Vox Populi: Decline of the Library

In the age of the Internet, in a world where Google seems to have all the answers, do people still have library memberships? Do they still go to libraries? Is the library itself still widely accessible and as relevant as it was in the last century? Can their decline be stemmed? Can libraries be saved? Do they need to transform in order to survive? If yes, how and in what ways? We spoke to some people and asked for their views, opinions, thoughts, ideas and suggestions.
Avik Chattopadhyay, a senior automotive industry professional based in Gurgaon, co-founder at Expereal India and Emote AI:

I have had many library memberships. As a child, was a member of the British Council and the Soviet Cultural Centre. Used to be an avid user of the Delhi Public Library. What a wonderful concept it was, sadly taken away! Even now I use my parents’ membership of the Habitat Library Centre at India Habitat Centre on a regular basis.

Libraries have to keep pace with the ever-changing lifestyles and need states. They cannot remain like they were 50 years ago. They need to be tech-enabled, allow digital reading too, allow scanning and printing, have weekend book reading events, hold gene-based festivals and much more. The Habitat Library is a good case study, which is why it is so popular.

Publishing houses and bookstores have to come together and build new-age libraries. If places of worship can become modern, why not the library.

Dhirender Nirwani, based in Goa, co-founder at CraftGully:

Library? Now that’s been a while. From what I remember them as, I doubt they would continue to be relevant. One possibility could be for them to build on the legacy interpretation of library, and function more as book clubs, conduct events and activities to draw book readers, or for that matter anyone looking to learn more about something new. Serve as a space for people to meet, discuss topics of interest to them, know more about relevant trends and topics, have a cup of coffee, try out a different activity – in short not just a place to come to borrow a book, but a place to meet and engage with people.

Smita Khanna, literary agent with Jacaranda Literary Agency, Singapore:

It has been a little difficult to physically visit an actual library in the recent past, but Singapore’s National Library Board has an amazing online database and we can borrow books online to read, which I was very happy to do. My children love visiting the library so we do go there on weekends for them now, since they don’t use a Kindle. I think we can never underestimate the importance of libraries in any community – they are the temples of knowledge and intellect and we must continue to encourage our children and younger generations to visit them and use their resources as much as possible.

Unfortunately, technology does seem to be diminishing their importance, but I don’t think a library is just a repository of books. It is also a meeting place for like-minded people, a venue for intellectual discussions, and a powerhouse of organization and discipline. I think we should continue to visit them, as much for the books as for their value and what they represent.

We can save libraries from falling into decline in several ways, the most obvious being by becoming members and visiting them as often as possible. Donating books to libraries, volunteering time with them, organising book-related events in libraries instead of fancy venues and in the case of Indian libraries, making them more comfortable and welcoming for people, will all be helpful ways.

Murali Menon, Mumbai-based senior journalist, and the author of The God Who Loved Motorbikes:

I rarely visit libraries. I guess I should.

Marco D’Souza, a former tech journalist who’s now based in Gurgaon and works for Google:

I visit libraries primarily to buy books for my daughter, and for presents for other kids. I think libraries continue to be integral to society – for children especially, who can be introduced to the immersive world of stories like only a physical location and the congregation of kindred spirits can deliver. While libraries have gotten impacted by the proliferation of digital formats, they still can prevail by being beacons of the interactive experience of seeing and physically browsing through books. Also, I’ve seen kids rapt with attention when they hear their favourite author being read – storytelling and live reading is the magic that can still draw people to libraries.

Vinay Varma, an independent scholar, philosopher, social scientist and poet, currently based in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh:

A middle-class person, even from an academically oriented family like mine can only buy so many books. Libraries fuel reading culture. In Chandigarh, I mostly relied on two libraries – the Panjab University Library during my university days and the Tarlok Singh Central State Library during college and university, besides the DAV College Library when I was studying there. I also had access to the school library at school, and the Panjab University Staff Club library. In the two main libraries I used, I had developed a photographic memory of positions of books on shelves. I could locate a book faster for a friend than library cataloguing cards. And when during exams other students used to hide books to gain an unfair advantage over their classmates, I used to spoil their game by piling displaced books on a reading table and informing the library assistant that they were hidden in wrong shelves.

After Chandigarh, my access to libraries has been restrained. I had access to Mudra Institute of Communications (MICA) library while working there and visited a few with special permission for research – The Gujarat University Library and ISRO (SAC) Library. I did recommend a large wish list for the MICA library and its very kind librarian accommodated those he could source. The local public library had a strange membership rule in those days – getting a signature from a municipal corporator. As an outsider, I never figured out how to catch hold of a municipal corporator for library membership. I did visit the British Library and the librarian there was quite kind but resigned before becoming a member. I did start building my personal library during these days.

