Those who like to read even in the slightest know all too well the joy of walking around a library, taking in the sight and smell of rows and rows of books – across genres, across the years and across continents. But was yours a private and paid lending facility, such as an old, not-so-tech-savvy version of a JustBooks, Eloor, or Librarywala, or was it a public library funded by the government? The difference is important as it determines the level of access a larger section of society has to it.

The UNESCO Public Library Manifesto defines a public library as “the local gateway to knowledge, which provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision making and cultural development of the individual and social groups”.

Less than a fourth of the required libraries

According to standards set by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions – a not-for-profit that works towards promoting equitable access to information – there must be one public library for every 3,000 people. This means that India, with a population of over 1.21 billion, needs more than four lakh public library units. This, against a current availability of approximately 60,000 libraries, which the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation, the central agency for library funding and development, provides financial and technical assistance to.

The foundation was set up in 1972 by the Ministry of Culture to “spread library services all over the country in cooperation with State Governments, Union Territory Administration and Organisations working in the field.”

Library services fall under the purview of state governments, but even as of 2009, only 19 states had adopted a library legislation, or a public libraries act, and the few who have recently enacted such legislations – Bihar, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Chhattisgarh – have low literacy rates.

Courtesy Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation, Preedip Balaji and Mohan Raju JS
Courtesy Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation, Preedip Balaji and Mohan Raju JS

Further, Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh have no library cess in their legislation, while Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh have no library legislation at all. A library cess is a tax used to finance and run public libraries. The tax collected towards library development on items can be used to pay the capital cost of buildings, assets and staff as well as recurring expenses such as the purchasing of books and subscriptions to magazines.

A state-wise analysis of data reveals that Tamil Nadu collects the highest cess – at 10% of the property tax paid by citizens – and Goa, the least, at 0.6% on Indian-made Foreign Liquor and other liquors.

But these numbers may not mean much. For instance, Karnataka’s Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, the civic body for Greater Bangalore, owes more than Rs 300 crore to the Department of Public Libraries, an amount outstanding since 2012. This has disrupted even basic services, such as access to newspapers, in the state’s libraries.

At a time when education is also becoming increasingly privatised – resulting in lack of access to affordable and quality education and schooling facilities – the absence of public libraries that ensure equal access to information is worrying.

The GLAM sector

In a digital world, galleries, libraries, archives and museums are all interconnected – many of them are accessible online and all of them serve as resources of information – and are grouped together under the GLAM sector.

All of them work towards collecting, preserving and providing access to learning and towards the development of resources such as books, journals, maps and films. But GLAMs for science awareness, arts conservation and networked access to scholarly resources are not integrative and developed.

Government-funded advanced Council of Scientific and Industrial Research laboratories; scientific and technical institutes such as IITs, NITs and IISERs; and public-funded central and state universities and their academic libraries that run on the taxpayer's money have access to multiple licenced e-journals and books, but are not open to the public.

This is, in large part, due to the high cost of electronic journals and databases, which can take up anything from 50-70% of a library’s budget. A typical journal article costs $32 to $41.

Unless cooperatives and consortia for cost-sharing and authorised licencing work together to enable access, they will remain unaffordable.

An example of this is at work in Switzerland. The Central Library Zürich, the city government, and the University of Zurich administration came together to create a library cooperative. The National License of Electronic Resources, initiated and funded by the Swiss government and the Consortium of Swiss Academic Libraries, was set up for public use. Thanks to this, the library and all its resources are open to the public without the need of a membership. A similar initiative in Germany is the DFG National License, which enters into agreements with electronic media acquisitions and tests innovative licensing models for the lay person.

Ending information poverty in India

Passing library legislations can only do so much – funding and implementing them are equally necessary if public libraries for all are to become a reality. Dwarika Banarjee decries the huge gaps between lawmakers and public libraries:

“At one end of the spectrum, the country can boast of a highly specialised information retrieval system, but at the other end stands the common man who has no access even to basic reading material or advice because of the lack of a public library network spread throughout the length and breadth of this vast country. While there is an 'information flood' in some places, there is an 'information drought' in many others."

As the spotlight falls on Independence Day on August 15 every year, National Librarian’s Day – August 12 – will pass by without a fuss.

But as India becomes smarter, more skilled and expands its digital prowess, it’s time that the government work towards setting up a licensed Digital Library Federation and creating a national policy to licence electronic resources to all the state, district and local libraries through a nationwide network. Now, that would give librarians a reason to celebrate.

B Preedip Balaji is Senior Associate Librarian, Vinay MS is Assistant Librarian and Mohan Raju JS is Associate (Academics and Research) at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore