Public library revitalization in India: Hopes, challenges, and new visions
First Monday

Public library revitalization in India: Hopes, challenges, and new visions



Abstract
With India’s growing economy and status as an emerging world power, a new consciousness is developing in the country about the need to reinvest in public services. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) is an advisory body constituted by the Prime Minister to provide recommendations for improving India’s knowledge infrastructure. As part of this Commission, a set of recommendations has been developed to improve India’s long neglected library system. This article explores the implications of these recommendations, with a specific focus on India’s public library system and the social development gains that are often associated with public libraries. The potential of India’s public libraries to serve as community information centres (CICs) is highlighted, as well as the challenges that lie ahead in implementing a new vision for public library revitalization. The article serves as an invitation for concerted action, reflection, and dialogue with regard to this important and pressing issue.

Contents

I. Introduction
II. The state of Indian public libraries and their untapped potential
III. Libraries as community information centres
IV. Revitalization roadblocks: The challenges ahead
V. A call for a new research and advocacy agenda for India’s public libraries
VI. Conclusion

 


 

I. Introduction

India and the need for improved public services

India, as the world’s largest democratic nation–state and an emerging economic power on the world stage, is a country beset with contradictions. Due in part to the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution, a middle class of over 300 million people now has the purchasing and consumption power to rival that of any Western developed country (Varma, 2007). However, despite the well–publicized ICT and information revolutions in India, rural and urban poor populations remain largely untouched by these advances (Dreze and Sen, 2002; Parayil, 2006). In addition, the growth of urban mega–cities in India is rapid, with huge numbers of the rural poor moving to cities on a daily basis and slum dwellings increasing at an exponential rate (Davis, 2006). Gaps between the rich and poor in these urban areas continue to grow (Varma, 2007).

Thus, while India is experiencing rapid economic growth, the benefits of this growth are unevenly distributed in the general population. Without addressing the needs of India’s masses, the economic growth occurring cannot be sustainable in the long term (Varma, 2007). A major reason for India’s continuing poverty is the government’s poor record in providing basic services such as education to the masses — in fact, it can be argued that the inability to address these fundamental needs is the country’s greatest post–independence failure (Guha, 2007). One way to begin addressing these gaps and inequities is to reinvest in improved public infrastructure, such as education, information, and library services. With this goal in mind the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, has created the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), an advisory group to facilitate the development of a more equitable knowledge society (National Knowledge Commission, 2008). According to the Prime Minister, “The time has come to create a second wave of institution building, and of excellence in the fields of education, research and capacity building.” [1] A main emphasis of the commission is to develop a knowledge–oriented paradigm of development in order to increase India’s competitive advantages in the knowledge economy (National Knowledge Commission, 2007). The structure of NKC consists of various working groups and seminars, with working groups involved in fields such as open and distance education, undergraduate education, and health information (National Knowledge Commission, 2008).

A working group involved with library issues is also part of NKC, with twelve members having developed ten recommendations for the improvement of India’s libraries. This working group developed a report entitled, Libraries: Gateways to Knowledge. As part of this revitalization effort, the report describes the benefits and roles of libraries in the following way:

“Libraries have a recognized social function in making knowledge publicly available to all. They serve as local centres of information and learning, and are local gateways to national and global knowledge.” [2]

The focus on libraries as information and learning centres is a main focus of the report and the implications of this emphasis will be discussed throughout this article.

While public libraries in India have been recognized for their potential to be local centres of information and learning for the deprived masses, their current state of disuse and neglect is a major point of concern (National Knowledge Commission, 2007; Ghosh, 2005; Seth, 2006; Dasgupta, 2000). In response to this issue one of the key recommendations from this working group is to encourage greater community participation in library management in order for libraries to become “community–based information systems.” [3] While this working group is providing general recommendations for implementation (which are sent to the Prime Minister and subsequently to state governments and civil society groups), the specifics of what a community–based information system might entail needs to be understood more fully.

