From above, say, on Google Earth, Mayyil looks just like any other village in North Malabar: lush, green and dotted with rivulets, hillocks and small shops. On the ground, this looks a lot different, especially when you start reading the signs. Almost every road in this grama panchayat in Kerala’s Kannur district leads to or ends with a library. The panchayat, which has a population of a little over 30,000 people in 33.08 sq km with a literacy rate of 88.93 per cent, boasts 34 functioning libraries, arguably the highest for a local body in the country.

“Libraries are a way of life for us here. Every library competes with each other to organise literary events, social gatherings and political meets in order to make the people more progressive, culturally sensitive and secular,” says U Janardhanan, a retired government employee, sitting inside the modest librarian’s room at the public library in Mayyil’s Velam, a beautiful village also famous for its ancient Sri Maha Ganapati Temple.

Janardhanan represents Velam vayana shala (library) in the Kannur district library council, which oversees the politically vibrant district’s 900-plus libraries. Kannur district has the highest number of libraries for a district in Kerala. The State has nearly 8,464 libraries attached to the Kerala State Library Council, the overarching body that acts as a watchdog of all the libraries in the State.

Surprising comeback

Kerala has had a robust tradition of libraries for a couple of centuries now. In 1827, India’s first public library was set up in Thiruvananthapuram, it still functions as the Central State Library in the city.

In the Malabar region, the library movement was built and nurtured as part of the Nationalist Movement. Marxist thinker K Damodaran was one of the pioneering leaders who tried to build a network of these libraries and make them part of the Freedom Movement as well as to promote communist ideals.

On May 14, 1937, the Malabar Grandhashala Sangham (a library collective) was formed to coordinate the library movement in the region.

But did this movement lose the momentum in the onslaught of the digital era and technologies?

At a time when libraries, especially public libraries, are facing a crisis of identity and sustainability across India, Kerala has seen a rise in the number of libraries and people attending these institutions.

“We are working towards taking the number of libraries in the district to 1,000 now,” says PK Baiju, secretary of Kannur district library council, at the council’s office on Kannur town’s Caltex road. “This is important, because we have been taught to see libraries as the people’s universities,” reasons Baiju, enthusiastically showing us a huge pile of photos and books that feature the activities of the library council. “Libraries have to become a hub of activities, from reading to social activities to entrepreneurial action,” he says.

“Only that will equip them for the new age and only that will bring more (needy) people to them.”

Agrees P Appukkuttan, secretary of Kerala State Library Council. “We have taken several steps to ensure reading habits are inculcated in children and other important sections of the society,” he adds.

Appukkuttan says the number of libraries in Kerala is at an all-time high at the moment and, thanks to enthusiastic civil society participation, the council gets at least 10 requests every month for fresh affiliation. For a library to become eligible to get the Council’s affiliation, it must have at least 50 members, 1,000 books and has to function for at least a year without glitches. The council mandates that every library should conduct at least one socio-cultural event a month and the more the merrier,” says Appukkuttan

Baiju concurs: “Public libraries are where the poor, the downtrodden and other vulnerable sections of the society come to learn, understand and debate. So it is important that all channels, cutting across political lines, be kept open for continuous public engagement.”

He was speaking to BusinessLine after attending an event at the Koodali Public Library, located nearly 15 km from Kannur, on January 22.

At the Koodali library, a motley crowd is present to listen to an advocate explaining the recent and controversial Supreme Court ruling allowing women of menstruating age to enter Sabarimala. A heated debate ensues during the sessions. “Such events help society grow better in terms of its sensitivity towards social issues while helping libraries improve their ‘grades’,” says P Karunakaran, secretary of the public library.

A part of the funding for the functioning of the libraries comes from the State Library Council, which is funded by a slice of the State’s allocation for education sector (up to 1 per cent of the total) and the State’s property tax collections (the library cess is of 5 per cent).

