The Free Libraries Network (FLN), a coalition of free libraries and librarians advocating for free library access and the right to read in India and South Asia, are part of the Festival of Libraries on August 5 and 6, 2023, in New Delhi. This conference focused on the library landscape in India, will give FLN the opportunity to discuss the need for a public library system that offers free access to books and information to all people.

At the conference, FLN will highlight the potential of a free library to promote reading, thinking and community discussions, as well as to undo the exclusion that certain communities have faced while seeking literacy or education. It will also appeal for a policy that guarantees free library access to all. Speaking to Scroll, FLN director Purnima Rao said public libraries aren’t merely an “infrastructure” problem – they can’t be built by simply constructing buildings and stocking books and computers. A library can only be successful when it is a welcoming space for all kinds of readers to share their ideas. She also spoke about the need for libraries in a country like India, how the governments can help, and more. Excerpts from the conversation:

The Free Libraries Network consists of more than 200 libraries, with the involvement of like-minded people and some of the most prominent Indian publishers. How did the Network start? And in what ways has it grown over the years?
The seeds for the Free Libraries Network were sown around six years ago, when grassroots community libraries across India began talking to one another in the hopes of deepening their own understanding of librarianship, of how to serve their readers better, and of seeking material support. What became clear was that everyone – despite a crippling lack of monetary resources – believed that their library and all its programmes must be free for all. This is not a radical idea when one looks at reading from a rights perspective – for some of our most disenfranchised and under-served populations are kept away from accessing books and other knowledge and information resources.

In 2019, we began to build the structure of our organisation based on a peer-sharing and solidarity framework. Every FLN-affiliated member runs a free library in their village, small town, metropolitan city, neighbourhood, prison community, and elsewhere. They each offer FLN whatever they have “more of” – it could be access to excellent books, connections with publishers, expertise in curriculum or best practices, legal and fundraising knowledge or any other librarianship asset. Above all, what each FLN member offers the Network is solidarity in the free library movement.

You are all set to participate in the Festival of Libraries organised by the Indian government. What are some of the key issues you want to raise?
We have three key issues that we wish to raise:

  • Libraries must be free for all.
  • India needs a National Policy for free public libraries.
  • The Right to Read and the Right to Information are fundamental to India’s public library system.

This is our detailed campaign:

In what ways have the central/state governments come to your aid? Would you say governments are trying to help libraries function smoothly?
The Free Libraries Network comprises grassroots and community-led libraries that have been left out of the reckoning when one talks about India’s public library system. However, these are thriving libraries with active membership because they create library programming and practices that invite even the most excluded members of their community into reading and learning.

As per the National Mission on Libraries’ mandate, India’s public libraries are long overdue for a rehaul, which includes supporting non-government libraries and creating access to reading. But we have yet to feel the impact on the ground. Public libraries remain inaccessible to India’s vast majority [Surveys indicate there is roughly one rural library for every 11,500 people and one urban library for over 80,000 people in India], and we do not in fact have nearly enough functioning libraries to serve a population of 1.4 billion people.

FLN is demanding sweeping reforms in the public library system along the lines prescribed in the 1986 draft policy. State-run public libraries have incredible potential to have “last-mile” reach to each and every reader but for that, they will have to champion the following ideas

  • Libraries must be free.
  • They must work on community engagement through library curricula, best practices, and inclusive policies that respond to the needs of India’s majority populations who have never been invited into reading due to systemic barriers like caste, class, religion, gender, disability, etcetera.
  • They must be state-funded, but not governed by state/political party agendas. They must respond to and be led by the aspirations of the communities they serve – especially their most vulnerable members.

