Tuesday, February 14, 2012

National Libraries: A Mission Possible/The National Mission on Libraries awaits government action.

National Libraries: A Mission Possible
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Vol XLVII No.7 February 18, 2012

The National Mission on Libraries awaits government action.

Zeroing in on library and information sciences (LIS) as one important concern in widening and deepening access to knowledge, the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) had in 2006 decided to review the current status in the area and prepare an action plan. It set up the Working Group on Libraries (WGL) which worked on the premise that improving and updating the LIS would truly help in overcoming “information poverty”. It also felt that the focus should change from merely collecting books to ensuring access to all seekers of knowledge no matter which strata they hail from, with librarians and staff being more sensitive to their needs. In its report, the WGL had recommended setting up a National Mission on Libraries (NML), conducting a census of all libraries, revamping LIS training, establishing a central library fund, modernising library management, encouraging greater community participation and promoting information communication technology application in all libraries. The then union culture minister announced that the NML would be set up by the end of 2007, but the proposal has remained on the back-burner all these years. Now, as a first step, in implementing the WGL’s recommendations the government has announced a national census of libraries and a survey of reading habits.

The WGL had also made 10 detailed recommendations for preparation of quality translations (including the translation of pedagogic materials from primary education onwards, especially in the natural and social sciences) and the creation of a National Translation Mission. A seminar “Libraries on the Agenda” jointly organised in 2008 by a number of institutions, including the NKC, set out an advocacy strategy for Indian libraries. This covered preparation of an action plan that would take into account staff performance, include civil society and local self-government authorities in the establishment of libraries, make public libraries a public space for all strata of society and integrate library services into people’s daily lives.

Students who rely on school and college libraries for preparing academic assignments often complain of the poor condition of books and the abysmally inadequate number of copies. The inputs received by the discussion forums organised by the NKC stressed the need to improve the quality and scope of LIS education and training, networking and digitisation, linkage with and access to libraries in the country and those abroad, and setting up community library and information centres in rural areas. As for public libraries (12 states have enacted library laws), while the scene differs from place to place, the overall need is clearly for better funding and a more professional and less bureaucratic style of functioning. The recommendations in this area stress the need to treat public libraries at different levels differently rather than as places to “dump unwanted books”. It is also proposed that not only should books be ordered according to local needs and tastes and the poor be given free membership, but that rural libraries should also be encouraged to become knowledge centres.

It would be illustrative here to look at Kerala which not only enjoys 100% literacy but also has the largest and most widespread network of public libraries – an estimated 4,000. The Kerala Granthsala Sangham (KGS) started in 1945 went about opening village libraries and its volunteers ran the ones started by trade unions and farmers’ organisations as part of their mass education programmes. Almost all of them held night classes to spread literacy, doubled up as nurseries for the children of the poor and were the hub of the area’s social and intellectual life. They formed the backbone of the state’s literacy drive.

However, it is the waning of the reading habit itself which is a source of much anxiety among educationists and parents. The NKC too has expressed concern about this decline and has taken it into consideration in its recommendations. Interestingly, young users of Delhi’s central and community libraries want the institutions to offer a platform for inter­active programmes.

Beginning with the First Five-Year Plan, the creation of a network of public libraries has engaged the government’s attention and the Planning Commission set up a working group on libraries as far back as in 1964. Since then there have been a number of developments and an increase in the number of central, state and district level libraries. The need for a growing amount of information signals the potential for a larger role by academic and public libraries. Their present role in fulfilling these needs is negligible as is the participation of the community in the public libraries. Clearly, going by the NKC’s recommendations and the earlier initiatives by the government, expert inputs and action plans are not lacking. The recent announcement says that a new high level committee will advise the government on library sector issues, promote partnership with the corporate, philanthropic and international agencies and coordinate with related ministries. Considering the wealth of suggestions available, does the government need further advice from another committee to act on the NML?

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