The library council grades each library in seven categories, from ‘F to A-Plus’. “A-Plus has been added recently, to find the best of the lot,” says Appukkuttan. “The council promotes a Vayanka Paksham (Reading Fortnight) from June 19 to July 7 to encourage reading,” he adds.

To ensure that the activities of the council reach all the stakeholders, affiliate libraries run forums such as the Bala Vedi (for children), Vanitha Vedi (targeting women and working mothers), Yuvatha (for the youth) and Guru Sangamam for the senior citizens. These targeted groups, according to Appukkuttan, help promote reading and, more importantly, a sense of community and oneness.

For experience, not just reading

“Our experience shows people come to libraries for an experience, not only for reading,” says Janardhanan of Velam public library. “So we must provide them that experience and a great place to start is to conduct small events where people can gather and talk about issues, from the mundane to the philosophical,” he adds.

Agree CC Ramachandran, secretary of Velam Vayana Shala, and Prasad M, a member of the library. “Here, we take books to all the houses as and when we can,” says Prasad. “When there is a wedding in the village, or some other event happens at a residence, we go there with a few books and while helping the family members with their chores, we read books, tell stories and recite poems.”

This community experience of reading is one of the major propelling forces for Kerala’s libraries, even when the explosion on mobile phones and digital technologies, coupled with the boom in online retails where books are available at lower prices, is forcing people to ditch libraries. “The only way we can get rid of this crisis is by equipping ourselves with better technologies and that’s why we are focussing a lot on digitising our libraries and introducing entrepreneurial activities, among others, in our libraries,” says Baiju.

Right on cue, at Mayyil’s Safdar Hashmi Memorial Library, a neatly built, air-conditioned and well-designed library that is located atop what to a visitor appears as a slice of a hill, PP Satheesh Kumar, a local journalist and an active member of the library, shows us products that the library’s entrepreneurs have made, including washing powder, soaps and home cleaning liquids.

“Our products are priced much lower than the market price and we are catering to other villages as well,” he says. The library, which currently has over 900 members and more than 17,000 books, sees an influx of students and housewives to be part of its activities. “Women take active interest in our library’s activities,” says Ranjini, librarian.

Funding challenges

That said, Library Council’s Appukkuttan says there are challenges, in terms of getting more funds to improve the infrastructure of libraries.

To take Kerala’s libraries to the next level and to sustain public interest in them, the council has to find more resources as well as volunteers. Most people who are now associated with Kerala’s libraries (sparing the librarians) are volunteers who are retired workers or those who have other day jobs. Their services have to be incentivised.

“Last year, some ₹27 crore came in government grants and ₹37 crore in property cess,” notes Appukkuttan. “We have sought some changes in the allocation. If the property cess for libraries can go up by a few percentage points, that can help the local bodies ease the load considerably while supporting the libraries.”

“We are seeing reading going only up and not down,” says librarian Lisa at Thalassery’s 117-year-old Taluk Public Library (Azad Library), while handing books to Hashir, a young graduate student. “I come here whenever I can. It is affordable (most libraries have a nominal membership fee of ₹30 a year) and convenient,” he says.

“Such libraries are an eye-opener for the likes of us, who thought reading was dying and the new generation is not interested in reading,” says Abhilash Manapatt, a mechanical engineer-turned-software professional who hails from Kannur’s Mattannur and works in Bengaluru. “Kerala’s experience should be a model for other States,” he says.

The vibrant library culture is prompting private interest in setting up similar institutions in the State. For instance, in Thiruvananthapuram, Archana Gopinath, a young civil engineer, has set up The Reading Room, a bookstore-cum-library for, mainly, children. “Building the habit of reading in young minds is a must for building a sensible new generation,” she says. “My space is just one of the many such coming up in the State, where people who are driven by the pure passion for reading and social commitment are furthering the State’s achievements in creating and sustaining a culture of reading.” Clearly, the movement is on. In letter and spirit.