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Why free libraries are crucial for a democracy

Librarians will be advocating for free library access at the Festival of Libraries in Delhi this weekend

Books not only bridge gaps but also build empathy and create awareness about rights.
Books not only bridge gaps but also build empathy and create awareness about rights. (Aagaz Theatre Trust/ Free Libraries Network)

Whether it's sunny or snowing, a small free library, Let's Open A Book, in Spiti Valley is filled with children reading, lazing around or listening to stories. In Bansa, Uttar Pradesh, the free Bansa Community Library is nudging older people and children to pick up books, forming a habit that will last a lifetime. Across the country, in remote areas are several free libraries democratising knowledge and just getting more people to read. One of the strongest, and possibly the largest group of advocates of reading, is the Free Libraries Network (FLN), which, as the name suggests, connects free libraries, librarians and reading advocates across South Asia.

Launched in June 2022, FLN is a coalition of more than 200 free libraries and librarians advocating for the right to read. This weekend three members of FLN are set to participate in the culture ministry's Festival of Libraries at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi to discuss the need for a public library system that offers free access, without discrimination.

Also read: A community library for children in Spiti Valley focuses on critical reading

“When a library is free, it means two different things: One, it takes on the monetary barrier. Even if the membership fee is one rupee, there are people who can’t afford it, which then makes it exclusionary. Two, (it breaks) the other prominent barriers such as caste, religion, gender and disability, which decide who can have access to books, and, in turn, knowledge,” says Purnima Rao, librarian and director of FLN.

Though the network was launched in 2022, many of the members, both at the grassroots and in urban areas, have been in touch since 2018, swapping information and resources about their reading initiatives. Slowly, as they realised they were not working in isolation, even if it sometimes felt that way, the group decided to start a community, which eventually became FLN. The coalition also challenges the current understanding of libraries.

“Today, libraries cater mostly to people who already read and have access to reading. However, public libraries are meant for people who otherwise would not have access to books and resources. It’s a way of inviting them to read and creating a safe space to do so. This is currently lacking and is why we are advocating for free libraries,” says Rao.

FLN is a member of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), which recommends one public library for every 3000 people. According to a 2014 report by the ministry of culture, India currently has 54,846 public libraries, far from the ideal number.

According to FLN, surveys have indicated that there is about one rural library for every 11,500 people and one urban library for over 80,000 people in India, indicating a severe lack of library access. The level of service and functionality of the existing libraries is also unclear, casting doubts about their accessibility to the public.

FLN advocates for free membership, and leadership and librarian training models that build capacity within the local communities to run free libraries. It engages in capacity building and distribution, and members talk to the public, publishers, and other stakeholders about the free libraries movement. “A national library policy must be implemented. Although we are not the first people to ask for it, we are the largest group to do so. We want to see reform happen on the ground. Furthermore, the right to read information should be included in the library framework. The public library system has to exist as a matter of right and not as an endowment,” explains Rao.

Jatin Lalit Singh, who will be at the Festival of Libraries this weekend, started the Bansa Community Library in December 2020. It provides quality books and reading materials to learners from Bansa and 36 surrounding villages without any membership or registration costs or fines. “It took some time for people to realise that a free library really meant free, with no conditions attached. Often people are offered ‘free’ things that are not of good quality, so they are bound to be sceptical. But in the last three years, they have come to see it as their own,” says Singh, who works as an advocate and is also the general secretary of FLN. Before the library came about, people didn’t really read in Bansa, but now about 300 to 400 books are being issued every month, he adds.

Singh is set to join the panel, Best Practices in Library Management. “There are no other free libraries near Bansa, which is 17 km from Lucknow, so this is the sole way to access knowledge for people in the area. In the last three years, people have used the resources to get a government job, cultivate a bigger dream, and understand their rights. When the right to education is a fundamental right, why are free libraries not a priority?” he asks. As both Rao and Singh point out: if access to knowledge is a privilege then so is freedom.

The Festival of Libraries by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India will be held on 5 and 6 August at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi.

Also read: A library movement that wants a book in every hand

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