First printed in The Asian Age: 29 July, 2018
A case for libraries
Ahalya Naidu Momaya
The shutter rattles and rolls upwards, I shoulder the glass door open and the bell tinkles. Nearly everyone who visits the library the first time, stops to comment about the smell of books. I put away my bag and umbrella and pause to take stock.
At its best, a library is exactly like home. It definitely is home for the books, each book has its place and each reader his or her favourite corner. Bookstores on the other hand, can be a lot like grand hotels — busy, gorgeous and filled with decadent treats. You feel awestruck, overwhelmed by the possibilities — what do I spend my time and money on? You look for a gift, something to spark off an interest, a memento of your visit to this bookshop.
Libraries are meant to encourage long relationships (grandparent-and-grandchild-long) and encourage the pursuit of thought and imagination. No hard decisions are required to be made here. That passion-killer ‘money’ is not spoken about on each visit. Every month or year the word you use is ‘renew’, renewing your membership is renewing a relationship with your reading habit. Once you enter a library, you are free to explore. With its tables and bookshelves and fellow explorers around you, this is a distraction-free, physical space that will always have what you need.
At 11 in the morning, the first members to walk in are usually mothers who exchange their book and pick some up for their child. A couple of independent professionals come by and sit and read before choosing a book for the week. The CEO turned consultant browses mindfully, evaluating each biography and guide before choosing two. The architect with his wife, the history professor, turn up mid-afternoon to take fiction and science, which they will swap and read before returning. Book clubs call with their list and drivers drop off books while the member holidays or makes presentations far away.
Most readers lose touch with reading once college and work take precedence. A few years later the list of ‘to be read’ books is huge, where do you begin?
A good library has a book for every reader, and a reader for every book. It is also a most forgiving place, mistakes will be made, but you simply exchange it for another story, or a guide to the universe. What’s all the fuss about this new author, whose book on the Himalayas is best? Browse and find out.
Although readers don’t need proof, there are several studies that confirm a good reading habit develops a more empathetic understanding of the world and gives access to important voices that don’t get space on mainstream media, but have their precious audience.
In fact, this is where the real value of reading lies. Essentially, we read to learn. Whether it is to learn about ourselves, the pain and pleasure of human relationships, or about Indian biogeography. And can there be a better time, and a more urgent call for learning?
As the publishing industry grows and flexes its ‘influencer’ muscles, authors become celebrities, books become agents of change, literature festivals receive fairly generous support from powerhouses and every minute there are hundreds of tweets, posts and bookporn images shared and discussed on the internet.
So, it is a great pity that libraries are disappearing, when ironically, the time is right for them to thrive.
What does it take to start a library? Money, books and knowing your reader (and the books too, of course). But, please note, the reader is the most important part of the library. It is his or her trust that makes it grow and last. The librarian trusts that the book will be returned and the reader trusts that there will be a good book waiting for him or her on their next visit. This is the reason why, unfortunately, most general libraries fade away — reader relevance. How relevant is the collection to the reader? With dwindling funds that are never enough, public libraries struggle to be noticed. Private circulating libraries are crushed by rent. And yet, there is hope.
It is my firm belief that libraries can still thrive. The reading habit has not disappeared, it’s just assumed new forms, and there’s even more pressure now to be well-read. Look around and you see that although technology has taken so much of our lives online, there is ample reason to hold on to older, more traditional ways of experiencing art. We need museums, theatres, concert halls, gardens, and libraries. Libraries give you the freedom to read, choose, evaluate, browse, engage with other readers, and give serendipity a chance to turn your life around.
Keep the supply of books flowing and the reader keeps the industry growing by being more invested in its future — attending events, gifting their favourite book to friends, or just recommending! When a reader talks about a book, they aren’t just sharing a review, they are recommending an experience.
A library is the most effective way to nurture and nourish the appetite of a reader, and it would do us a lot of good to reevaluate and redress the state of our existing neighbourhood libraries and make way for more.
Ahalya and her husband Meethil, run Trilogy, a curated library and bookstore in Mumbai, you can reach her on email@example.com