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Keynote address at the Belongg Library Network Launch Event 

Education | Civil Society | Nov 28, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s Keynote Address at the Belongg Library Network Launch Event.

Belongg Library’s vision for inclusion and diversity is very welcome and timely. We need to find spaces and tools for people to be able to explore beyond their narrow horizons. People must be allowed the luxury of moving beyond blind certainty through blurry doubt to finally emerge in the dazzling sunshine and the humble knowledge that there is always more to learn, and a well-stocked library can enable just that. Libraries have always stood for something that is very important and close to my heart. My childhood was spent between the pages of books, where I would lose myself in stories with incredible characters who were so different from me but whose aspirations and adventures felt strangely familiar.

Back then, we didn’t have TVs or mobile phones to distract us, so books became my first glimpse of a larger world. To a young person, there is such a thrill in finding a bigger, wonderful universe that exists outside your small space. Books allowed me to enlarge my imagination and satisfy a deep curiosity that all children have and books continue to exert a hold over me – that is the involved nature of reading that makes them such a powerful tool for shaping the mind. For this reason, it is important that children and adults have access to a diverse range of books, because it helps us see beyond the binaries of black and white, and lean in to occupy the rich hues of grey that actually describe all our lives. These nuances can help children to be sensitive, empathetic, and critical thinking adults, but unfortunately, despite the advances made in the last 15 years, many children are still growing up without proper access to books.

In India, there is still only one book for every five children in urban India and one for every 10 in rural India, compared to countries like the UK where there are six or more books per child. And in our linguistically rich country, with 22 constitutional languages and 150 million people speaking in hundreds of other languages, most of our books are only printed in English and Hindi. This was the problem that some of us decided to tackle in 2004. Through the Pratham network, we had created so many readers who had nothing to read, so we felt that we had to do something to address this. We founded Pratham books then, with the mission of a book in every child’s hands, to truly democratise the joy of reading that so many of us have experienced ourselves. We wanted children from every corner of India to get good books in their own languages that were affordable, attractive, and inspiring. They needed to be stories and characters that were culturally approachable for them, but also ones that introduced children to the diversity of India, with people who may live differently, love differently, or think differently than them.

At Pratham, we learned the nuts and bolts of the publishing industry and soon we had dozens of books for young children, all simultaneously printed in up to 12 languages, which was a huge breakthrough. Since we were a non-profit, we could afford to subsidize the books, but we hope that this will create new opportunities for the entire publishing industry for children in India. We took a risk in trying out things that hadn’t been done before, and fortunately we succeeded in quickly becoming India’s largest children’s publisher. We realised the importance of innovating various new models, especially if we wanted to achieve our goals, so in 2008 we put all our books online under the Open Source Creative Commons license, and suddenly lots of books in many different languages became available to parents, children and teachers, completely free. It created a whole ecosystem, unleashing illustrators, writers, and translators from every corner of the country, collaborating to put out great stories for children to enjoy. Today, Pratham books has continued to innovate, taking the digital idea much further with Storyweaver, which I hope will be an important resource for the Belongg Library Network as well, providing incredibly diverse books in hundreds of languages free to access with just a click of a button.

But when it comes to digital, there’s often the concern that our beloved bookstores or libraries will become a thing of the past. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Research shows that we should not worry too much about readers accessing digital material, and that children who are able to access both digital and physical books are able to sustain their reading habits better than others. Increasing access to books through online mediums creates more readers, which is good for everybody including writers and publishers. Of course, we have to be vigilant about screen time and must not lose what Maryanne Wolf describes as our ‘deep reading brain’, which has evolved over millennia to help us decode, reconstruct meaning, and stay with something till the end.

Libraries do play a vital role in that respect, and in my work with both Pratham books and Akshara Foundation, we have invested a lot of time in creating and activating libraries in the classroom as well as community libraries. For example at Pratham books, classrooms received small, portable bookshelves, which could be kept at a low level so children can easily access them. Similarly, Akshara had a classroom library initiative which provided classrooms with foldable bookcases, each holding 122 age-appropriate books in multiple languages, and the number of books borrowed and the reading levels were recorded. This infrastructure is needed, not just in schools, but also outside in society, as gateways to knowledge and culture. Libraries play a fundamental role and the resources and services they offer create opportunities to support not just literacy and education, but also to shape new ideas and perspectives that are central to creative thinking and innovative society.

According to the 2011 census, India only has one rural library for 11,500 people and one urban library for 80,000 people. Moreover, there is no precise information on the functionality and the level of service capabilities of these libraries. Per capita expenditure on the development of public libraries is 7 paisa. Contrast this with the country like the US, where the public library system provides services to 95.6% of the total population, and they spend $35.96 per capita annually. I have to acknowledge my own personal debt to the public library system of America. Right after I got married in 1982 until 1989, my husband and I would often travel to America because Infosys used to do a lot of on-site software projects. I spent those years in different cities with really not much money to sustain us. It was the free public library system that came to my rescue, especially in the cold dark winters where you couldn’t do much else. In some ways, I believe that my support for Pratham books, Akshara Foundation, and other educational initiatives like Ekstep, is my effort to repay a part of this huge debt.

The important thing to note here is that funding for libraries in many Western countries is primarily local. In the US and Europe, 80% of funding comes from local councils rather than national funds. This is really something for us to think about in this country, especially in urban India. Out of India’s 29 states and seven union territories, 19 states have passed State Library legislation, but only five of them have the provision of a library cess or levy, and even when there is a cess level it may not reach the library system at all. I remember in Janaagraha, we did a public citizen budgeting exercise and we realised as we did the research that the municipality of Bangalore owes lakhs and lakhs of rupees to the public library system, but nobody knows how to extract this.

In this dysfunctionality, efforts like Belongg have a really valuable role to play to just enhance the public culture of supporting libraries. Decentralised initiatives are terribly important, not just from a resourcing perspective but because libraries are not just to our houses for books, they are spaces to build community around, where people can create a common vision for the kind of society they want to build, and this works best at the local level. It will help in advancing inclusion, reducing the terrible polarisation we are witnessing, and strengthening our democratic processes. These ideas of inclusion and diversity should not end up making Belongg an island or silo, but should be mainstreamed, and the work folded into a larger, growing, evolving philosophy and practice of making our societies the best they can be for everyone.

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