and storytelling.
“Ranganathan’s system was beautifully crafted. However, today, we need to create systems that work for each region separately,” says N Bhaskara Rao, founder of BREAD Society, Hyderabad.
The society’s first project reached 4,911 students in 12 villages in the districts of Guntur, Krishna, and East Godavari in Andhra Pradesh. “We have set up 927 libraries to benefit over 4,00,000 students,” says Rao, adding that the catch lies in identifying a book that will interest children. “It’s like a match-making process; you need to select the right book to ignite the spark.”
Kullayyappa, the headmaster of the Zilla Parishad High School in Narasapuram village in Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh, explains that with the support of the society, they have a library that has nearly 1,000 books. Their libraries are meant for readers in the primary age group of seven to 12 years. Clear guidelines exist on operating the libraries through Voluntary Student Librarians, but many schools do not follow them.
The lack of funding is also apparent in their ad hoc nature. Most of them are mini-libraries set up on a few shelves on a wall, or kept in a steel almirah, while some are locked safely in cupboards.
In a model similar to BREAD, the Gyan-key initiative by Pune-based NGO Rural Relations works towards opening libraries in secondary schools in villages of Maharashtra. The project’s library is for the students, and managed by them. One girl student known as the ‘Gyan-key monitor’ manages each library.
“A ‘Non-Resident Villager (NRV)’ lives inside each of us, because ultimately, our roots can be traced back to villages. I believe that as a NRV, we can always reach out, support and contribute to the development of rural India. With the help of these NRVs, we have installed 3,640 Gyan-key libraries in rural secondary schools as of today,” reveals 51-year-old founder Pradeep Lokhande. He has plans to set up 85,000 more libraries.
In the 2016 Union Budget, the government had announced plans to launch the digital literacy mission for rural India to cover around six crore additional households. With all information systems becoming available on smartphones and tablets, the government expects to create a new generation of readers.
According to the latest National Youth Readership Survey (between 13 and 35 years of age), three of four youths in India are literate, and a quarter of them reads books. Every year, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) by NGO Pratham attempts to assess whether children in rural India go to school, can read simple text, and do basic math.
The ASER 2016 report released this year reveals that nationally the reading ability among children, especially in early grades in government schools, has improved. However, as students grow older, there seems to be a decline. Not-for-profit initiatives such as Pratham Books, which has published over 2,000 books in 18 Indian languages that include fiction, non-fiction, storybooks on science, history, maths and nature, aims to reach 200 million children in India—‘a book in every child’s hand’.
Suzanne Singh, chairperson of Pratham Books, explains that children need access to a wide and diverse range of books in their own languages. Pratham ran a campaign called ‘Missed call do, kahani suno’ where children could dial in to listen to a story in a language of their choice. In just five days, they received 37,000 calls. “Schools are not equipped with functional libraries and in their homes, storybooks are a luxury for many,” she says. The Library-in-a-Classroom by Pratham Books was developed keeping in mind this issue.
It is a wall-mounted unit that houses about 125 books, which can be put up in any classroom. It comes with its own storage unit with a locking facility. Over 7,000 of these libraries have been installed across the country since 2012. When a child finds the right book at the right time, it can open a world of understanding, self-motivation, and joy, points out Neeraj Jain, managing director, Scholastic India.
With the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report, India Edition 2016, a survey on the attitude and behaviour of kids and parents about reading books for fun, the publishing house gained valuable insights into how to encourage children to read more. “Access to books at home is critical, which leads to academic success—greater than even household income or parents’ education levels,” he says. Starting their Indian operations in 1997, Scholastic has been promoting reading through their book clubs for 20 years.
Through book club and book fair programmes, they reach out to approximately 9-10 million children each year.According to a Scholastic and YouGov study, at the start of this year, nearly six out of 10 young people between the age group of six and 17 said they read for fun, a percentage that has dipped slightly since a 2010 report.
“Research shows that children who are read to are more likely to become effective readers,” explains author Mridula Koshy. She and her partner Michael Creighton started The Community Library Project in 2008. “At the Ramditti Deepalaya Learning Centre in Delhi, there are approximately 800 active members and a typical week might see 200-250 children attending read-alouds,” she says.
