New Delhi: The Delhi Public Library (DPL), an autonomous public library system under the Union Ministry of Culture, lost more than a sixth of its members during Covid-19, a parliamentary committee noted in December 2022. Despite a free membership drive for the next four months, the numbers did not reach pre-pandemic levels, IndiaSpend found.

Readers and experts say the libraries need more books by foreign authors, greater seating capacity, more facilities such as eating areas and lockers, and more accessible libraries across different localities in Delhi, to push up its membership.

In 2022, the Delhi Public Library had a membership of 150,000, down from 185,000 prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. DPL reported that in the four months of the membership drive, the library saw an increase in membership of approximately 20,000 people--that is, 5,000 a month against their usual new membership rate of 2,200 a month.

In addition to the membership fee waivers, DPL conducted outreach programmes and membership form distribution, and approached educational institutions to increase awareness of the service and drive engagement. Yet, by March 2023, the numbers were at 170,000, short of pre-pandemic levels.

IndiaSpend visited Delhi Public Library’s five branches--the main branch at Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Marg near New Delhi Railway Station, the North Zone branch in Ashok Vihar, the South Zone branch in Sarojini Nagar, the East Zone branch in Shahdara, and the West Zone branch in Patel Nagar--to examine the facilities and the problems that members were facing.

Further, we reached out to the Ministry of Culture and the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation--responsible for overseeing the public library system--for their comment on the reduced membership, the issues raised by the members, and for their plans to improve membership, via call and email. This story will be updated when we receive a response.

Paucity of relevant books, facilities

Most members that IndiaSpend met said the free membership drive alone was not an incentive to join the library, though it did act as an added gift. Aisha (she uses one name), 23, a student of gender studies at Delhi University and a member of DPL’s main branch in Old Delhi, said that while the library facilities “are great”, the lack of books by foreign authors poses a challenge.

“My subject of study demands that I engage with different schools of thought from across the world,” Aisha said. “Not having access to this literature does hold me back. You can access many of the texts online, but iconic authors like Judith Butler are not available.”

DPL currently holds books in English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, totaling around 1.6 million books on subjects such as computer science, information technology, philosophy, religion, Hinduism, social science, economics, political science, international relations, language and linguistics, physics, chemistry, zoology, botany, medical science, engineering, literature, fiction, history and geography, among others.

Zeba (she uses one name), 18, who has only recently joined DPL’s main branch, says that there is a shortage of seating facilities and that a lot of people use the open park space to read. “The facilities are good, but the seating capacity is too low,” Zeba said. “We sometimes have to wait for a while to find space, and this is even after the staff adds extra chairs when the capacity is full.” She added that while the women’s room is an added benefit, poor ventilation in the space creates suffocation.

Mayank Jha, 28, has been a member at the DPL main branch for over two years now. He says, “While the infrastructure is good, there is a major lack of charging ports as well as seating space.”

Of the five public libraries IndiaSpend visited, the Shahdara Delhi Public Library and the Patel Nagar Delhi Public Library are not wheelchair-accessible. While the Ashok Vihar Library does have wheelchair-accessible infrastructure, the currently non-functioning lift makes the reserved seats for people with disabilities on the top floor effectively unusable.

Too few libraries, too many people

The Delhi Public Library was established by the Ministry of Education, Government of India, in 1951 with financial and technical assistance from UNESCO. At present, the Delhi Public Library is functioning under the administrative control of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

UNESCO started DPL as a pilot project aimed to develop public library services in “adult and fundamental education” throughout India and in other Southeast Asian countries.

The IFLA-UNESCO Public Library Manifesto 2022 says the public library is the local centre of information and a creator of community--it provides equal and free access to library services and provides information of all types, including remote access. The Manifesto also proclaims that the public library is free from censorship and commercial pressures.

The manifesto defines a public library as an institution that is financed from public funds, is well located, equipped, sufficiently staffed and materially provided, professionally managed, and incorporated into relevant legislation and long-term strategies.