This focus on a community–based information system, or community information centre (CIC), is a major turn in Indian public library development. While earlier committees and commissions have investigated the roles of public libraries in providing community information services, such as the National Policy on Library and Information System (NAPLIS) in 1986, a new momentum is growing around this issue. Great potential exists for a revitalization of Indian public libraries based on enhanced community participation and grassroots democratic engagement. With this opportunity also comes a challenge to begin identifying what a CIC means within the context of India’s vibrant grassroots democratic social movements. India is host to a range of non–governmental organizations (NGOs) and grassroots social movements focusing on issues such as environmental and women’s rights and often emerging in response to state and corporate bodies that are unresponsive to the needs of the deprived masses (Kothari, 2005). Understanding how these types of community–based movements can provide lessons for public library transformation into CICs will be an important task. In addition, it will be important to understand potential barriers to this revitalization project and how they might be addressed and overcome.

A new role for India’s public libraries?

In what follows, I will highlight the community information center model and its potential for revitalizing Indian public libraries. Challenges and structural barriers will be discussed, as well as new creative openings and possibilities, such as convergence with community information and technology projects, and possibilities for enhanced democratic activism and community involvement. I will also discuss a future research agenda around these issues and offer a call for more concerted action on various fronts to approach this vision.

Ultimately, any type of knowledge/information economy (however one defines it) depends on an educated and informed populace. Public libraries are particularly important in the Indian context, as they have the potential to make a dramatic difference in the empowerment of India’s masses and in the development of a better educated and informed citizenry. While a largely underfunded and neglected institution, the Indian public library system is in a position to provide vital community and information resources for millions upon millions of Indians. An inspiring and inclusive vision is needed, as well as concerted action. The need for fundamental change and re–development of India’s public libraries has been evident for decades; however, the current environment seems preternaturally conducive to transformative possibilities. Thus, despite the inherent political and administrative challenges that wide–scale public library revitalization will face, a sense of possibility persists. This article is sketching the contours of a potentially new social movement for reform and community empowerment, which will ultimately need the support of a wide range of actors and interested parties. With this collaborative spirit, I hope that this work can spark new conversations and possibilities in the important area of Indian public library revitalization.

 

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II. The state of Indian public libraries and their untapped potential

The modern concept of the public library in India has its origins in the British colonial period, with the development of public libraries in cities such as Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta in the early to mid–nineteenth century helping to pave the way for future library development (Bhattacharjee, 2002). While bearing the stamp of Western influences, however, libraries have existed in India since ancient times, serving as repositories of knowledge in the courts of rulers, temples, and universities (Patel and Kumar, 2001). The development of public libraries in the country gained momentum in the post–independence period, with the passage of the Madras Public Library Act in 1948, the first library legislation in newly independent India for providing public library service (Bhattacharjee, 2002). S.R. Ranganathan, an Indian pioneer of library and information science (LIS), was a major figure in the passage of this legislation and inspired visions of public library development throughout the country. While known in the West largely for his substantial contributions to classification theory, Ranganathan also advocated for the development of effective public library systems to reach India’s masses. Inspired by the ethic of spreading knowledge and providing “books for all” he had a vision, based on his Five Laws of Library Science, to spread knowledge far and wide through India’s public libraries (Ranganathan, 1963). Despite Ranganthan’s efforts, however, much of the vision that he presented remains unfulfilled. This gap between aspiration and reality should serve as a motivation to continue building upon the important legacy of Ranganathan.

Ranganathan also inspired the development of library legislation in other states in the following decades. Public libraries are under the jurisdiction of state governments but currently only 11 states in the country have formal library legislation (Bhattacharjee, 2002). While states manage public libraries, the Indian government also funds the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF) to act as a coordinating agency for the development of public libraries, particularly in the rural areas (Dasgupta, 2000). RRRLF works in cooperation with state governments and non–governmental organizations (NGOs) to extend the reach of public library services in underserved areas (Bhattacharjee, 2002). In addition, suggestions have been made to increase the effectiveness of public libraries by linking their services and goals to the larger National Literacy Mission (NLM) in India.

