Thieves don’t read, readers don’t steal

The number of functioning libraries across the world, which stood roughly at about 4 lakh libraries a decade ago, has now whittled down to a little over three lakh libraries.
Thieves don’t read, readers don’t steal
Representative Image Reuters

On the solemn occasion of World Book Day that just passed us by last week, and yes, we might refer to it as a solemn event, it becomes imperative to dwell upon the devolution of this everyday activity over the past few decades. An activity that has sustained generations of girls and boys, both young and old, inculcating a sense of wonder, curiosity and above all, empathy regarding the world around us and the denizens who populate it, is now being considered an oddity, as it is ranked way down on the list of hobbies, alongside other ‘pastimes’. And that de-prioritisation of reading is reflected in the manner in which community spaces meant for the shared experience of reading have begun diminishing in cities across India.

If the numbers derived from global sources such as International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, as well as the Global Library Statistics are to be believed, we might be staring at a dreary future, as far as public reading spaces are concerned. The number of functioning libraries across the world, which stood roughly at about 4 lakh libraries a decade ago, has now whittled down to a little over three lakh libraries. In India, more than 5,000 public libraries closed their doors to readers in the decade that went by. Patronage aside, there have been other drivers for this slump as well. The COVID-19 pandemic had hit public and private libraries in a big way. Many libraries in the NCR region including New Delhi had shut down post the pandemic on a temporary basis, and had begun functioning digitally.

Nationally, we have as many as 70,000 public libraries. However, the financial resources dedicated towards running these haloed institutions can barely cover 50% of these libraries. The government’s nodal agency that has been created to support public library services and systems is called the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF). Its annual budget runs to Rs 100 crore per year, through which it manages to support about 34,000 public libraries under different schemes.

Having said that, it should be noted that maintaining a public library is a State subject, which is afforded a priority as decided by the local administration. For many students hailing from economically challenged backgrounds, a public library is perhaps the only source for free and easy access to study material and as well as an avenue to develop one’s reading habit. Encouragingly, here in Tamil Nadu, where we have 4,531 odd-public libraries, the government is determined to keep public reading spaces alive, as part of its overall social justice vision. A few months ago, Chief Minister MK Stalin had laid the foundation stone for the Kalaignar Memorial Library which is coming up in Madurai. The public library will have facilities on par with the Anna Centenary Library in Chennai. The government is also keen on conducting book fairs in all districts of the State in line with the annual Chennai Book Fair. The decision to set up a permanent book park in the State also comes as a ray of hope for bibliophiles here.

Interestingly, a shot in the arm for public libraries in the State is the government’s acknowledgment that there is an issue of lack of funds that plagues such institutions. This, in turn, affects the development work of the Libraries Department. As a remedial measure, the State has decided to revisit the Public Libraries Act, 1948, and the Public Libraries Rules, 1950. An amendment, when brought into force, will ensure a permanent source of funding for such temples of knowledge.

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