The 17th Annual Status of Education Report, 2022, a nationwide survey that provides a snapshot of children’s schooling and learning in rural India, indicates that functional libraries in schools are still a far reality for most states in India.

The survey, the results of which were released on January 18, covered seven lakh children in 19,060 villages across 616 districts in India. The report comes at a time when children are back in school after prolonged periods of closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic through most of 2020 and 2021.

According to the report, there has been an increase in the percentage of schools with libraries across India between 2018 to 2022. But there has also been a dip – from 37.3% to 34.3% – in the percentage of public schools where library books are available. Most states witnessed a decline in the percentage of schools where library books are available, except eight: Assam, Kerala, Punjab, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Rajasthan, and Sikkim, which recorded an improvement.

A lack of requisite facilities persists despite the emphasis in the National Education Policy, 2020, on the importance of libraries in schools to provide an engaging and supportive environment for students.

Libraries as learning spaces

Libraries must be considered an integral part of schooling as they provide a space for students to explore and gain information literacy, essential for rounded education and growth. Libraries have the potential to address shortcomings in public schools as they create spaces for children to nurture the habit of reading.

A “library room” is one of the key provisions to fulfil the objectives of “access and retention” and “quality” of schools, according to the Centre’s Samagra Shiksha Scheme for education and learning. The National Achievement Survey 2017, conducted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, found that schools with a functional library reported better learning among the students.

It reported that, on an average, 91% of the schools in the 10 highest achieving states have a library in contrast to the 10 lowest achieving states – including Arunachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab – where only 62% of the schools have a library.

Various state governments have taken initiatives to improve the accessibility of libraries to students and to nurture the habit of reading among them. Karnataka has collaborated with civil society organisations to improve the infrastructure of school libraries. To ensure greater accessibility of library spaces for students, Tamil Nadu and Delhi linked public libraries with schools, while Andhra Pradesh set up a mobile library that visits public schools.

At a public library in Visakhapatna. Credit: Ashwin Baindur, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Libraries as resource centres

The Samagra Shiksha Scheme proposes that school libraries serve students as well community members during non-school hours. In essence, it envisions libraries as public libraries and resource centres, and not merely school libraries.

This is in line with the National Education Policy that requires school libraries be set up to serve the community members and facilitate reading. But such initiatives also require the allocation of more funds to procure books for different age groups and hire librarians and staff to manage the library during non-school hours so that it does not add to the responsibilities of teachers.

Creating linkages between schools and public libraries is mutually beneficial. This allows students to access a range of books while also allowing public libraries to interact with the community and inculcate a reading habit among users. Libraries in schools can also be supported by the guidance of the staff of public libraries, such that they cater to children’s literacy and reading needs, and are well-positioned to provide access to children to diverse reading material.

Bridging learning losses

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while presenting the Union Budget on February 1, had announced the setting up of a National Digital Library for children and adolescents. As a part of this move, state governments will be encouraged to set up physical libraries at the panchayat and ward levels and provide infrastructure to access the National Digital Library.

This effort to make up for the “pandemic-time learning loss” and encourage reading will facilitate the availability of quality books across geographies, languages, genres and reading levels, and device agnostic accessibility.

But as reported by Annual Status of Education Report, 2022, despite the pandemic, on an average, only 14.8% of the schools in all states have a computer available and this has been unchanged since 2018.

Without improving the information and technology infrastructure at the school level, setting up a National Digital Library will be of no value to the children. Creating digital powerhouses of knowledge will have no meaning until they are made accessible to students.

The role of libraries in schools has evolved. Today, they are not just to read books but are re-envisioned as spaces for the broader education and development of children, a gateway for knowledge and as an integral part of school education.

These critical spaces can also play a transformative role in the lives of students from marginalised communities by providing access to books, materials and a safe reading space.

It is time for the state governments to acknowledge the importance of libraries in schools and the role they can play in transforming the lives of children. In a society where the internet and technology have taken over even the library space, it is imperative to adopt a child-centric and community-driven approach to address issues surrounding school libraries. Otherwise, functional libraries in schools will always remain a distant dream.

Sneha Priya Yanappa and Avinash Reddy are Research Fellows at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.