Despite some of the aforementioned developments, however, the Indian public library system is generally in a state of disrepair and does not provide meaningful services to the masses (Bhattacharjee, 2002). Indian public library development remains uneven throughout the country, with varying levels of quality both within and across states. India is an extremely diverse country, with great linguistic, cultural, and social variation — to speak of India as an abstract whole is beset with difficulties and unhelpful generalizations. In the same vein, it is not possible to talk about a unified Indian public library system, since it varies so much within and between different parts of the country. However, a certain basic set of observations can be made. For instance, the rural public library sector remains an area that is highly underdeveloped. In contrast, certain urban public library systems, in cities such as Delhi, Chennai, and Bangalore, exhibit fairly well–developed infrastructures. States in south India generally have higher levels of public library development, particularly the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka (Seth, 2006). Roughly speaking, the public library sector in India can be divided into four basic categories: 1) state central and regional libraries; 2) city library systems; 3) district library systems; and, 4) other libraries —which include village libraries, slum libraries, informal information centres, etc. (Patel and Kumar, 2001). Within these different categories of libraries, great variations exist; however, city library systems in more affluent parts of the country with established state library legislation tend to be of better quality.

Given the lack of a uniform public library sector in India, it becomes difficult to define what exactly constitutes a public library. For instance, does a small room in an urban slum or a village with a few books make a library? Or does a library need to have a more formal organizational structure and service model? These questions are a major concern for Indian library leaders and one of the NKC recommendations is to conduct a countrywide census of libraries (National Knowledge Commission, 2007). Calls have been made for many years to have library legislation in all the states of India and many library leaders also would like to see a national body to oversee library development throughout the country (National Knowledge Commission, 2007). The development of a national public library infrastructure will need a certain level of top–down guidance, but awareness about the need for bottom–up and community–driven public library development is growing. For example, some village libraries are run by NGOs and maintained by informal community organizations and grassroots support (Bhattacharjee, 2002). The devolution of power to panchayats (Indian village governance councils) has allowed certain libraries to be run and maintained locally.

The concept of the public library in India is still being articulated and no one definition or organizational structure will fit the diverse environments of India. The unique cultural and socio–economic diversity of India allows for potentially more empowering community–driven and grassroots service models and approaches that may not necessarily reflect Western notions of the public library, particularly with regard to top–down models of development. While Indian public library development may have the capacity to redefine how public libraries can be run and can serve their communities, several challenges lie ahead.

Namely, public library development in India still faces issues such as low literacy levels, limited access to technology, and the sometimes limited availability of linguistically relevant reading materials. Adult literacy, while showing gains over the last couple of decades, remains generally low in the country — the literacy rate according to the 2001 census stood at 61 percent (CIA World Factbook, 2008). In addition, even the most well–developed public library systems have low levels of computerization and automation, and are mainly viewed as repositories of books — only around one percent of all Indian public libraries are computerized (Seth, 2006). In addition to these issues, there is a dearth of suitable reading materials in regional languages, with English still a dominant language for professional education publications (Seth, 2006). The community information centre (CIC) model, which has been discussed as a possible new incarnation for the Indian public library, thus has to take into account and address these issues in meaningful ways. The potential benefits of an improved public library system might include increases in print literacy, human capacity development, informal education gains, ICT literacy, and community information delivery. The next section explores the dimensions of the CIC model and possible new directions for Indian public libraries in more depth.

 

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III. Libraries as community information centres

Community information and libraries

Calls for transformation in Indian public library services have some precedent. For instance, prominent library leaders in India have discussed the need for libraries to transform from collection–oriented institutions to service–based institutions (Dasgupta, 2000). In addition, the awareness that public libraries can serve as community information centres has existed for the last several years. The National Policy on Library and Information System (NAPLIS) report of 1986 specifically recommended that village libraries should serve as local information centres, bringing areas such as public health, adult education, and local self–government under the same umbrella (India Department of Culture, 1986). Despite the prescience and sound pronouncements of NAPLIS, these recommendations never became implemented at the national level, due to a host of political and bureaucratic reasons. Will the same fate affect the NKC recommendations? One cannot say for sure if and how these recommendations may ultimately get implemented; however, understanding at a deeper level what constitutes a CIC remains an important task. Commissions come and go, but the challenges and transformative possibilities for Indian public libraries will remain. While potential exists for the CIC model, public libraries in India generally are still viewed as repositories of books and other print materials, and are not seen as major providers of community information (Patel and Kumar, 2001; Ghosh, 2005; Seth, 2006).

