Why we need libraries to survive a pandemic

Lalita Iyer | Updated on October 23, 2020

Turn the page A library is the vital glue that binds communities by handing down stories   -  Chinnapong

Libraries are pivotal spaces in times of crises. More so in a pandemic, when the mental health of a nation is at stake

* We all need a place where we can converse and make sense of the world around us and not live in a bubble of silence or neutrality — and libraries are that space.

* American educator Renate Chancellor described libraries as pivotal spaces in times of crisis.

As the world was engulfed by a pandemic and the weeks rolled into months, my heart went out to children who had suddenly no room to exercise their ever-alert minds.

In this state of pandemic numbness, imagine what a vitalising role a library can play. Sadly, during the first six months of the lockdown, they were classified under non-essential services and not allowed to function.

As I read the New Education Policy (NEP) announced by the government earlier this year, I found that school and public libraries had a peripheral role in the policy even though there was a great deal of focus on “holistic, interactive, multi-disciplinary” education. I waded through 66 pages of the policy and, although there seemed to be some lofty goals set, it left me a bit disappointed.

One of the early measures it could have drawn inspiration from was the West Bengal government’s mass education extension & library services department, a result of the state’s Public Libraries Act, adopted in 1979. The placement of library services as part of a mass education unit speaks volumes about the light in which it was envisioned to act.

Librarian and educationist SR Ranganathan’s vision for the library movement is also worth recalling. In 1941, he had advocated a co-ordinated network of live public libraries functioning as efficient instruments of universal education. But that vision is far from being realised — in fact we have regressed as far as library services go.

For long, public libraries — especially in less developed regions — have been reeling under neglect and lack of funds. The exception is Kerala, rather a blueprint for literacy, and that is largely due to the library movement that preceded the literacy movement.

We all need a place where we can converse and make sense of the world around us and not live in a bubble of silence or neutrality — and libraries are that space. American educator Renate Chancellor described libraries as pivotal spaces in times of crisis. The world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis this year. In other parts of the world, libraries have stayed open during crises, and created a safe space during devastating events such as bombings, shootings and riots.

In the National Curriculum Framework of 2005, it was recommended that school libraries be conceptualised as an intellectual space to enable teachers, students and other members of the community to deepen their knowledge and imagination. “A system of cataloguing books and other materials available in the library needs to be developed so that children can become self-reliant library users. Apart from books and magazines, a school library should provide access to the new information technology to enable children and teachers to connect with the wider world,” the report said, and strongly recommended that school libraries be kept open during vacations. This clearly indicated that the use of the library went beyond the school curriculum and classroom lessons.

By deprioritising libraries we lose the freedom of thought and communication and the vital glue that binds communities — as communities and libraries are intertwined. We lose the power of handing down stories through oral tradition, a lot of which happens through library activity, and the empathetic connection we build with our community, which percolates to members of our village, city, country and the world.

Libraries are not a storage space for books; they provide ‘space’ to children and the community to step in, share, interact and explore. In a pandemic, this is ‘essential’ for the mental health of the nation and its citizens.

With the pandemic, children’s rights, especially the right to education, have been relegated to the background with schools functioning ‘online’ — a luxury available only to the urban elite. The vast majority of children are now bereft. In any case, literacy often is equated with the ability to read and that doesn’t even begin to define the scope of books, reading or learning. Neither private nor public schools find it necessary to have independent reading. The only thing that is valued is “the textbook” — and its mere utility in the long run is to present randomly compiled information. We can hardly expect our children not to resent textbooks.

This is in contradiction to the “holistic, integrated, skill-based learning” that is propounded in NEP 2020. Don’t our ideas have to match our actions, the resources we make available? How can we have radically different education by 2040 (as is the set target), when the way we do things — for instance, view libraries — stays the same?

During the lockdown, a storytelling group in Pune launched an audio story sharing effort called Katha Mehfil. Every day they would post a story on WhatsApp. These stories were in various languages. It soon became a family activity where all of us gathered every evening to listen to the stories. It was something to look forward to in the days of anxiety.

Imagine the amplification of this movement if there were libraries that people could access? What a wonderful community of powerful stories it would build. What a legacy to hand down to our children!

Lalita Iyer is an author of children’s books and a library educator in the making

Published on October 23, 2020

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