Libraries Dying but Literature Thrives - The New Indian Express

Libraries Dying but Literature Thrives

Published: 16th March 2014 02:00 AM

Last Updated: 16th March 2014 12:53 AM

An animated discussion on the future of publishing was on at a literary conference being hosted by The New Indian Express in Bhubaneswar. On the stage were publishers, a literary agent and authors. Suggestions and counter-suggestions ping-ponged across the stage; the publishers wanted people to buy more books, the agent wanted people to write more books, the authors wanted people to read more books. Everyone agreed that readers were the most vital part of the publishing equation, and a frenzied conversation ensued on how to increase the tribe. ‘Open more stores, sell more e-readers, re-look at pricing, widen reach’; the suggestions emerged faster than speeding bullets in a graphic novel. But no one mentioned libraries, once perceived as the most efficient and cost-effective way to hook readers. 

By emphasizing selling over lending, the panelists were perhaps just looking out for their bread and butter; by giving libraries the go-by, they were only doing what the rest of India has been doing for a while now. Actually, why just India; public libraries are becoming alien items in many parts of the world. Every other day, you will find articles in the London papers ruing the fact that libraries are mandatory in British prisons but not in their schools.

The common belief is that the reading habit has declined and the easy availability of books on the Net has reduced the relevance of libraries. The theory is much bandied about even in India, where Internet penetration in 2012 was just 11.4 per cent. But I refuse to believe that it’s the reason why over 50,000 public libraries in India tell such sorry stories of neglect. Because, man’s innate instinct to learn, ruminate and exchange ideas has not changed. And libraries offer the possibility—and freedom—to do them all. A library is a place where history comes to life as easily as a potential world of possibilities. It is the go-to place for personal growth and reinvention, to both look back and ahead, to preserve old cultures and formulate new traditions.

Currently, in India, the only libraries that are super-active seem to be housed in jails. One may never think of them as temples of learning, but they sure seem to inspire academic pursuits. Consider Kerala’s Kannur central jail, where—in 2012—eight inmates earned graduate degrees and another eight got post-graduate degrees while serving term. In the same year, 16 jailbirds passed their Plus Two examination; 76 the SSLC equivalent, while 50 prisoners managed to get through class 7. Everyone found their personal tutor in the jail library which has some 10,000 books in English and various Indian languages. It’s not just a southern phenomenon. Seeing the success of the libraries in Ghaziabad’s Dasna Jail and Lucknow Jail, a district jail coming up in Greater Noida is creating a modern library at a cost of `9 lakh, to be stocked with inspirational books by Indian writers.

But jail libraries may no longer be the most popular public libraries in India; on the horizon hovers new hope. Last month, Pranab Mukherjee launched the Ministry of Culture’s National Mission on Libraries. Under the scheme, 5,000 libraries across the country are to be modernized and digitally linked to provide readers nationwide access to books and information. If that really happens, India will be stocked with delivery rooms for the birth of new ideas. And for once no one need bother about birth control.

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