There is something indescribably sad about a country with more than 54,000 nearly-dead public libraries. Yet, although libraries die, books and the urge to read do not, if tended properly, in spite of the distractions of contemporary life. So, it is reassuring to hear that the Union ministry of culture is planning a well-funded project to survey, upgrade and revive around 5,000 of the nationís public libraries, spearheaded by a foundation based in Calcutta. This is an excellent idea, provided it is conceptualized and implemented innovatively and sincerely. It is often the tendency among people who live in cities, and whose living spaces are shrinking rapidly, to use small libraries as dumping grounds for books they want to get rid of. The government and its agencies will have to work against the grain of this habit of treating these institutions condescendingly as catering to those who cannot afford books or their trendy substitutes. Building or reviving libraries is not a charitable activity. It is cultural activism and community-building of a serious, but essentially delightful, kind. It demands creativity, rigour and political will.
First, engaging local consultants in vernacular reading materials is crucial, even when acquiring English books and periodicals is an important part of the librariesí agenda. Second, suburbs, small towns and villages are as important as the cities. In fact, habits of reading, and of reading- related critical and creative thinking, may actually be much more alive in the most unexpected places. Third, the libraries have to become part of local communities, courting the involvement of ordinary citizens and institutions like schools, colleges, music and art schools, and even tutorial homes, to name a few. Students, elderly people, and people with disabilities should be encouraged to participate, and even be employed in a whole range of capacities. Braille collections, home- visiting readers for the elderly, audio-books, and materials in other media should also be part of the services on offer. Digitizing the catalogue is important, but a lot of people accessing these libraries may not have internet connectivity, or they might have more traditional habits of seeking reading materials. Some libraries can also be exhibition spaces, or host cultural or adult-educational events. Artists can be commissioned to work with the collections and make site-specific installations. The potentials are endless, fun to realize, and within the realm of the possible.