Delhi Public Library is one of the few that is thriving, others have not been so lucky

India’s per capita expenditure on public libraries is said to be seven paise. Most public libraries, though their number is put at over 70,000 in rural areas and 4,000 in urban areas, are languishing

NH Photo
NH Photo

Sulagna Maitra

The Delhi Public Library is a treat to visit. The old headquarters, located in the busy Chandni Chowk area, is a different world the moment one steps inside. It is quiet, clean and inviting. Contrary to what might be considered the norm on a weekday afternoon, it’s quite full.

However, an excuse one simply cannot use for a lack of books in regional languages in the cosmopolitan city is: we keep books in only four languages – English, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. We can get books in other languages too, but a request has to be put forward. One may have the best facilities and charge a small, rock bottom membership fee but a lack of awareness renders even the best resources meaningless.

There is a marked difference, though, between the maintenance and service at the DPL headquarters and its less fortunate branches spread across the capital city. This despite Delhi using 99% of the funding allocated for its library system, higher than any other state. There are 36 branches of DPL set up since its establishment in 1951.

Public libraries, notwithstanding some fine ones, are clearly not high on priority. India’s per capita expenditure on public libraries is said to be just seven paise, claimed a recent report by IndiaSpend. An RTI application filed by IndiaSpend however revealed a severe lack of data. What’s more, the little available data was divided among Raja Rammohan Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF), the National Library and the Delhi Public Library. Barring a few major libraries, most public libraries seem to be languishing across the country. LiveMint, in 2013, reported on a library in West Champaran (Bihar) which had a collection of 12,000 books and had just one old staff being paid Rs 700 a month. And it hadn’t managed to pay its only employee for the past seven years. However, the report claimed that a staggering number of students visited the library regularly.

Curiously, the 2011 Census had claimed that there were 70,817 libraries in rural areas and 4,580 in urban areas. The figures appear suspect and there is no way of finding out if they are truly functional and actually provided some service to members; or if they, like many other public institutions, exist only on paper. In India, the lack of a uniform, country-wide system of administration for public libraries complicates matters.

Out of the 29 states and 7 Union Territories, 19 are said to have a state library legislation, of which only five have provision for a library cess or tax levy.

The launch of the National Mission on Libraries in 2014, aiming to gather uniform information, has not substantially changed the situation. Trends meanwhile, show that states that passed a library legislation in recent years are generally the ones with the lowest literacy rates.

The mobile library is another interesting concept making books accessible to even the differently abled. However, even then, a lot of the older smaller establishments are succumbing to a lack of memberships and are being merged with others or closing.

With a crunch of funds, resources and staff, a majority of the public libraries in the country are in a state of despair. Sadly, they are slowly disappearing from public discourse even though there appears to be no dearth of students who are willing to use the space to learn or read. Even as librarians insist that even Google cannot compete with the hallowed halls of libraries and the assurance physical books provide, libraries seem to be losing clients who actually borrow books. Perhaps the problem lies in the lack of communication between the two sides!

In stark contrast, public libraries in the developed countries use resources and cater to large populations, making them accessible to everyone while also having awareness initiatives.

In the US, the public library system provides services to 95.6% of the total population and spends $35.96 per capita annually. In Europe, 83% and in the US, 80% of the budget for public libraries comes from local municipalities. China created headlines when it inaugurated the ‘most beautiful’ library, but faced criticism for the texts being counterfeit according to a South China Morning Post report.

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