At the moment, we do not have reliable data on the number of public libraries in India. According to RRRLF, India has 46,746 public libraries. Of these, 19,075 are run by NGOs or trusts. A 2014 report by the Ministry of Culture relies on a survey that says we have 54,846 public libraries. The 2011 National Census had identified 75,000 libraries--70,817 in rural areas and 4,580 in urban areas, catering to a population of more than 830 million and 370 million respectively, as reported earlier by IndiaSpend. This means that there is, on average, one urban library for 80,000 people.

The Delhi Public Library has 37 branches across NCT Delhi, essentially meaning that one DPL branch services approximately 559,000 people--with variations in districts depending on population density and location.

According to the Delhi Economic Survey 2022-23, Delhi’s population is estimated to be approximately 20.7 million. This means that DPL has a membership of 2.7% of the city’s population.

Arundhathi (she uses one name), 31, Assistant Professor at Jindal University, is a former resident of East Delhi. “The problem with accessing public libraries,” she says, “is that there are very few of them to begin with and information about them is hard to come by.”

“I wish there were more public libraries at the locality level. For instance, I never really had one in East Delhi where I grew up.”

Anuj Choudhary, 20, is an undergraduate student at Delhi University's Ram Lal Anand College. “I am one of those people who loves reading and I’d love to go to public libraries frequently, but haven't been able to,” he told IndiaSpend. As a result of the lack of access, he ends up buying books or reading e-books which is an added expense.

In 2021, Choudhary attempted to get a membership at the South District Delhi Public Library. “I am not from Delhi, but the library wanted an electricity bill as residential address proof which I do not have because the bill comes in the name of the landlord. They don't even accept rent agreements.”

Due to the red tape, Choudhary had to opt for a more expensive membership at the British Council Library. “It is an added expense, and I would have preferred to have access to a public library.”

Piyush Jha, 20, ranked third in the country in the ‘Economically Weaker Sections’ category in NEET 2023, an all-India test for admission to undergraduate medical education. Speaking of his preparation for the competitive exam, he said that he accessed a private library to have the space to study. “The closest Delhi Public Library is too far from me and the added expense for travel is not affordable. It’s cheaper to go to a private library that I can walk to.”

A large number of members who access the Delhi Public Library do so to prepare for competitive exams. However, the members that IndiaSpend spoke to said the library’s collection of books essential for preparation is neither sufficient, nor frequently updated.

Pawan Kumar, 26, joined DPL Sarojini Nagar about four months ago, with the goal of preparing for the Union Public Service Commission exams. "We come here with our own materials,” he said. “The books here for exams are not updated, so some of the study material is outdated and we have to get our own."

While DPL's main branch at Old Delhi has a park that people use to read, have lunch and get some fresh air, all the other libraries IndiaSpend visited had no such space for members to have lunch, chat, or study together. The South Delhi branch has a few benches that members use for lunch, but these are in the parking lot. These open spaces get too hot in the summer to be of any use.

Priyanka Jha, 21, a member at DPL Patel Nagar, says the lack of space causes considerable inconvenience. When IndiaSpend met her, she was having lunch on the stairs, her tiffin box balanced on the window ledge.

“It would be nice,” she said, “if there was a place for us to sit peacefully and have lunch. The facility of lockers would help too--our study material is bulky, it's difficult to carry it every day. Having locker space where we can store our books for longer periods would ease our experience.”

Policy failures

Libraries in India are a state subject. At the moment, there is no national legislation or policy on public libraries. Public libraries function through state legislation.

S.R. Ranganathan's Model Library Act, as per a 2022 paper, which offered free and open access to public libraries with a statutory commitment to funding in the form of a compulsory library grant and cess, was the first attempt to create a national framework to establish a public library infrastructure. However, the provinces rejected this, so it did not become law. The Model Public Library Bill of 1942 and the Union Government Bill of 1948, both intended to be applicable to the entire nation, were drafted but never passed.

According to the Ministry of Culture website, six libraries are under the ministry’s administrative supervision: The National Library of India, Kolkata; Delhi Public Library; The Rampur Raza Library, Rampur; The Khuda Baksh Oriental Public Library, Patna; The Central Secretariat Library; and Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library, Thanjavur.