The topic of community information services has been gaining in importance within the field of library and information studies (LIS) and has been suggested as an important area for library service models in developing countries (Martin, 1984; Kempson, 1986; Alemna, 1995). Community information has been defined as survival information, a type of information necessary for participation as a full and equal member of society (Martin, 1984). Additionally, community information services aim to assist individuals and groups with participation in the democratic process and daily problem solving with issues such as housing, employment, education, welfare rights and civil rights (Library Association, 1980). Community information services have been linked with information and referral services for marginalized populations (Metoyer–Duran, 1994). Public libraries, mainly in the United States, began networking with government, community, and social services agencies in the 1970s to create information and referral services to inform citizens about resources and programs for individual and community empowerment (Durrance and Pettigrew, 2000).

This type of community information service model has also been enhanced by the presence of the Internet in many U.S. and Western public libraries, as various electronic community information networks have been created (Durrance and Pettigrew, 2000). Community information service models can thus be based on access to ICTs (Pettigrew, et al., 1999; Ghosh, 2005) but can also involve simply providing relevant information for communities (Alemna, 1995). Successful community information projects often involve providing solutions derived from local populations themselves and not imposed from the outside (Alemna, 1995).

Beyond the provision of community information, however, the CIC model can position the library as an important cultural and community centre. Part of this cultural centre model can include providing space for local artisans to display their works, hosting itinerant storytellers, and the general promotion of local folk traditions. Thus, by being sensitive to community needs and values (Alemna, 1995) public libraries can be spaces for cultural promotion and preservation. India, a country with a rich and diverse cultural heritage, has a huge untapped resource in the public library system to reinvigorate local cultural practices. Enhanced cultural roles that public libraries may take will inevitably need to be in sync with indigenous norms and practices.

Libraries and community technology projects

While libraries have the potential to be community information providers other benefits of public libraries include the enhancement of social capital for communities (Caidi and Allard, 2005; Varheim, 2007; Kranich, 2001), as well as creating spaces for a strengthened public sphere of democratic engagement (Johansson, 2004; Webster, 2002). Social capital has been defined as forms of social organization (such as networks and social trust) that enhance civic engagement and democratic participation (Putnam, 1995) and its development has been shown to have positive consequences in the Indian context (Dhesi, 2000; Krishna, 2007; Morris, 1998). Public libraries also can serve as democratic intermediaries, providing access to government information (Ghosh, 2005; Johansson, 2004; Mutula, 2005). Potential exists for Indian libraries in particular to provide e–governance services, health information (for instance, about HIV/AIDS), ICT–enabled learning tools (Ghosh, 2005), and basic literacy development (Knuth, 1994).

While public libraries in India have been slow to adopt these service models and fully develop their democratic potential, a range of community technology projects have been established in the country which have had a fair deal of success. Some of these projects involve service models such as telecentres and information kiosks, which often provide community access to ICTs and ICT–mediated information (Arunachalam, 2002; Bailur, 2006; Warschauer, 2003). These projects have the potential to “reach the unreached” by providing relevant information services such as crop price information, health care information, and weather information [4]. The provision of these types of information can support economic and social development and aid in the enhancement of social capital (Warschauer, 2003). Developing a wide range of stakeholders in these types of projects, as well as tools for effective community participation and ownership, is important (Cecchini and Raina, 2004; Bailur, 2006; Madon, 2005). Without these elements, these types of projects can fail to effectively meet the community information needs of people (Cecchini and Raina, 2004).

Public libraries have the potential to take on some of the service models of these community technology projects but mechanisms for change are needed as well as an influx of technology (Ghosh, 2005). The transformation of Indian public libraries through information technology has been talked about at length; however, given the very low levels of computerization in most libraries, it will take considerable effort to even begin conceiving of libraries as community technology centres. Despite this reality, a convergence of public library and telecentre initiatives may provide enhanced community information functions for libraries. Some of the more innovative and effective community technology projects in the country can help to increase social capital and social inclusion (Warschauer, 2003) and have service models that are sensitive to local community needs (Arunachalam, 2002).

