As the floodwaters rose on the night of August 15, several members of the Young Men’s Progressive Arts Club in Alappuzha rushed to their local library, one of the largest rural libraries in Kerala. They moved all its 15 heavy metal shelves containing over 18,000 English and Malayalam books to a temporary elevated stone platform. By the time they were done, the water was knee-deep. They had to leave and take refuge in relief camps.

They returned when the rains relented after five days, only to find the library ruined. “The shelves were knocked over and the books were lying scattered all over the place, under water,” said the arts club’s secretary Linu Joseph. “We retrieved 4,000 partially damaged books but the library lost books worth Rs 10 lakh.”

The library, set up in 1952 and run by the arts club, was the first reference library in Kuttanad, which is called Kerala’s rice bowl. It was pivotal in inculcating the reading habit among the region’s working class people. The library has over 1,000 members, including researchers and academics.

It will not be easy restoring the library to its former glory but Joseph and his friends have invested hope in the “book challenge” campaign, which is about to be launched by the Kerala State Library Council, a state-funded body that provides financial aid to libraries. The idea is for libraries across Kerala to collect at least one book from every home. These books will then be distributed among libraries hit worst by last month’s floods. The council aims to collect over 12 lakh books.

KV Kunhikrishnan, the council’s president, said the book challenge is the best way to tide over the crisis faced by the affected libraries. “It is difficult for the government to pump in massive funds to renovate libraries at a time when the state is going through a huge financial crisis,” he explained. “That is why we decided to launch a campaign to revive libraries with mass support.”

The floods destroyed books worth Rs 10 lakh in the Kuttanad library run by the Young Men’s Progressive Arts Club. Photo by special arrangement

Kerala has close to 8,500 libraries – at least one in every village – affiliated to the library council and they can achieve the target if each collects around 150 books. “This is going to be a historic event,” Kunhikrishnan said.

According to the council’s plan, volunteers from each library will visit homes in their area on a particular day to collect books, which will then be transported to a “central destination”. From there, they will be dispatched to the affected libraries.

The floods are estimated to have damaged 207 libraries, mostly in Alappuzha district, destroying over 25 lakh books worth Rs 9 crore. Kunhikrishnan said the damage may be much worse. “A final assessment will be done soon,” he added.

The library council is counting on publishers, youth and cultural organisations, and Malayali expatriates to make its campaign a success. “Some publishers have already announced their support,” said the council’s secretary P Appukkuttan. “This is a major cultural event to rebuild Kerala.”

The Nair Samajam Library in Chendamangalam lost around 13,000 books worth Rs 27 lakh in the floods. Photo by special arrangement

Reviving hope

The campaign has given hope to many libraries that have been struggling to restock their shelves.

The Nair Samajam Library in Chendamangalam in Ernakulam is one of Kerala’s oldest libraries. Inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1934, it housed over 27,000 books, including many rare titles, before the floods ravaged the village on August 14 and destroyed around 13,000 books worth Rs 27 lakh.

“Our library has 1,700 members,” said its secretary Ravikumar. “Besides, students from colleges in Ernakulam and Thirssur used to avail the facility for research and reference. The floods caused irreparable damage.”

He said the book challenge is “a move in the right direction” as it will especially help rural libraries damaged by the floods.

The library’s management has set itself the target of getting back all the lost titles before the state marks the first anniversary of the floods in August 2019. “We are pinning our hope on the book challenge,” Ravikumar said. “We hope Kerala won’t let us down.”