In August, the Managing Director of the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation, administered by the Union Culture Ministry, revealed that the Modi government is planning to bring the subject of “libraries” to the Concurrent list of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution.

This would mean that both Parliament and state legislatures would be able to make laws to administer public libraries, with the central law taking precedence over the state law in case of a conflict.

Currently, the subject of libraries is placed in the State list of the Seventh Schedule, which means that only states are empowered to control how libraries in their territory are run.

The government’s proposal has been opposed by some southern states, most vociferously among them by Kerala. The move runs contrary to the spirit of federalism espoused in the Constitution, said library experts, and could undermine Kerala’s robust library culture.

Kerala’s library culture

In order to understand why Kerala is concerned about the potential intrusion into the administration of its public libraries, it is necessary to get a sense of the state’s distinctive library culture and governance framework.

Kerala has the largest number of public libraries in the country. The district of Kannur itself has over a thousand public libraries, which is more than most states in India have.

It is the only state to have given its public libraries autonomous status. Almost all the public libraries in the state are run by the local government of the town, city, village or panchayat area in which the library is located.

A public library in Wayanad, Kerala. | Screenshot of a documentary film by Anoop KR and Syamili C.

Members of the libraries elect members of a library council for each taluka. The members of the taluka library council in turn elect a district library council and the members of the district council elect members of the Kerala State Library Council.

The state library council is an autonomous body that monitors the administration of public libraries.

Most of the libraries in the state developed in the 1930s and 1940s, during the freedom movement, according to Kerala-based academic Mohandas P, who was the convenor of the academic committee of the Indian Library Congress held in Kannur in December.

KV Kunhikrishnan, president of the Kerala State Library Council, said that libraries were set up in the state as part of the Kerala reformation movement in the early 20th century. “Our robust, decentralised libraries foment a culture of free-thinking,” he said.

Syamili C, assistant professor at the Department of Library and Information Science at the University of Calicut, said that the state has fostered “a secular, progressive, and inclusive library system” that has gained international recognition.

“Kerala has a rich history of an influential library movement, which has led to the proliferation of libraries and reading rooms throughout the state,” she said. This movement, Syamili added, has been instrumental in promoting progressive political thought and popularising science.

Not just reading centers

Libraries in Kerala are more than just places where people can read books, experts said: they are seen as community centres.

“Libraries are the nucleus of village life,” Mohandas said. He likened them to “rural universities”.

Binoy Mathew, who is the librarian at a panchayati library in Kannur, said that each library can design its programmes as per the needs of its community. They also govern their own resource mobilisation.

“A library is not just a building,” Mohandas said. “It has its own ethos. Rural life in Kerala developed due to libraries.”

Kunhikrishnan said that libraries function as cultural and social centres, holding seminars, classes and book presentations for members of various age groups.

Thanks to read-aloud sessions, even illiterate people in Kerala have the opportunity to be exposed to books and cultures from across India and the rest of the world, he said. Such “social reading” – that is, a single person reading a book to other members of their family or community – has made ordinary Malayalis familiar with world literature.

Syamili said that the state’s libraries have played a pivotal role in fostering scientific temper, attaining universal literacy, reducing crime, and maintaining public health. “These positive outcomes are intrinsically tied to the effectiveness of our library culture,” she said.

Binoy Mathew at the library he works at. | Binoy Mathew

Centre’s proposal will stifle federalism

Those working closely with libraries in Kerala and other parts of India expressed concern that seeking to shift libraries to the concurrent list is inimical to federalism as well as to the functioning of community libraries.

A move towards centralisation would hurt the independent status of libraries, Binoy warned.

Kunhikrishnan pointed out that at present, even the Kerala state government doesn’t interfere in the affairs of its public libraries. “We follow an entirely democratic system,” he said. “The State Library Council provides suggestions to libraries for activities. There is no compulsion to do anything.”

The only condition that the state council imposes, he said, is that the libraries must spend at least 70% of the grants given to them by the state council to buy books. However, libraries are free to decide which books to acquire.

He said that the Centre’s “interference is not good for this democratic culture”. “If books are directly purchased by the government and distributed to libraries, and libraries are told what to do and what not to do, Kerala’s free-thinking culture and bottom-up library system will end,” Kunhikrishnan said.

Mridula Koshy, spokesperson for the Free Libraries Network, a collective of community libraries across India, said that the Constitution envisioned a certain sharing of powers between the Centre and the states. The proposed move “dismantles this by taking away from states that know what they are doing”.

Prachi Grover, co-director at The Community Library Project, a Delhi-based people’s initiative which runs three publicly-owned, free libraries in Delhi and Gurgaon, said that libraries must respond to their contexts and communities. “They work best as localised spaces,” she said.

Syamili added, “Libraries are inherently a state matter, and any encroachment by the Union government must be met with strong resistance.”

A read aloud session being conducted at The Community Library Project's library in South Extension I, Delhi | Mridula Koshy

Library reform actually needed

Experts pointed out that the Centre has a role in development and reform of public libraries but the role has to be distant and primarily that of providing monetary resources.

Mohandas said that the Centre may “modernise” libraries by sending funds to upgrade their infrastructure.

Grover concurred. “The Centre should not get involved in the day-to-day affairs of libraries,” she said. “It should only get involved in terms of laying out a larger policy and providing financial support.” Such a policy must, she said, recognise libraries as institutions essential to a democracy.

Kunhikrishnan said that the Centre should provide libraries with resources for digitisation and modernisation, and moving to “pucca buildings”, as well as to states for opening even more libraries.

He said that the Kerala State Library Council hopes to set up a library in each of the state’s 20,000 municipal and panchayati wards, which would require establishing 10,000 more libraries.

“Resource injection is welcome,” he said. “However, there should be no control over thinking, or on the cultural or intellectual freedom of libraries.”