The founders and programme coordinators of The Community Library Project (TCLP) are currently on a well-earned break. They wrapped up a fund-raising event, the Free Library Festival, on 20 December, with virtual performances by supporters like poet Varun Grover, comic Aditi Mittal, musician Rahul Ram and storyteller Danish Husain, as well as a charity auction that saw writers, actors, singers and designers donating work and personal memorabilia to raise funds for the Delhi-based free library that has had quite a tumultuous year.
Earlier this year, TCLP was on a high— its total membership across three branches in Delhi and Gurugram, Haryana, had touched 4,500 and it was close to completing the construction of a new space in south Delhi. TCLP runs libraries—Sheikh Sarai in Delhi, Sikanderpur and Sector 43 in Gurugram—for children from some of the most underserved sections of society in terms of access to books and culture, be it the children of migrant construction workers or adolescents working for a living. It not only provides books they can borrow, read and discuss with TCLP volunteers, it also runs writing workshops and read-alouds, and 2019 and the start of 2020 had been exceptionally productive.
But then a series of challenges arose: They were asked to leave two of the buildings from where they were running libraries, and in late March, the lockdown started, not just halting the move to new locations but demanding an urgent shift from reading and writing to helping members meet more vital needs: food, medicines and the means to travel, as many families were left jobless. “They had been abandoned by everyone—by their employers, by the government—and we felt we had to reach out and tell them we hadn’t abandoned them as well,” says Purnima Rao, a film-maker and TCLP steering committee member. With meagre funds in hand and limited technical knowledge (Rao says they are all “Luddites”), the project had to pivot quickly to a digital one to be able to reach at least some of the members.
Their digital program, Duniya Sabki, was born out of this need. An extension of TCLP’s libraries, it is a free platform with video and audio read-alouds, as well as links to books, magazines and other texts. It is sent thrice a week on WhatsApp to over 2,000 members, and is also available on YouTube. As a resource, it is comprehensive and engaging, but TCLP does not sound self-congratulatory. There is, in fact, some anger. “This is not a triumph. Throughout the pandemic, we have heard stories about how companies and people turned digital with ease and continued as if nothing had happened. That was not true of our readers. They were failed by their government, at both the local and central levels. They had to fend for themselves. There is an agitational aspect to Duniya Sabki,” says Rao.
“Many of our members—and many, many students in the country—don’t have access to smartphones and the internet. So while our physical community spaces were truly free, access to the digital library depends on having access to some time with a smartphone and a recharge. As constraints, these are not small ones,” says Zoya Chadha, a reading specialist and TCLP project coordinator.
Their prior relationships with library members and an understanding of their needs were at the centre of how TCLP created and shared content through Duniya Sabki, says Chadha. They realised that WhatsApp and YouTube are the two most accessible, low-bandwidth platforms through which content could be shared. WhatsApp groups were created and members with some smartphone access were added to these. “Our 12 WhatsApp channels are vital as they reach the members directly through a platform that they are already familiar with. We share ‘Duniya Sabki Issues’ thrice a week on these channels, which include both video and audio read-alouds of the same story so that users have the option to opt out of downloading comparatively larger video files,” says Chadha. The video read-alouds include not only the visual of the book with images and text, but also the face of the librarian or volunteer who is familiar to many from their days in the library. TCLP also shared activity videos developed by librarians and short films curated by the Delhi-based collective Lightcube Film Society, which facilitates community engagement with cinema, and authors like Paro Anand quickly recorded original audio content.
TCLP believes literacy is not just about being able to read but being able to use reading as a tool to become socially and politically aware; to introspect, articulate ideas and develop critical and creative thinking. “A lot of what we do is based on the act of resistance. We resist the idea that only a certain section of society has the right to literature. We resist practices that maintain hierarchies of access to books, and we resist the image of a library as populated and defined only by its books and not its readers,” Chadha writes in a post on their website.
The organisation knows limited funding and a completely volunteer-run programme restrict its scope and reach. Would they consider joining hands with governments to reach a wider population? “We provide a model that is scalable by others. Doing the work of a learning lab is laborious and our small size means we are nimble on our feet and can try ideas without running up a huge bill,” says Mridula Koshy, author and director of TCLP. “When we produce results —thousands of first-generation school-goers who are eager to use books not only for studying, as is expected by the school system, but also for thinking—then the department of education should be paying attention.”