Some of the more prominent and often discussed community technology projects in India include the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation’s (MSSRF) village knowledge centres in the Union Territory of Pondicherry in South India and the Gyandoot project in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The Pondicherry Information Village project that MSSRF conducts, with the support of the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), focuses on community–based development around information technology. What arguably makes this project successful is this focus on community needs, as technology is not an end in itself but rather is one of a set of tools based on a pro–poor, pro–women, and pro–environment model of development (Arunachalam, 2002). The Pondicherry project focuses on delivering information to villages via an intranet–type network, with access provided in various village knowledge centres (VKCs) located in different parts of the union territory (Arunachalam, 2002).

Most of the operators and volunteers in the VKCs providing information are women, which has had the effect of altering some of the social dynamics of the villages. MSSRF staff work in concert with locals, identifying information needs that are relevant to community goals. For instance, information provided in VKCs is locale–specific and relates to prices of agricultural products (such as seeds, fertilizers and pesticides), government programs, healthcare, transportation, and weather (Arunachalam, 2002). The VKCs are responsive to local needs — in one particular VKC in the village of Embalam, the local temple is adjacent to it. This example provides an instance where a local religious and cultural institution has been used in a creative way to help promote the information centre — potential exists for similar models of partnership and cooperation in the redevelopment of public libraries.

Returning to the issue of social capital, it can be argued that participatory ICT development programs such as MSSRF enhance the social capital of communities, providing access to networks, information, and opportunities that were previously not readily available to most people. In a similar instance, the Gyandoot rural technology project in the state of Madhya Pradesh builds upon local community support and involvement to focus attention on local health and economic concerns (Warschauer, 2003). Both of these projects, in Pondicherry and Madhya Pradesh, use technology as an additional tool to promote social capital and community development and do not focus on technology as an end in itself (Warschauer, 2003). A revitalized public library system may make use of technology to enhance services, but it is important to keep in mind that community involvement and support remains the key factor in determining the success of community technology projects. This idea is not lost on members of the NKC library working group — the encouragement of greater community participation in library management is part of their recommendations, which includes giving more local control for decision–making processes in libraries (National Knowledge Commission, 2007).

Despite the successes of some community technology projects, the sustainability of these projects remains an important concern. When the funding from outside sources and international granting agencies dries up, how will these projects survive? This question remains crucial and people involved with these projects are keenly aware of it. Different strategies for the maintenance of projects over the long–term include the development of entrepreneurial schemes. In certain cases, Internet kiosks and technology centres can be private enterprises, which can support local businesses and generate income. While the sustainability of community technology projects and the viability of entrepreneurial models is an on–going debate within the community technology centre community, successful community technology models also exist through the work of government. In the case of free public and community libraries, business and entrepreneurial models may not be preferable — in this case, more effective government support and partnerships with educational NGOs might be more beneficial.

The state of Kerala in south India has implemented the Akshaya project, part of the state government’s efforts to increase ICT access for populations throughout the state, including rural and underserved areas. The Akshaya project has so far developed 400 e–centres connected through a wireless Internet infrastructure and has trained nearly 600,000 people in basic computer skills (Akshaya Project, 2006). E–government services, online exams, agricultural information, and other various types of services are offered through these e–centres. On a national scale, the Indian government has approved the common services centre (CSC) model for providing a range of government services to 600,000 villages in India. The current plan is to have 100,000 CSCs serve these villages, with a public–private partnership model serving as the foundation for developing these centres and their associated services (India Department of Information Technology, 2008). These projects are ambitious in scope and it remains to be seen how successful they will be, what challenges they will face, and how responsive they actually are to locally–defined community needs. However, these initiatives are a significant investment from the public sector in developing community–based information services.