The Ministry of Culture does not have a department designated for public libraries. At the moment, Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF), established in 1972, is the nodal agency of the Government of India with the responsibility to oversee the public library network and systems in India.

The National Mission on Libraries (NML) was set up by the Ministry of Culture (MoC), launched on February 21, 2014 with a budget allocation of Rs 400 crore to be spent over three years. NML was set up as an outcome of the 10 recommendations made on libraries by the National Knowledge Commission in its Report to the Nation (2006-2009).

The Mission recognised the pivotal role of libraries and intended to ensure sustained attention to the development of libraries.

It set four major goals for itself: Creation of National Virtual Library of India (NVLI), Setting up of NML Model Libraries to upgrade six MoC libraries, 35 State Central Libraries and 35 District Libraries, Quantitative & Qualitative Survey of Libraries, and Capacity Building for development and training of library personnel.

The Qualitative and Quantitative Survey of Libraries, undertaken under the National Mission of Libraries (NML), started in 2014--the results of which were only published in 2019.

Madhumita Kumar Rajan of the Free Libraries Network, authored a paper in 2022 that analysed the public library infrastructure through the study of NML. She points out that the survey was based on data collected from 5,140 libraries and 7,120 citizens, 5,000 of whom were public library users.

The sample size represents 0.01% of India’s population, and drawing insights and making recommendations for the whole country on this small data set is worrying, Rajan wrote. The observations that some library services can be fee-based misses the overall mandate of NML, “which is to promote establishment of a library infrastructure as a public good”, she added.

While the NML is a much needed intervention, it is a “colossal disappointment”, which follows the legacy of failed national interventions, the paper says, adding that ‘missions’ are time-bound and “cannot be depended on for libraries to have a permanent footing”.

Reimagine the reader

Prachi Grover is co-director at The Community Library Project (TCLP), a free and open access community library in Delhi NCR with three branches. TCLP has worked extensively on the question of public library reform in India, and helped develop curriculums and best practices. She argues that the success of a library is dependent on the curriculum and practices that it develops.

“These systems don’t only have to do with membership and readership, it has to do with community engagement, care and ownership of the library by the people,” she pointed out. The systems in place allow for the library to function as an information centre as well as a space where knowledge can be generated and disseminated from within the community.

“Libraries need to reimagine what the reader looks like,” Grover said. “Libraries should match the socio-political realities of the people. The public library system in India needs to reimagine the reader itself--the conditions of our country don’t allow us to restrict our definition of a reader as someone who knows how to read. We need to build an infrastructure that is accessible and accommodative of all communities regardless of the ability to read.”

TCLP runs community-integrated programmes to include people from all backgrounds, ensuring literacy programmes for adults, women’s reading circles, daily read-aloud sessions, as well as focused programmes for teaching children how to speak, read, and write.

Grover points out that free libraries will drive up people’s engagement with public libraries. “The fact that Delhi Public Library is running free membership drives to drive up membership numbers means they know that libraries being free is a necessity,” she points out.

She notes that it is absurd for libraries to charge separately for self-study rooms, and more so to charge anything from members who are Below Poverty Line (BPL). TCPL’s argument is that the services of the library need to match the realities of the people that it services.

The mission statement on the Delhi Public Library website states that the “Delhi Public Library was started with the objective of providing a free public library and information services to the people of the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi. The Library also acts as a community centre for informal education and a model for public library development in India. Delhi Public Library serves the needs of all members of the community especially of Neo-Literates and Children without any distinction of class, creed, occupation, race, sex etc.”

Despite this mission statement, however, the Delhi Public Library does not as on date have any specialised programmes to engage people with different abilities and capacities, let alone engage readers who can’t read. It is also not free--the annual membership fee is Rs 100 (General) and Rs 25 (for BPL card holders), plus a monthly fee of Rs 200 (General) and Rs 100 (for BPL card holders) for Self Study rooms.

Grover argues that the fee structure does inhibit increased membership, without serving a useful purpose. “The funds thus collected are too low for it to help run the library,” Grover notes. “Thus, it essentially acts as a barrier for engagement with the library.”

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