When I went to Mumbai to join Jasubhai Digital Media, I did try to become a member of the local libraries. The JN Petit Library had an administrative limit and was not open to giving membership to residents of Navi Mumbai. The Asiatic Society Library, a huge one, had two alternative membership rules – a lifetime membership fee (which was beyond my monthly salary in those days) or recommendation from an existing member. Both were difficult. By the time I discovered the American Library, we were ready to shift office from Fort to Navi Mumbai. The tiny office library was mostly IT books. But the used books market at Fort helped me greatly increase the size of my personal library.

I feel library membership rules should be rational and simple. I mean how does one go searching for a municipal corporator or an existing member willing to approve a membership. In Chandigarh, the rule was simply a signature from the head of the institute, or a gazetted officer. My father was a gazetted officer. Easy.

Regarding survival, academic libraries certainly won’t die out at all as they will be used by academicians and students. The comfort of a physical book matters to many. Not everyone likes reading on digital devices. And there is a culture of reading that grows around academic libraries, especially at the university and higher education institutions.

Public libraries may become unsustainable without a rethink of their operating and financial models but can be made sustainable in the short-term by a financial and operational rethink. For example, by auctioning old books and less frequently borrowed books to rare book hunters like me in clearance sales. The collectors are an obsessive tribe.

Other techniques might involve increasing deposits and book lending rates to cover losses. This is not a wise or sustainable strategy as it will drive away users but nevertheless if a library is finding it difficult to recover operating costs, it might not have a choice. Opening membership to visitors and researchers or introducing robust postal lending methods for researchers can help, but will run into administrative and logistical difficulties. The Aadhaar card link can make tracking easy but books lent to faraway researchers will most likely never return. So, I am hopeful about the short-term but sceptical about the long-term. For how long can public libraries be sustained is a moot question and prediction and futurology are a mug’s game. One can err on the side of optimism or pessimism. Many fail while trying to play the prophet. So all my speculations are best taken with a pinch of salt.

E-libraries are the future. Digitizing current collections should be priority for government and philanthropic grants – especially rare and out of print books, and the unused archives on microfilm and microfiche gathering dust. However, even for eLibraries we need good financial and operational models. The cost of operation falls drastically with digital publishing and access, so the cost of membership should also fall down to make money on volume of lending rather than the wrong strategy of prohibitively high membership fees.    

Sameer Kumar, a journalist based in Greater Noida, and founder of BooksFirst.in:

The head librarian at St. Francis College, where I studied from Class I to X, was a large, formidable lady with a loud, booming voice, which she wasn’t afraid to use. Loud admonishments were dished out to anyone found mishandling books, talking in the library (SILENCE!), failing to return books on time or returning books with pages torn or ink spilled on the cover. Most boys in class simply weren’t interested in going to the library. Sitting silently in a dark, cavernous hall with endless rows of bookshelves lining its walls was, for most, a complete waste of time – time they would have much rather spent out in the football field or the volleyball court or playing cricket.

I was one of the very few who truly enjoyed going to the library and browsing its endless shelves of books. Each student was only allowed to get one book issued every week. I used to work around that by getting one or two of my friends to have books issued on my behalf. So there I was – I’d get to read two or even three books every week, which was heaven. The books I got from the school library literally opened up whole new worlds for me – worlds full of magic and mystery and travel and incredible adventure – things I simply could not have experienced in actual, real life. And for that, I’m grateful to this day. 

After moving on from St. Francis College at the end of 1988, I studied in other places and worked in many cities across India. However, unfortunately, I never again got a chance to go to a library. In most cities, there aren’t that many good, well-stocked, easily accessible libraries in the suburbs. With the average, middle-class person living in far-flung suburbs, there being a few major libraries somewhere in the centre of the city simply isn’t a practical proposition for most.

Sometimes, I also think maybe the age of grand old libraries has passed. The library was synonymous with a more languid, more laid-back lifestyle, one that has completely disappeared for most. And maybe there aren’t that many people interested anymore. The young have YouTube and Instagram. The older lot, those who do read, find it cheaper and more convenient to simply buy whatever they want to read. The emergence of a dozen online resources for used books – websites that offer cheap, second-hand books for sale, with low or zero delivery charges – are also a boon for readers.

In fast-paced modern lives, especially in the bigger cities, the library is perhaps an anachronism from the last century. Personally, I still love the thought of going to a quaint old library, one that’s silent and lined with books, where one can spend hours in peace, lost in a world that’s only accessible through books. But it’s only in the abstract, a romantic notion left over from a time that’s passed. In the meanwhile, the SFC librarian from my school days – complete with her booming voice and strident presence – lives on in my memories. 

Vaishali Dinakaran, journalist and Editor with Deutsche Welle, based in Berlin, Germany:

I am very possessive about books, I hate lending them. There are very few exceptions to the rule, and it’s been that way since I was around five, when my Dad’s colleague borrowed two books from the family library and never returned them. We never found those same editions ever again. My advice to anyone who can’t or won’t buy books is to get yourself a library membership. You won’t regret it.

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