In 2007, I started volunteering at the Ramditti JR Narang Deepalaya school in Sheikh Sarai Phase I, New Delhi. It was a dusty school on a narrow, dusty lane, but the principal and staff welcomed my weekly visits, and it was an interesting change from my job at the American Embassy School. I always left the building feeling cleaner than when I entered.
In 2008, my partner, Mridula Koshy, joined me, and we started a book club and a library-in-a-bag that, years later, would grow into The Community Library Project — a trust which has helped start community libraries in Delhi and several other states. We also collaborate with the NGOs Deepalaya and Agrasar, to run two community libraries of our own.
What we have since learned from the children of street vendors, day labourers, kabadiwalas and drivers is that material poverty is not a marker of intellectual poverty; working-class children in Delhi are as intelligent as any group of children anywhere. But we’ve also been reminded of something else: though all people think about interesting things in interesting ways, thinking through books is not as natural as it may seem to those of us who grew up surrounded by books, and by people who love to read them.
This is important, because thinking through books is one of the most powerful kinds of thinking humans do. It allows us access to the best ideas our species has come up with, from literature to philosophy to physics. Access to this thinking helps us understand ourselves and the world we live in, making us more powerful and compassionate members of our communities.
However, we meet a lot of people who are sceptical about the future of libraries in Delhi. A World Bank official recently told one of our volunteers that our project would never make real change because libraries like ours are not “scalable and replicable”. Now, this official may know a great deal about international finance, but, clearly, he knows little about libraries. The history of public libraries all over the world makes one thing clear: libraries are nothing if they are not “scalable and replicable”. The wealthy countries that fund the World Bank all have solid public library systems, and so do many countries that receive World Bank assistance. Closer to home, Kerala’s literacy movement grew alongside its library movement, and the thinking made possible by those movements is part of the reason Kerala leads the way when it comes to so many measures of human development.
With close to two crore residents, Delhi should ideally have a thousand or more libraries. The three dozen or so branches of the Delhi Public Library, combined with the handful of community libraries run by NGOs like ours, are just drops of rain in a large desert. More libraries can only come with proper commitment on the part of government bodies, NGOs and civic groups all over the NCR. But big cities can make big things happen, and our experience shows that low-cost libraries can and do work: if you build them well, and run them right, readers will come.
At the Community Library Project we strive to be three things: a model, a laboratory, and a challenge. We’re a model, because we’ve proven that even in the age of social media, books have not lost their appeal: libraries can be as successful in working class Delhi communities as they are in wealthy Western cities. At our main branch, we’ve grown from a couple of dozen active members to over a thousand in under three years, and we typically issue 500 books a week.
But we didn’t turn hundreds of children into independent readers by accident. We did it because we are a laboratory: we’ve taken lessons learned by librarians and teachers all over the world and adapted them to the communities we work in. For example, we’ve known from the start that children reading to children teaches them that books hold interesting stories. And we’ve always known that read-alouds also teach something all good readers know: reading deeply requires us to infer, predict, connect, question and analyse — in other words, reading is an act of thinking.
Over the years, we’ve seen many children re-examine their ideas about friendship, religion and Partition by reading and discussing books like Nina Sabnani’s Mukand and Riaz and Leo Lionni’s Tillie and the Wall. And Mariam Karim Ahlawat’s Putul and the Dolphins has challenged our ideas about duality and nature. So, literature makes us think about new things, but it also challenges us to think about old things in new ways.
We have also learned that read-alouds have a special significance in the communities we serve: they act as a bridge between the rich social traditions of storytelling and independent reading, which can seem like a difficult, lonely thing to do until you’ve learned to do it well. By teaching members to read aloud to each other, we’ve seen a new kind of storytelling develop, as children learn to share the stories they find in books with their friends and siblings.
In this library-laboratory of ours, we’ve learned other crucial things too. For example, data from our summer Hindi reading fluency programmes shows that although many students in Delhi can read, few can read very well. Much of this is because Delhi students are not given access to books or time to read, and reading, like riding a bicycle, takes practice. In our summer programmes, we’ve seen impressive growth in reading proficiency by using methods that would be simple and easy to implement — if schools had the will and the books to do so.
And that’s why we are a challenge. We’ve learned how to make low-cost, high quality libraries work in Delhi. Now we have to ask: what is Delhi waiting for?