What remains surprising is how public libraries do not figure into these information delivery plans at the moment — basic library infrastructure exists in many parts of India but libraries are not being considered. Partnerships between libraries and the government in delivering a range of traditional and non–traditional information services can be effective. Barriers to effective synergy between these different movements must apparently exist. Finding ways to overcome these barriers and to challenge government policy–makers to think of libraries beyond the “books and lending library model” will be important in the coming years. The next section explores this concept of partnerships and citizen engagement for Indian public libraries in more detail.

Libraries and enhanced grassroots democratic engagement

In countries such as India, we can also think of a lack of social capital at the level of governance. Particularly, corruption remains pervasive at various levels of government. The lack of trust between large segments of Indian society and the state weakens the effectiveness of public programs and initiatives (Warschauer, 2003). The poor record that the Indian government has in meeting basic social development needs often leads to a general lack of faith and trust in government services. Great challenges exist in Indian democracy, with disillusionment among the marginalized segments of society in the effectiveness of top–down models of governance (Kothari, 2005). In response, a range of new social movements with regard to the deprived and disenfranchised classes have taken hold (Kothari, 2005; Shiva, 2005). These social movements are often mediated by NGOs, which can advocate for the needs of citizens to have a larger voice in democratic governance (Madon and Sahay, 2002; Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, n.d.). These NGOs can serve in information delivery capacities to marginalized citizens, partnering with government organizations to effectively advocate for the needs of urban poor communities and slum dwellers (Madon and Sahay, 2002).

The NGO sector, while not without its own problems of governance and accountability, can often serve as an effective intermediary between the state and citizens in the delivery of services. The encouragement of “public–private partnerships in development of library and information services” is also one of the recommendations of the NKC library working group [5]. These types of partnerships can include working with community information and technology NGOs, NGOs concerned with grassroots democracy and citizen activism issues, as well as library–focused NGOs. For instance, Rural Education and Development (READ) Global (http://www.readglobal.org/), an NGO which originally started in Nepal but is now becoming established in India, could be a model for partnerships with local groups and governments. In this form of development assistance, a library community centre is developed to serve as a model project, after which further expansion occurs based on this model. In addition, numerous other domestic and international NGOs exist which are concerned with public library development. These examples highlight the various potential opportunities that could exist for partnership between state–funded public libraries and NGO–supported libraries and information centres.

On a related note, the role of the public library in citizen activism and democratic engagement is yet to be defined in the Indian context. Public libraries are largely part of the state apparatus in India and this might affect their perception of effectiveness for the general public. Middle class and upper middle class Indians often are not sensitive to the needs of the lower socio–economic strata of Indian society (Varma, 2007) and this indifference can manifest itself in a lack of concern for services such as public libraries. In this scenario, those with money and resources are often able to provide their own private libraries and information centres. In other words, a broader concept of the public good (of which public libraries are a part) still needs to be more firmly established in the Indian political psyche. In the case of public libraries, one can argue that those without means to have their own private libraries are at the mercy of an often inefficient and unresponsive state to meet their information needs. One way to move beyond this model is to envision the public library as an institution with deep roots in local community and grassroots ownership and accountability. The movement towards greater local control and accountability is beginning to take shape in more decentralized models of governance. The CIC model thus has the potential to enhance social capital, provide valuable survival information, increase community input, and further participatory democracy.

Along with partnerships with NGOs and community–based advocacy, recent decentralization efforts in rural governance might hold potential for enhanced development of public libraries. Local self–government at the village level, also known as panchayati raj, has had mixed levels of success but in certain respects has emancipated Indian villages politically (Das, 2002). The immense bureaucracy of the Indian state can be stifling and efforts towards decentralization such as panchayati raj have allowed more decision–making at the local level. Village assemblies elect representatives to serve on the village panchayat for five–year terms. In terms of local self–government and accountability, panchayats have begun to decide, for example, whether to build water tanks, schoolhouses, and village roads. These were decisions that the state bureaucracy previously would make with little knowledge about what actually was needed and required by these village communities (Das, 2002). Panchayati raj has also allowed for greater representation of traditionally marginalized groups (such as women and low caste populations) in the governance structures of villages. While not a governance system that is without problems and power inequities, panchayati raj holds hope for a more effective decentralized form of governance. Community and public libraries are related to this phenomenon of panchayati raj, since these local village councils could have the power to fund and maintain these types of institutions. Potential exists to create community–based libraries that are responsive to the needs of local populations, free from the top–down control of state authorities and with more power to make local purchasing and management decisions.

