It’s hard to avoid cliché and hyperbole when writing about the pandemic and all its effects; the ground we stand on has shifted and continues to shift. It will take years for us to develop a new language for the changes we are seeing in all aspects of life: science, health, economy, politics, education, friendship and more.
Those of us who work in the free library movement, which is as much about bringing people together as it is about issuing books, have faced many challenges in the past few months. Here, I’ll talk about what the pandemic has meant to libraries and library members, and what we are learning about the future of reading, thinking and the importance of citizen participation.
The year leading up to the lockdown was a good one for The Community Library Project (TCLP). In our fifth full year, our total membership reached 4,000 and we issued close to 40,000 books. In addition to our first library in Sheikh Sarai, we were running two libraries in Gurugam –one in Sikanderpur and one in Sector 43. We were nearly finished with the construction of a major new branch in South Extension. We ran special programmes every week, ranging from poetry readings to science workshops.
Perhaps most importantly, we held more than two thousand read-alouds during the year, reaching a cumulative audience of 23,000. All library programmes are important. But over the years, we’ve learned that read-alouds are key to making readers, because in the communities we serve, they provide a bridge between living oral traditions and books. Our members have a right to, and a need for, both.
Then at the end of 2019, we learned that the trust that had for years donated space for our main library in Sheikh Sarai was selling the building and we’d need to relocate. A few weeks later, the NGO that had housed our Sikanderpur library pulled out of that partnership, leaving us searching for a new space for that branch as well.
Having to shift two libraries with two months notice would have been challenging in the best of times. It is always difficult to find good, affordable space in the NCR. In the end, we found new locations, but both required significant and costly renovation. We started packing up books in the first part of March.
Then the pandemic hit.
After reading the emerging literature on virus transmission, we shut our doors to members the week before Delhi schools did. We sent our staff home to catalogue books for our South Extension library. Because we had a non-negotiable March 31 deadline to vacate our largest library, small, masked teams of volunteers worked long hours to pack up books and furniture. We got the last load moved to a safe storage place the day before the Janta Curfew.
With the lockdown came even more bad news: a major CSR funder backed out of commitments they had made, dealing a significant blow to our financial stability. That hurt, but we knew there were more pressing things to work on.
Within days, our leadership council, comprising volunteers, staff and young member leaders, decided that in this time of crisis, community libraries had two important responsibilities: first, to continue to provide as many members as possible with access to quality reading material; and second, to act as a clearinghouse for information that our members and their families desperately needed.
I’ll talk about these separately; but overlapping teams of volunteers, staff and member leaders worked on both, starting from the first day of the lockdown. We’re very proud of the work we’ve done, but in both areas, we’ve had failures as well as successes.
Right away, the curriculum team faced an enormous problem: our libraries have been built over the years by face-to-face interactions. We have thousands of excellent books, but we gain and retain our members, many of whom are first generation readers and most of whom have never read a book outside of school, because we work very hard to follow three principles: first, All are welcome; second, we must do everything pyaar se; and third, Reading is thinking. Our libraries are places where members know they and their friends will be treated with respect and invited to think deeply about things that matter to them.
We knew that no on-line programme could ever match our in-person library programme, but we also felt our members had a right to the best resources we could offer. In the early days of the lockdown, the internet was exploding with read-alouds and other educational resources, but almost none of these were in Hindi, and many of them required access to large amounts of internet data and advanced smartphones.
We immediately started working to create quality digital read-alouds in Hindi.
First, we compiled lists of Hindi reading material from a wide variety of publishers, including Pratham Books, Eklavya, Tulika, Storyweaver and Ektara. Then, meeting by Zoom for the first time, we trained librarians, student leaders and volunteers to record high quality digital read alouds using open source books and free software, such as OBS, X-Recorder and Screencastify.
Having just learned these technologies myself, I wasn’t sure this would be possible, but there are few things that committed librarians and library movement activists can’t do when they put their mind to it. Within a week, we were producing excellent digital Hindi read-alouds.
The next problem we faced was how to get this material to our members. Some were active on our Facebook page, but we knew that most were not. Working with members of our student council and other member leaders, we decided that the most accessible medium for the communities we serve would be audio and video read-alouds designed for Whatsapp. We knew video read-alouds would be best, pedagogically speaking, but we also knew that some members could only access sound files.
Because of this, from the start, we created two versions of each read-aloud; one where the book’s pictures and the face of the reader were visible, and one with audio only, where listeners were encouraged to make pictures in their minds. Along with each story, we chose links to related on-line reading material.
We extracted phone numbers from our membership database and set up ten Whatsapp groups. On April 12, we launched Duniya Sabki, our on-line Whatsapp library. Since then, we’ve sent “issues” of Duniya Sabki to members three times a week; each issue contains a morning read aloud and an afternoon piece of reading material. Two weekly issues are aimed at young readers; once a week we target young adult and adult members. In addition to picture book read-alouds, we’ve sent science and arts and crafts activities, poetry, information about Covid-19, and many other things.
We knew that at best, we’d reach about half our members this way, and we’ve lost some in the past months as data packs ran out or families left Delhi. But even after all this, we still have 1150 member phones in our groups, along with over 200 educators and librarians. Link click and survey data suggests that in a typical week, we reach between 250 and 400 library members.
We’re proud of this engagement, but it’s not enough.
Until all students have access to devices and internet data, on-line education will never be universal or free. Our digital library reaches a few hundred members with read-alouds. But we know that few of them are actually reading books on-line. Part of this is their lack of data and access to devices. We have worked with community members and other NGOs on the #internetkholo campaign, which calls for free data for all Delhi students.
