In 2020, Vikram D’Souza – an entrepreneur involved in digital publishing, who develops virtual and physical museums – got an opportunity to help develop a library for the first-ever English-medium school in the village of Enayetpur in West Bengal’s Malda district.

It began a year earlier, in 2019, when MM Rahman – a trained veterinary surgeon who now works in New Delhi for the government – and his brother decided to establish an English-medium school in Enayetpur, his hometown, in memory of their mother who died in 2016 after a prolonged battle with cancer.

Rahman and his siblings had studied at Mount Hermon High School in Darjeeling.

“Enayetpur is one of the few backward villages of West Bengal as far as the socio-economic conditions and availability of education is concerned,” said Rahman. “We were privileged enough to attend a boarding school; we had an enormous library with a very good collection of books, well stocked with authors not just from India but from across the world. Enayetpur, however, is bereft of an English-medium school even today.”

The closest English-medium school is almost 25 miles away. Currently funded privately by them both, a trust will eventually be set up for the school, in the hope that it receives donations from well-meaning individuals and institutions.

Building a library during a pandemic

The construction of the Noor Jahan Memorial School was set in motion just a few weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. With the imposition of the nationwide lockdown on 23 March, what on-site hurdles did Rahman confront in Enayetpur? “Luckily enough, the workforce was on the campus already and stayed there through the lockdown. Our material had thankfully arrived just in time,” he said. “We made sure there was no movement of the workforce; the same team continued working throughout.”

The real challenge arose when D’Souza began the book donation drive – putting out requests for new or used books for children and young adults for the library – through social media platforms and WhatsApp in September. “We received instantaneous, overwhelming responses from across India, and have collected over 4000 books so far,” he said. Books poured in not only from Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, and Kochi, but also from Ranchi, Darjeeling, Mhow, Wardha, Itanagar, Dimapur, Mount Abu, Tirunelveli, Shimla, and even Paro. “We received a huge consignment from a family in Bhubaneswar, and author Prosenjit Das Gupta from Kolkata also sent a large number of books,” said D’Souza.

The team realised early that the idea of transporting all the books to Enayetpur immediately wouldn’t be practical. Classifying and cataloguing the books became a collaborative effort. “We are requesting the donors to share with us photographs of the front and back covers, as well as the publishing details of each title,” said D’Souza. “These are then fed into a software in a particular format, so that we know exactly what books we’re receiving.” Once a substantial number of books is gathered in each location, they will be shipped off to Enayetpur by road or rail, with Rahman paying for the freight.

Since the collection will keep growing, if there isn’t enough space in the library, each classroom will have its own dedicated space for books. At one point D’Souza had to temporarily stop accepting more books. “But I’m going to continue sending these messages because once Enayetpur is taken care of, we ought to extend the same model to many other village schools,” he said. “There are lots of books which can be usefully directed to rural areas. This has to be a social movement; it cannot be done by the bureaucratic machinery,” he added.

Why the library matters

Why was a library considered crucial for the new school? Since children everywhere are swift users of technology today, it is imperative to inculcate a habit of reading from early childhood, argues Rahman. “Reading books from a library and using technology as an educational aid have to go hand in hand,” he said.

Once the indispensability of a library was established, Rahman and D’Souza wanted to rope in an experienced educator to lead the project. Their choice was Debolina Ray, who has managed the library at the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy in Kolkata, and has been associated closely with teaching and library activities at the Singhania Schools in Kolkata and Thane.

For Ray, a school library is the nerve centre of the institution. “A library helps develop the curriculum, expand it, and cultivate the foundation of learning habits among children – which is not necessarily only reading book,” said Ray. As you grow older, you have to read the timetable or price tags or road signs, she reasons, laying out the beliefs behind the building of the library.

The library at the new school is intended to consolidate the curriculum for students and teachers alike. “We will incorporate a library period into the time-table of each class, along with research modules for teachers,” said Ray. “The teachers have to be proactive if they want their curriculum to remain dynamic. Today, a child will not be interested in learning if you give them just a drab textbook; you have to go beyond it, and that’s why the library is still relevant.”

Since the Noor Jahan Memorial School will be the only English-medium educational institution in Enayetpur, the library will primarily stock books in English. “We are toying with the idea of including some titles in Hindi and Bengali as well,” said Ray. “At some later stage, we might open the library to the villagers.”

A class library is crucial in other ways too. For instance, it will help the teacher with class management. “All 40 children will not have same levels of comprehension, curiosity, or the ability to grasp new learning. Small children love to share, and a class library would encourage them to do so. It becomes part of character-building. With the concept of a class library, children can also take books home. For smaller children (kindergarten to class three), a set of books will be segregated as their requirements will be slightly different,” explained Ray.

Expounding on the notion of a class library, Ray explained the growing significance of a junior library. “When you bring in a four-year-old into a library having tall stacks of books, a child feels intimidated and lost. The junior library is a section where the shelves are approachable, the books more colourful, and the children are simply allowed to be themselves.”

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.