In terms of Amartya Sen’s vision of development as freedom, development is the removal of barriers to people’s exercise of agency. We are going through turbulent times both existentially and socially. The pandemic pushed us indoors, limiting our social interactions to a virtual world against the background of a massive digital divide. At the same time, as fault lines around caste, gender, religion, ideologies deepen, we continue to pull further away from each other losing valuable friendships, relationships, our multicultural diversity and the ability to think critically and act compassionately in the process. Rural public libraries can make a key difference to people’s lives by redressing this deprivation. Libraries promote learning and help to open readers’ minds to diverse perspectives. They collect and store information, arrange it systematically, and make it available to people, allowing them to participate more fully and equally in contemporary life.
Literacy is not merely about teaching or testing; it depends on the availability of diverse books to interest readers. Not only for language development and education, libraries offer books for leisure, entertainment, and to spark the creative imagination. Rural public libraries can offer books for laughter and warmth, for the heart and soul. I’m reminded of Doris Lessing’s words in her Nobel lecture: “The villages, unlike what is reported, are full of intelligent people… People want to read the same kinds of books that we in Europe want to read — novels of all kinds, science fiction, poetry, detective stories, plays, and do-it-yourself books, like how to open a bank account.” In promoting quiet and focused study, and providing equal access to all, rural libraries promote equality and inclusion.
Village libraries can help address rural isolation as well, by providing access to information and opportunities for higher education and employment. They can support users to acquire skills such as digital literacy and participate more actively in the contemporary world. By providing information on education, employment, health, and legal entitlements, rural public libraries can create a more informed, caring and compassionate society.
In these times of growing isolation and hatred, the significance of libraries as spaces to preserve, discover and cultivate wisdom, freedom, empathy and democracy cannot be overemphasized. Free public libraries have the power to save democracy. They democratise reading and give everyone equal access to knowledge and information; wisdom and wonder, stories and experiences. Libraries help us learn from our past and prepare for the future. They give us the ability to think critically, stay informed, ask questions and become active citizens. They feed and nourish us; empower and enlighten us. Libraries are not just the keepers of wisdom but also sanctuaries for lost souls, refuge for the homeless, safe spaces for the marginalised, public spaces for collaboration, discussions and debates, support networks for the socially isolated and gathering spaces for communities. Libraries have the power to transform individuals, communities, societies and nations. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s words, “A great library is freedom”.
Today, small but sustained initiatives to set up community libraries are beginning to take shape . In the 21st century, the rural public library is an essential civic institution. It is an open and accessible space. It can reduce information asymmetry, bridge the digital divide, and reduce the gap between the privileged and the less privileged, especially children. It is a space of social equality, where anyone can enter and seek information.
—The writer is Rural Development Fellow at National Institute of Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR) and Founder of Barul-LLM Community Library, Marwah Kishtwar (J&K)