Mridula recounts that the initiative followed after reading to over two dozen Class VI-VIII children at Ramditti JR Narang Deepalaya School. Their first experience made them aware of the fact that hundreds of children in a school building and thousands in the neighbourhood did not have similar access because there are few public libraries in Delhi.
Today, they have set up three community libraries and one more will be set up later this year. The members of the library are mostly first-generation learners from migrant and low-income communities.
“Children by nature have curious minds and we need to develop techniques to inspire them to dive into a book,” say Tina Shankarlal (32) and Deepak Sharma (30), founders of an initiative that has been running reading programmes in schools and colleges in Madhya Pradesh since 2016.
They say that the lack of a motivating environment both at school and home is one of the reasons reading has been given less importance. “In some schools, we have observed that the idea of reading books is limited to classics and this has not generated any interest,” says Deepak, who organises two events every month in Indore to facilitate reading among kids.
There are hundreds of villages and small towns, and even many urban communities where people do not read or have access to books, say Akshaya Rautaray (36) and Satabdi Mishra (34), founders of Walking BookFairs, an independent bookstore based out of Bhubaneswar in Odisha. Today a travelling bookstore, they initially carried books in a backpack and travelled around small towns and villages displaying books on footpaths, bus stops and other public spaces for the common people to view, read and buy at a discount.
“We found that many schools and educational institutions, in both rural and urban areas, do not have good libraries. Which is why it was essential for us to take books to as many people as possible,” says the team that has travelled more than 20,000 km. The biggest challenge Walking BookFairs faced is the apathy, especially from the educated, privileged middle class. Parents do not encourage their children to read beyond their course curriculum, states the team.
They reached out to tribal children in Odisha and Jharkhand through Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai as part of their ‘The Read More India’ tour of 20 states across India in 2015-16.Just after the tsunami in 2004, the Library Project by the Delhi-based Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC)—winner of the IBBY-ASAHI Reading Promotion Award—reached out to the affected children. “In 2005, a team visited Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu with a box full of books. The same activity was done in Andaman. We were able to set up five libraries in Port Blair for children who were living in temporary shelters,” recounts Indira Bagchi, treasurer and in charge of AWIC Library Project.
Since its inception in 1983, AWIC has been able to set up 170 fully functional libraries in Delhi and other parts of India. There are libraries for adivasi children in Daman and also in Ranchi.
Each year, AWIC awards the Best Librarian, and two Reader of the Year awards from AWIC Children’s Libraries. Librarians select two best readers who have read the maximum number of books. For 2016-2017, over 25 libraries participated in the annual event.
In Mumbai, Kahani Tree, a children’s bookstore, was founded in 2006 by Sangeeta Bhansali of Vakils—a Mumbai-based publishing company. She believes that well-planned book events and children’s literary festivals go a long way in spreading the reading culture.
“When children get a chance to meet and interact with the author of a book they’ve read, or if a storyteller makes a book come alive, a special connection is made,” explains Bhansali, who along with Kitab Khana bookstore in Fort, Mumbai, has organised many fun Sunday morning book events.
They have so far set up 220 mini-libraries across the country with the help of donations and also in partnership with United Way of Mumbai and their ‘Let’s Read’ initiative.
They launched innovative programmes like ‘Kahani Tree Story Bags’ for which a range of books were curated. Chandra Arya from Chhatola village, Nainital, is an avid reader. Her family owns a horse. Imagine her surprise when this Class III student of a government primary school came across a book called Lali Aur Uska Ghoda. “Villages are hungry for books,” says Arundhati Deosthale, a trustee of the A&A Book Trust, which set up the library in Chandra’s village.
The trust’s first ‘Reading Corner’ came up at the Government Primary School, Shitala, in Nainital district in 2009. The children loved it. Since computers are yet to make inroads into most villages, books are an enjoyable novelty. In 2009-10, the trust set up reading corners in 112 primary schools, mainly in Uttarakhand. The number went up to 128, aided by NGOs.
As N Bhaskara Rao sums it up, “To build the foundation for a knowledge-based society, the book is the only solution.”