You have been around for a while now. How are readers engaging with libraries? For instance, readers of which age groups / economic backgrounds / educational backgrounds are more likely to access a library?
A successful library is one that understands the needs of different groups within its community and devises programming for them. For example, a strong, free library roster would include programmes for babies, infants and toddlers; it would serve struggling readers, new readers, and readers with disabilities; it would have health and wellness workshops for teens, new mothers, and senior citizens; it would organise information sessions like how to secure a labour card for workers, migrant labourers; it would create women’s reading circles, sessions on gender and sexuality, poetry evenings, and more.

A library will never be empty, its books will always be issued out in the community, and it will create generational reading traditions within the family framework if it listens, responds to, and serves its people well.

The Lets Open a Book library in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. | Image credits: The Free Libraries Network.

The central and state governments have schemes for free and equal access to education for children. Has the Network found any schemes that address the lack of public libraries and reading spaces?
No. Nothing that actually has a real impact on the ground.

Libraries are becoming increasingly rare in Indian cities. What do you think the reasons might be?
There is no national library policy that requires state and local governments to provide people with libraries. If such a policy existed it would create a funding base and set per capita goals for library services and define those services according to standards and guidelines such as those outlined by the International Federation of Library Associations – everything from the minimum number of items that can be said to constitute a library collection (2,500) to digital access and the requirement to serve children and people with low literacy or disabilities.

Bookshop owners have been vocal about how online giants like Amazon have eaten into their business. Footfalls have been low too. Only a very few bookshops seem to be doing well. When bookshops are faring so poorly and libraries are closing down, how do you think the Network can transform the way we read and understand books?
Libraries, publishing and bookstores are part of the same ecosystem and have a shared goal – to promote reading by creating access points to books and knowledge resources. When readers have unfettered access to thousands of books through a diverse collection, they develop their reading appetites and skills. This in turn leads to new writing and literary movements. When this happens, bookstores and retailers feel the impact. Readers invest in books, they want to buy and build personal collections for themselves, their families, and the community. FLN promotes the growth of an empowered reading population through reading curriculum, standards and best practices – these are mechanisms by which more readers are added to the population. More readers positively impact everyone – libraries and bookstores alike.

Can you share a success story or two?
The member libraries of FLN are free and open to all. These two principles are successfully held to, despite extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But then every one of our libraries is a thriving space filled with readers, most of whom would never have had the opportunity to read anything but a school textbook outside the library. Our libraries stay open not only for our members but because of our members. They do the work of coming in even when generations of exclusion have placed great constraints on their entry into reading. Once inside they read to and with one another and many have gone on to become library movement activists who are determined to create an inclusive space for all kinds of readers.

What are some of the most difficult challenges of running this Network?
The Network’s challenges are actually challenges faced by readers and librarians across India.

  • Accessing knowledge and information resources is commensurate with the massive demand across India. India has hundreds of millions of readers and potential readers, who are not getting access to the kind of books, reading programs, and libraries they need.
  • Sustaining free libraries from year to year without any funding or infrastructural support for perpetuity.
  • Lack of standards and guidelines that govern what an excellent free library looks like, what services it should provide its members and how it addresses access issues related to the right to read and right to information. National library policy that focuses on “free” must provide frameworks for this.
  • Systemic barriers like barriers of caste, gender, class, religion and disability prevent books and information from reaching every citizen of India.

You mentioned there’s a significant demand for public libraries in India. Do you think this demand will be fulfilled soon?
That’s what we hope for and demand in the free library movement. However, it won’t work if we look at public libraries as an “infrastructure” problem, that is, building thousands of library buildings and equipping them with books and computers. They will still run empty unless libraries make a concerted effort to create a welcoming space for everyone to meet over books, stories, ideas, and more.

FLN recognises that library reform and free public libraries will only be realised with the recognition that historic barriers like the caste system must be dismantled. The change will only come when this is considered a problem of access and human rights. We will be championing the right to read and the right to information through free public libraries at the upcoming Festival of Libraries in Delhi on August 5 and 6, 2023.

The Kitap Katha Koi library in Jorhat, Assam. | Image credits: The Free Libraries Network.