Wednesday, November 15, 2006

India needs Libraries!

One of the pure pleasures of living in the West, and specially the US is the absolutely gorgeous public library system.

Every county that I've lived in has atleast one library, and I've applied for membership everytime I've moved. The public libraries are fairly well stocked, they have both fiction and non-fiction. The staff is helpful, curteous, and friendly, and there hasn't been a single library where I've encountered librarians as rough as those in Indian schools and colleges. Books can be reserved, so you can pick them up when they arrive. They can be requested from other county libraries, so you can get a book that your library does not have. Books can be returned any time of day or night in collection drop-boxes. You can check the catalogue, either at the library, or online. You can even check how many books you have issued, when they are due, and renew them, all online.

I've lived in a few cities before moving to Bombay, and none of them had any acceptable library system. My parents ended up buying all the books we read, and a few books were borrowed from friends. Even though my parents were very generous in how many books we could buy, I still read much less than I would have if there had been any decent library. The British Council Library in Bombay was the biggest library I had seen before I was at IIT, and even that had a very small collection. The IIT library was nearly devoid of fiction. Both those aren't even public. My wife had the misfortune of visiting a public library in India, and she doesn't wish to repeat that experience.

Why are we in India so devoid of good books? My guess is that the government spending on libraries is either too little, or, more likely, after the politicians have a go at it, almost none of it makes its way into a library. Bombay does have some book libraries run privately, but they too are shoddily stocked.

To make matters worse, I just read John Wood's facinating book: Leaving Microsoft to Save the World. John left a very lucrative career to start a company called Room to Read which donates books and sets up schools in third world countries: India, Nepal, Vietnam, Sri Lanka... It was a lovely read, and I found myself hoping that he had started sooner, and that my school had a Room to Read library. And I went to private schools for most of my school education in India! Even the library at Christ Church School in Bombay was very starved of books. It took a large room on the top floor of the school, but the room was nearly empty. I don't know of many people who used that room to read, or used its contents much.

India needs libraries, very badly right now. I think John's work is commendable, in that he is targetting the root cause of the lack of education. There are a few solutions out of this.

  1. An Indian Andrew Carnegie could fund a huge public library system. Getting Mr. Birla or Mr. Tata to set up a giant library in their hometown would be great publicity event. The gain in publicity might itself make the donation worthwhile.
  2. A private company could set up a library. It is cheaper to pay a monthly fee to a library than to purchase each book separately, and let it gather dust later. Using the netflix model, the company could set up collection centres on the edge of the city (keeping real-estate cost low), and either mail the books or allow people to come themselves.
  3. Local government could raise money from residents, and buy a large stock of books, and store it centrally.

Ultimately, it is upto us to do something about this.