We’ve got some good press and a lot of retweets, but making real progress here will take time and will likely require action from both the government and the private sector. Increasing digital access is worth working for, especially during the pandemic. But in the long run, we don’t think excellent community libraries can or should be replaced by on-line programmes. Our experience suggests that the same is true for schools.
Once our Duniya Sabki Whatsapp library was up and running, we set out to share these resources and learnings with a larger audience. Now read-alouds, reading material, and teacher resources are available on TCLP’s website, and we also post regularly on YouTube and Soundcloud.
To pass on our learning, we’ve worked with the Azim Premji Foundation, the Community Library Network as well as independent volunteers and volunteers in companies including DK Books to train more than 50 librarians and library volunteers in how to access our material and how to make quality, accessible read-alouds and reading content available to diverse learners. We’ve offered our material and training free of charge to MCD and Delhi Government schools.
Although some Delhi teachers are already using our material, we don’t have an official partnership with Delhi schools yet; we are still hopeful, because we know we produce world class Hindi read-alouds, perfect for all kinds of young readers in the NCR.
We’re doing many other things. For example, we’re currently adapting our reading fluency program so classes can run on-line. This is exciting work, and we expect to begin our first batch on August 17. But in the long run, we know readers need real libraries, just as students need real schools. Of course health and safety must always be the priority, but Covid is not the only danger our members face.
Recently, as volunteers and staff have walked through the neighborhoods around our libraries, we’ve met many members who are not able to access our on-line programmes or any on-line classes. Talking to them, we are reminded that closing schools and libraries carry risks of their own.
Many members lack access to reliable information about all kinds of things, including Covid. And research shows that long interruptions in education can cause lifelong problems, especially for students from poor and working class families. We cannot solve these problems on our own, but we are reading as much current research as we can with the goal of opening our libraries as soon as we can do so safely.
Alongside this curriculum work, from the first days of the lockdown we understood that in times of crisis one job of any library or school is to provide good information about community resources. I come from a family of teachers, and I know my sisters in the US spent the first week of the lockdown calling the parents of all their students to tell them where and how to get food, healthcare and other essential services. The phone numbers they gave out worked; the food banks and hospitals were open.
We soon realised that things were different in Delhi.
During the lockdown we called more than 2,000 families of members. We learned that many government hotlines were impossible to reach. A few families were able to get e-ration cards, most were not; even with information and assistance from us, the system didn’t work for them. Some were able to get food served at Delhi schools, but the lines were too long and the distance too far for many others.
TCLP has never been a social service organisation: we do provide snacks and meals during library workshops, but our reason for being has always been to provide books and a welcoming place to think to anyone who walks through our doors. We were now confronted with a new reality: hundreds of families in our library community were in real distress because they did not know where their next meal would come from.
After much deliberation, we decided we had to act; it was not enough to provide information about resources when there were not adequate resources. We reached out to NGOs doing ration work and asked them to partner with us. Between April and mid-July, our volunteers helped deliver more than 1,500 ration kits to about 900 needy families in our library communities.
We were clear with members: these rations were from other organisations, we were only helping with the coordination and distribution. TCLP never funded this work directly, but even as our own resources were dwindling, our volunteers did everything we could to raise money for partner organisations.
Last week, we finally had to make the difficult decision to stop this work. Though the lockdown is over, we know many families are still in distress. But the reality is that organisations providing relief are also running out of funds, and we are a library, not a relief organisation; we cannot do this alone. We’re now calling families to tell them what we know about resources that do exist, but also to say that we are no longer able to help as we have in the past.
We’re surveying them to find out more about the reality of the situation on the ground. We’ll do our best to advocate for their needs, but we can’t pretend this is anything but a failure, not just of us in the free library movement, but of all of us in this great city.
TCLP has always been a lab where we develop and test practices that make for successful free libraries.
Now, as we move forward, we’re reflecting on what we’ve learned and where we need to go next. We know a lot more than we once did about how to provide excellent, accessible digital educational content to all kinds of readers and thinkers. But it is important to be clear about the limitations of these efforts. Many people in Delhi lack the devices and data to access web-based content, and even those children who do have access to phones and data will not learn as much on-line as they do in person.
The conclusions we can draw about ration work are more limited; we are librarians, not relief workers. But democracy is always richer and more effective when more voices are heard, and organisations like ours that depend on member leaders and community involvement have learned important things about the ways our city has both met and failed to meet many of the challenges we’ve all faced in the past few months. In years to come, free, community libraries will help produce more and more readers and thinkers who will in turn make this city more thoughtful, responsive and vibrant.
There are many challenges ahead; as an organisation which struggles each month to make payroll, we understand this only too well. Because of lack of funding, as I write this, we are informing our staff that we will have to cut pay and reduce hours to survive as an organisation. We hope this will be a short-term measure, because we know the longer it goes, the more well trained librarians and reading teachers we will lose. This will be a loss for our members, and for community libraries all over the country that look to us for resources and training.
This has been a difficult time for all of us. It is hard to see a silver lining. But if there is one lesson we can draw from this, it is that if we’re willing to examine and talk honestly and carefully about our collective failures, as well as our successes, there is a great deal we can learn from each other. The more we think together and talk with each other pyaar se, the better off we’ll all be.
Michael Creighton came to Delhi in 2005. He is a teacher, poet, and curriculum coordinator at The Community Library Project.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.