 

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IV. Revitalization roadblocks: The challenges ahead

In the previous sections I have given an overview of the Indian public library scenario and the possibilities for constructive change and increased effectiveness. However, the realization of a new vision for public libraries must take into account potential barriers and roadblocks. Being aware of these issues can put the topic of public library revitalization in a more realistic framework but also can pave the way for more effective solutions. On a basic level, no real links between community technology projects and the public library movement exist, despite the fact that one member of the NKC library working group served as an advisor to a community technology project. While there would seem to be effective synergy between the library and community technology movements, collaboration at this point remains only a hope and an aspiration. In addition, ICT deployment in public libraries is so low that even conceiving of libraries as technology centres can be a major stretch of the imagination.

Several reasons may be behind this lack of convergence, the most obvious being the different organizational cultures of governments and NGOs. Incentives to collaborate do not necessarily exist between these two institutions — political interests, entrenched bureaucracies, and other socio–economic factors serve to complicate what might be an effective form of collaboration. As discussed earlier, the NKC working group has identified the need for partnerships with non–state actors in the development of libraries and this topic is certainly on the radar of Indian library leaders. But the actual logistics of these types of partnerships may prove challenging and institutional barriers may be tough to overcome. Sustaining this vision over the long–term and finding tangible ways to develop the vision will be important. Small steps towards collaboration may need to be taken at first. For instance, small–scale examples of successful collaboration may provide an impetus for similar types of collaborations to occur in different parts of India.

Any type of revitalization of India’s public libraries will have to be implemented at the state level, with state governments having the ultimate decision–making authority with regard to library development. Since not all states have library legislation, the process of implementation will be uneven between different states, with varying degrees of bureaucratic impediments, political pressures, and corruption. A general lack of faith in public governance, as discussed earlier, also plagues attempts to provide public services such as libraries. In other words, how can we talk about effective public libraries in India if the state itself is not trusted as an honest actor? A way around some of these difficulties may lie in developing public libraries from the “ground up” with broad–based grassroots community support and participation, both in urban environments and through panchayats in the villages.

On a wider note, the perception of libraries and librarians is in need of a transformation in India. Long associated with the work of clerical officials, the job of the librarian needs to develop into that of a community worker and information access advocate. The low visibility and respect of the profession within white collar circles is a related concern. While part of the perception of libraries and librarians reflects a certain basic reality, a wider advocacy effort needs to be undertaken in the library community to highlight and promote the achievements and potential of India’s public libraries to meet basic social development goals. Part of the solution with regard to advocacy may lie in a redevelopment of India’s library education system. New, young, and enthusiastic leadership in the profession needs to be cultivated and a reinvestment in LIS education thus may be part of the solution.

Similarly, the role of public libraries in India still remains underdeveloped and under–theorized. Libraries need to be thought of as more than just storehouses for books — if the library is truly a growing organism as Ranganathan (1963) suggests, then Indian public libraries need to embody this dynamic principle. This current lack of a coherent vision or set of guiding principles in Indian public library development also offers an opportunity for creative action with regard to these issues. As with public libraries in most countries, the issue of funding is always a concern and India is no different in this matter. While India has numerous needs for public infrastructure development, a greater investment in libraries (to remedy the gross pecuniary neglect they currently endure) can go a long way in meeting basic literacy and social development goals.

 

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V. A call for a new research and advocacy agenda for India’s public libraries

The possibilities and pathways I have been presenting are part of a larger research and advocacy agenda focused on India’s public libraries. The community information centre service model can help open a discussion around the multiple meanings and manifestations of public libraries in different Indian contexts. As discussed earlier, public libraries can have a variety of management forms (e.g., public–private funding; NGO–state partnerships) and can address concerns such as the support and preservation of traditional knowledge systems and local cultural traditions. In addition, connections can be made between Indian grassroots social mobilization and public library revitalization in order to contextualize library issues in broader issues of social justice and democratic participation. At another level, developing a network of individuals and activist organizations interested in Indian public and community library issues would be a worthwhile goal in terms of developing a broader base for the Indian public library movement. A broad alliance of concerned citizens, professionals, and activists would be a useful catalyst in linking Indian public library issues with issues of social change and development.

