Why India’s Smart Cities Need Smart Public Libraries
- Libraries provide access to digital services and also create physical spaces for creative deliberation among citizens.
- Public library infrastructure in India is in shambles and remains most neglected and under-funded.
- Even schemes such as ‘Startup India’ should be coupled with public libraries, as libraries can facilitate the research that entrepreneurs need.
A seminal research paper titled ‘Public Libraries in the Knowledge Society: Core Services of Libraries in Informational World Cities’ was published by Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany in late 2013. The paper analyzed the role of public libraries in developing “Informational Cities” and ranked 31 cities around the world according to their public library facilities. No Indian city made it to the list (China had 3). The research ranked two Canadian cities – Vancouver and Montreal – on top, followed by Chicago, San Francisco and Shanghai.
An independent survey conducted on the Vancouver Public Library found that 78 percent of Vancouverites had visited the library in 2013. Further, the survey found that “62 per cent of Vancouverites would simply not read the books they do” if they couldn’t borrow them from the Vancouver Public Library, and 94 percent supported spending tax dollars on the library even if they were not using it.
The Heinrich-Heine paper identified two critical functions of a public library in the creation of an educated society. First, libraries provide citizens, businesses and the administration in their city with digital services (80 percent of the public libraries analyzed provide access to online databases free of charge). Second, public libraries provide physical spaces for meeting, learning and working, as well as spaces for children in the city (77 percent of the libraries have meeting spaces and 97 percent offer special rooms for children or, as in Shenzhen, a whole library is tailored to children’s needs).
The most important expected derivative of a Smart City would be its ability to turn the society into an educated society, with the public library playing the role of an effective instrument in the transformation. As the Heinrich-Heine paper quotes, “‘Smart people’ (knowledge workers and other creative people) are in need of ‘smart librarians’ working in ‘smart libraries’.” Unfortunately, public library infrastructure in India is in shambles and remains most neglected and under-funded.
The concept of public libraries has been central to the development of Indian thought and scholarship. The library at Nalanda University was in fact the chief attraction for many Chinese travellers, who used to spend months there, going through original Sanskrit texts. The library of Nalanda was spread over three buildings and was called Ratnodadhi, Ratna-Sagara and Ratna-ranjakaa.
In modern India, the real pioneer of the concept of a public library was Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III, the Maharaja of Baroda. In order to promote the cause of universal education, he devised a scheme of free public libraries in 1910. These libraries were also vernacular in character. The Maharaja himself was a collector of over 20,000 books, but more importantly, he institutionalized the library system in his kingdom by appointing curators and even starting a library journal for the first time in India. He also started the Oriental Institute and Library with 6,846 printed books and 1,420 manuscripts in Sanskrit, Gujarati and other languages.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of public libraries in India (some surveys put it at around 54,896). Almost half of India’s states have not even passed library legislation (library service comes under the State List of the Indian constitution). The only advancement in recent years has been the establishment of the National Mission on Libraries as recommended by the National Knowledge Commission to develop ‘model libraries’ and virtual libraries.
It may be noted that way back in 1972, the Government of India had set up the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation, an autonomous body, to work with State Governments to “spread library services all over the country in cooperation with State Governments, Union Territory Administrations and Organizations working in the field”. In terms of expenditure per capita incurred on public libraries, the national average is Rs 0.07. By contrast, in the United States, the figure is at around $35.96.
Lack of proper legislation and bureaucratic difficulties apart, India faces an urgent need for massive public investment in developing quality public libraries. This investment is needed in all three spheres of library infrastructure: physical space, circulation content and digital library. Libraries are reservoirs of knowledge which need constant replenishment and upgradation, and therefore can’t be left to stagnate.
One of the best features of cities in the United States has been their ability to bring large sections of the population under public library services. Although investment in public libraries has fallen across the US lately, public libraries still add great value to America’s cities and towns.
The latest data released suggests that, on average, there are “1.5 billion in-person visits to public libraries across the US, the equivalent of over 4 million visits each day.” As per the recent survey report released in March 2016 on ‘Public Libraries in the United States’, for the year 2013, the total operating expenditure on public libraries was $10.9 billion, and $1.2 billion was spent on collections. On average, the number of books per 1,000 people stood at 2541.9.
Given India’s youthful demographics, reading has to become a public utility in the country. The report ‘Perspectives on Publishing in India 2014-2015’ quoted a survey conducted by the National Book Trust of India in 2010, which revealed that one-fourth of India’s youth – a staggering figure of 83 million – identify themselves as book readers. The report also states that “India is one of the few major markets in the world which is still seeing growth in both print and digital publishing”.
The public library system in India must trickle down right up to the Taluk level, if not to the village level, in the years and decades to come, especially bringing people access to quality vernacular content. While investment in digital libraries can help advance the current state of affairs, equal emphasis is needed on physical public libraries. The physical library should be a nodal point for learning, meeting and deliberation between young and old. Given the lack of public spaces in Indian cities, the public library would be a vital asset with the added benefit of spurring creativity in public thought.
On a broader framework, even schemes such as ‘Startup India’ should be coupled with public libraries, as libraries can facilitate the research that entrepreneurs need. Lastly, public libraries will also provide spaces for children, for reading and learning outside of school. Germaine Greer, the Australian writer, once described libraries as “reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark…” She added, “In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.”
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