Libraries not only serve as important information and knowledge hubs, they provide vital spaces for people to congregate and read. However, libraries are often few and far between, especially within many marginalised communities in India. Moreover, although the maintenance of public libraries is a state subject, there are only 35 district libraries in Maharashtra, while 12,148 libraries are run by non-profits.
School and college libraries are critical spaces to encourage reading and learning. However, the long closure of these academic institutes due to the pandemic, restricted access to books for many. Sensing the growing gaps, especially due to our extensive work with youth across communities in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, we decided to intervene in this regard. YUVA collaborated with Bookshare India, which was started in colleges to inculcate reading habits among youth. We wanted to encourage access to books among the youth, by setting up libraries at the community level.
Many processes needed to be navigated for each library setup. A key priority was to set this up in marginalised communities. Moreover, a permanent space such as in community halls, complexes, religious places, schools or colleges was needed to house the library. While some libraries were established in the community halls of the area, others were housed in existing centres of YUVA in the community. One library was also set up in partnership with a local school.
From the beginning, we were clear that the library would have to be a community-led process, and therefore youth volunteers were needed to manage and facilitate the space.
A needs assessment was conducted with the youth of each area to understand their requirements and the books were procured accordingly. In places occupied by a larger migrant population, books in the community library are in a mix of languages (in Hindi, Urdu and English), while a place with the majority being Marathis has a larger collection of books in Marathi, along with books in Hindi and English. While a large portion of the books were donated by Bookshare India, periodic book donation camps were also held.
With these intensive efforts, seven libraries have been set up so far in Malwani, Jogeshwari, Bandra, Kandivali, Charkop, Dahisar and Dahanu Road. Each library contains 500 books, and some of the larger ones have a collection up to 1,000 books.
Book bags were also set up in places where community libraries have not yet been launched. A book bag contains a number of books which can be read and exchanged among existing youth groups in these communities. Book bags too have helped encourage the practice of reading among youth.
While setting up the library was important, it was equally necessary to spread awareness about it too, and encourage more youth to avail of these services. Library launches were organised and community members were invited for each of them. Additionally, book reading programmes have been held since then, and posters with book covers have also been distributed to spread awareness about these community libraries.
At some locations which need upgradation in storage of books, a minimal membership fee of INR 20 is also charged. The community libraries provide options of requesting books that have a greater demand in the community, for instance books for competitive exams, which are then procured by YUVA and Bookshare India.
In terms of timing, the libraries are majorly managed by the youth of the community. Hence during the lockdown, the libraries were mostly open all day since many had online lectures or were out of work. With the easing of restrictions, library timings have been changed to suit the needs of the youth who access these spaces and those who manage these spaces too. The library spaces are not used only to access books, but also as a space for discussions and interactions and are conducive for studying and learning too.
The response to the libraries has been positive with many young people in these communities actively using and benefitting from this setup. YUVA aims to set up 12 libraries in 2022 and eventually expand on this model further to have 50 operational libraries spread across underserved communities in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region in times to come.
Aniruddh Patil and Sunanya Deka