Beyond the work of the NKC library working group, an interest in the transformative possibilities of public libraries in India is growing. For example, the Goethe–Institut in New Delhi (also known as Max Mueller Bhavan) held a conference in March 2008 entitled “Libraries on the Agenda!,” which brought together library leaders from around India and Europe to discuss the future of Indian libraries and library advocacy. The conference and a subsequent workshop generated position statements and identified best practices with regard to developing a national mission for libraries, advocacy strategies, branding and marketing issues, and developing standardized ICT infrastructure for libraries. This conference and others like it may hold promise in stimulating new library leadership and a new sense of energy in the Indian library community.

For the library revitalization movement to have a sustained impact, intersections with issues of effective governance and public services are also worth exploring. The role of the Indian state in promoting information access to the masses can be interrogated further, and the public library movement is just one lens from which to view this larger issue. The notion of the public good in India and the role of the state in providing effective public services need to developed further, and improved public library services are part of this greater context.

 

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Conclusion

As we near the end of the twenty–first century’s first decade, India appears to be on the cusp of major improvements in social development. A growing economy has buoyed the hopes and aspirations of a large segment of the population, but the benefits of this growth remain uneven. Thus, despite the rising world economic status of the country, a neglect of proper investments in the social sector and public services will ultimately hinder this growth and continue to create vast inequities in Indian society. As I have argued here in this article, an investment in public library services, while only a small and modest part of the solution, can make a large difference in the achievement of social development and education goals. A momentum around the public library issue is developing in the country and the time is ripe for enlightened action; if proper action is not taken, this moment may slip away, as others have in the past. National governments, ruling coalitions, and elected officials come and go and the National Knowledge Commission may in fact not live up to its potential. However, the library movement in India has received some much needed momentum, which will need to be sustained.

No “one” library movement or set of solutions exists in India, as it is a very diverse country, arguably the most diverse in the world. This reality should be embraced, as a range of different service models will be needed. The community information centre (CIC) model is one particular form of service delivery that can be adapted to different contexts, but other models exist as well. The governance of public libraries will also need to be explored, since community and local–based management structures hold promise. With this point in mind, can the national government provide guidance and let effective local solutions develop? Implementation will have to take place at various levels (village, district, state, municipality), but more power may need to be devolved to the local community and village panchayat levels. While India is urbanizing at a rapid rate, the country still remains predominantly rural and the importance of the rural library sector should not be overlooked. India is in a position to redefine what a public library means, especially with regard to the delivery of community information services and the preservation of local cultural traditions. These are exciting and important times, as a vast number of India’s citizens can serve to benefit from improved public library services. This article offers an invitation to continue building this new vision, and for sustained and creative action. Millions are waiting. End of article

 

About the author

Ajit Pyati is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario.
E–mail: apyati [at] uwo [dot] ca

 

Acknowledgments

This article is partly based on field research conducted in India during January to March 2008, supported by a Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) Internal Grant and an International Research Award, both from the University of Western Ontario. I would like to thank my Indian colleagues and partners for their hospitality and willingness to participate in my research study. In addition, I am grateful for the help of my graduate student research assistant, Manda Plavsa, who diligently conducted background research for the article.

 

Notes

1. National Knowledge Commission, 2008, p. 6.

2. National Knowledge Commission, 2007, p. i.

3. National Knowledge Commisson, 2007, p. 9.

4. Arunachalam, 2002, p. 513.

5. National Knowledge Commission, 2007, p. 9.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 8 December 2008; accepted 14 June 2009.


Copyright © 2009, First Monday.

Copyright © 2009, Ajit K. Pyati.

Public library revitalization in India: Hopes, challenges, and new visions
by Ajit K. Pyati.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 7 - 6 July 2009
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2588/2237





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