Leaves from a Rural Library

Few writings about libraries would start with a monkey. A monkey bounding through a library is by far the oddest thing I have seen in all the libraries I have been to in India and the United States. I saw this in my first month at the Adivasi Academy’s Library.

Picturing the library for a moment will help explain the scenario with the monkey: located at ground-level, the library is a vast L-shaped structure with high ceilings. Its many large windows let in fresh breeze. Melodious bird calls drift in with the cool morning breeze. Bird calls are replaced by chirping crickets as the day turns into evening.

Occasionally, a troupe of monkeys passes through the Adivasi Academy. Being a boisterous bunch, thuds on the roof and crashing sounds from trees make their presence known from afar. The monkeys generally maintain a respectable distance from the library — looking in with equal curiosity as those of us who look out at them.

On this day in my first month as an AIF Clinton Fellow, one monkey from the troupe decided to break from tradition. Something it saw beyond the library door caught its fancy. It leapt into the library from the window and in a flash, had bounded towards its unknowable objective outside the library. Not having seen anything like this before, I was surprised and told many around me about this later at lunch. For regular readers in the library, this incident evoked little more than a muffled gasp as monkeys routinely burst into everyday life. Now that I have stayed here for a few months, my reaction may have been different. There have now been far too many occasions where I have returned to my accommodation in Tejgadh village to find that monkeys have damaged water pipes or been up to mischievous miscellany.

This is not the one who got in, and the image is for representational purposes only. It is not intended to bring all monkeys into disrepute.

Though the reason I began with this story, was not just to evoke mirth. I realized that this incident for me brought assumptions about the notion of “a library” that I had unknowingly developed. These assumptions had all been formed based on libraries in urban settings and did not factor in experiences of a rural library.

Working in a rural library requires identifying and then recalibrating assumptions. Chhota Udaipur district, where the Adivasi Academy is located, has a 56.18% literacy rate. According to the 2011 Census, only 37.88% of the district’s tribal community have had any access to formal education. While every village has a primary school with electricity, drinking water and sanitation facilities for boys and girls, little beyond primary educational objectives seem to be achieved (District Profile; Undated; Education; Row 47 and 49). The starkness of these low education outcomes comes through in personal interactions.

Every Sunday, the Adivasi Academy conducts an Ayurvedic and allopathic outpatient dispensary for district residents. This draws a large number of people from the district who often travel long distances. On one occasion, a young mother of two was waiting to see the doctor. One of her children was a babe-in-arms while the other was a 4-year-old girl. Since the little girl was giving her mother some trouble, I thought I could distract her with a Gujarati illustrated children’s book from the library. Although the inability to communicate in Gujarati was my shortcoming, I was taken aback by the confused reaction of both the little girl and her mother. This may well have been the first time they had an occasion or an opportunity to use a book. The lack of access to the most basic formal education means that many in the district may find even the most basic resources at the library to be of little use.

Other Sundays cause lesser despair. While many attending the Sunday medical clinic would see the library from outside and go away — being unsure about what to expect or whether they would be charged for using the library facilities — some would venture in and explore the library’s holdings themselves. However, the unfamiliarity with libraries is by no means peculiar to Chhota Udaipur district.

I realized this when interacting with a group of 30 college-age students who were visiting the Adivasi Academy as part of the Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation, which is supported by the Government of India’s Ministry of Rural Development. These students were all from tribal districts across western, central and eastern India (Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation: Capacity Building). Of the 30, no more than 10 students had the opportunity to visit a library before. The libraries that they had visited were usually local college or village panchayat libraries which were at best only modestly stocked. Seeing that the Adivasi Academy’s library had books about various tribal, Adivasi and de-notified communities— and importantly, many books written by members of their community, including some in tribal languages — was a welcome sight for the students. In the lively discussions that followed, many students told me how they had rarely found books by or about their communities in a language that they were comfortable with. To find that a library could have materials which were not only comprehensible but also interesting and relatable was a revelation for some of the students.

These experiences my few months at the Adivasi Academy have helped me think critically about how to reach out to predominantly rural readers from the local community. This represents one group of users of the library facilities and I hope to write more about other types of users in the coming blog posts.

How to not disturb patrons while taking calls in the library.

While a full plan on reaching out to the local community is still in the works, small steps are being taken. With the help of the library staff and some regular library patrons, we put up notices in Gujarati, Hindi and English. These declare that the library is free to use, outline its holdings and how to become a member to borrow books. Extending timings by a few hours has meant that many who work during the day can come in after finishing at their jobs and stay till 7 pm. The irregular trickle of regular readers from the community has now turned into a steady flow. While these measures have been small, the popularity of the library has spread by word-of-mouth. (Just as I was finishing some final edits to this blog, some regular readers preparing for competitive examinations requested that the library timings be extended till 10 pm until their examinations in January.)

Some actual leaves from outside the library on quieter days.

Now, as I pass through Tejgadh village — now on a bicycle which the host organization has provided me — people talk about the “Library” in hushed tones instead of “Bhasha Kendra” as I mentioned in my previous post. Rarely does a day go by that I do not meet one of the library regulars at the village market. The few times my bicycle has been unavailable, these patrons have graciously offered me lifts.

If such is the impact of steps over a few months, I wonder what sustained and systematic efforts by government and civil society groups can achieve. In areas like Chhota Udaipur district and others with a comparable socio-economic profile, every visitor to the library represents potential. Everyone who returns, represents success.

References: 

  • Chhota Udaipur District Panchayat, District Statistical Profile, Undated, available at http://chhotaudepurdp.gujarat.gov.in/writereaddata/Portal/Images/district-profile.pdf (last visited 17th December 2018)
  • Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation, Capacity Building, https://www.brlf.in/brlf2/capacity-building/ (last visited 17th December 2018)

Nishant graduated from West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata in 2011 and received his LL.M. degree from Harvard Law School. He clerked with the Supreme Court of India and later litigated a diverse range of cases in and around New Delhi with a litigation chamber. His most recent engagement was with the Centre on the Death Penalty at the National Law University, Delhi where he was one of the founding members and assisted inmates sentenced to death secure legal representation. At Harvard Law School, Nishant wrote about the impact of colonialism on tribal groups in India and pursued diverse interests ranging from natural resource issues, law and neuroscience, food law and criminal justice policy. He frequently writes about criminal justice issues in academic and popular publications. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Nishant will be working on issues related to de-notified "criminal" tribes in India and hopes to better understand the law's impact on the lives of marginalized peoples.

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2 thoughts on “Leaves from a Rural Library

  1. Nishant, I love hearing about your project! I’m so glad you get to share those moments of connecting people to books that resonate with them and their culture.
    Also, “mischievous miscellany” is one of my new favorite phrases, and I will be using it regularly.

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