Coffee @ library, anyone?

Kerala’s public reading spaces need an urgent booster shot to make them vibrant info hubs

author_img Shainu Mohan Published :  12th August 2022 01:50 PM   |   Published :   |  12th August 2022 01:50 PM
Kerala State Library

Kerala State Library

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Kerala has always taken pride in its robust public library network. The state has 9,207 public libraries, and 6,811 of them are affiliated TO THE Kerala State Library Council (KSLC). However, Kerala continues to limp in its effort to equip them with better technology and infrastructure, and transform them into vibrant information hubs.

There were times when libraries played a pivotal role in giving local communities a direction. Not anymore. Currently, the district or taluk level library councils conduct one or two ‘routine’ programmes at the public reading spaces. That’s it. There is a clear lack of vision and vigour to make these sacred spaces more engaging, lively.  

Sustaining public libraries in this digital era is certainly a massive challenge. Aggressive digitisation and linking of all public library networks, improving accessibility and introducing sharing of materials between libraries are vital, say experts.

A majority of the rural population, they add, is unaware of the resources and services offered by public libraries. In a survey conducted by the Library Council (2019-2020), it was found that 44 per cent of the people expressed no interest in libraries.

Covering 7,990 individuals from 1,799 households across the state, the survey highlighted that about 50 per cent of the respondents had never visited a library. Notably, the survey was launched to identify the gaps and enhance the system as per Unesco Public Library Manifesto recommendations.

A “futuristic policy” to rejuvenate and transform public libraries in the state is under way, says State Library Council secretary V K Madhu. “We recently submitted the draft policy before the government,” he adds.

“Our aim is to establish at least one library in each ward over the next four years. Following the digital wave, there has been a drastic change in the reading habits of the people. Also, these days, a large section of the population prefers buying books. We need innovative measures to attract people, especially local communities.”

Fund crunch
Insiders say a lack of funds has been slowing efforts to upgrade public libraries. Annually, the Library Council receives Rs 65 crore via grants and library cess. However, the council has requested the state government to release an additional Rs 18 crore. “The previous LDF government had approved a Rs 1,000 honorarium hike for librarians,” says Madhu. “To cover that, we require additional Rs 9 crore annually. We have been spending from the annual grant. Also, the government has not given the annual hike of 5 per cent in the library cess for the past two years. We have requested the government to immediately release the funds.”

Unscientific purchases
Some experts, who have associated with the Library Council, believe the purchase of books is being done without gauging the latest trends and interests of the public. “The publishing industry has flourished in the state, and has become highly commercialised,” notes Kendra Sahitya Akademi adviser Kayamkulam Yoonus. “Some established publishers dominate the market.

The purchase committee is more concerned about fund utilisation and the offers they get from publishers. There is no proper assessment of the trends. This has degraded the quality of content available in libraries.” Yoonus, who was a State Library Council adviser, points out there are several authors who pay to get their works published. “Often, the committee places orders without quality analysis of the book and the author. ” he adds.  

“Also, digitisation of libraries is moving at a snail’s pace.” Another shortfall, according to Yoonus, is the lack of qualified librarians. “Currently, many libraries are run by people without much knowledge in the field,” he says. “For effective functioning of the library, there should be people who are passionate about books. Only then the members can be guided properly,”

Reading under the sun
Libraries are evolving. A perfect example is the Kerala University Library. Readers can now bask under the sunlight, and enjoy the breeze with their favourite book in hand amid the beautiful garden in the library with maybe a cup of tea. After undergoing a massive face-lift and modernisation, the Kerala University Library is gearing up to set up a beautiful garden on the premises at a cost of ` 25 lakh. According to an official, the construction of the seating arrangements has already kicked off.

Efforts are on to transform the library into a cultural centre and add more recreational features, including a cafeteria. “There will be more infrastructure and facilities for research scholars. We will arrange cubicles for research,” said the official. The library boasts a huge collection -- nearly 20,000 members and over 10 lakh books. According to officials, around 20 lakh pages of rare books, documents and periodicals with historical importance have been digitised. Around 500 members on an average visit the library daily. The official said that they have invested close to Rs 28 to Rs 30 crore in the past five years to give a major facelift to the library.

Central Library to launch app, online radio
“Public libraries should be given a facelift, and people should be encouraged to spend time there,” says deputy state librarian Ashokan P U (State Central Library).  “Adding recreational elements would be a great idea. There are libraries that operate 24 hours in other states. We could also adopt such measures. Research scholars should be able to spend more time at these facilities.” Ashokan, however, points to a silver lining. “We have about one lakh members. The past two years were dull, but the situation is improving. Even without any campaigns, we are getting 600 to 700 members per month.” At the Central Library, he adds, over five lakh pages of rare documents, old books, journals, etc, have been digitised. “We are planning to introduce a library app. A radio network, and an audio library for the visually challenged are also in the pipeline,” says Ashokan.

Bond with books
IBRARIES hold a special place in my heart. I have been an avid reader and used to work part-time in rural public libraries from a very young age because of my passion for books and reading,” says Ashokan P U, the deputy librarian in the State Central Library, the country’s first public library established in 1829. At 54, his passion for books and libraries has not diminished a bit. As India celebrated the National Librarians Day on Thursday, Ashokan shares his experience.

“I’ve always wanted to serve society. Libraries have an impactful way of serving a community. Joining the State Central Library 28 years ago as librarian was a dream come true,” says Ashokan. “I used to dig into English classic novels which were unavailable at that time in rural libraries,” he said. 

“I was stunned on seeing lakhs of books at the State Central Library. I’m fortunate to have met people like K Ayyappa Paniker, M Krishnan Nair and E Vasu at the library,” says Ashokan, who is also a writer. “I used to write career guidance column in Grandhalokam --- the Library Council’s in-house magazine. I also give classes for aspiring librarians in the course run by the state central library,” says the Kozhikode native.“A librarian should be a friendly philosopher and a guide. He should be updated, well-read and able to answer any queries raised by a member relating to reading and books.”

Sharing his views on the future of libraries, Ashokan feels a library should be appealing. “Access to information should be easy while avenue for recreation too should be on offer. A cup of coffee or a snack will make reading more interesting,” feels Ashokan.