In two villages of Uttar Pradesh- Bansa and Cheruia, a new activity has found life since the lockdown; in a small yet bustling building, you’ll find people of all ages glued to books, discussing what they have read and learnt. The change hasn’t come by itself. Three law students (and numerous volunteers) started work a few months back. They had a single motto: having a community library that was free and open to everyone. Their effort has sprung an eco-system around the “building”, which now also holds classes and workshops.
Jatin Lalit Singh, a 5th year law student, is the Co-Founder of both these libraries. He spoke to us at length about the entire journey. “The response has surpassed our expectations. Now people from adjoining villages are also visiting us,” he says, “while the young ones come to study, the old ones have rekindled their interest in reading, an activity most had lost touch with.”
“However, this isn’t our first attempt at opening the library,” he adds, “We started a library in 2017, in Hardoi District (UP) with a few books from friends and acquaintances. However, after we returned to our colleges, the library shut in 2018.”
“So we decided to do a little homework before opening another one.”
How it started
Jatin’s experience in libraries is shaped by his involvement with The Community Library Project (TCLP), an organization that runs multiple libraries in Delhi and Gurgaon. These libraries are run free of cost and are frequented by both school going and non-school going kids. Apart from lending books, these libraries also serve as learning hubs for the children. They take part in activities such as singing and dancing, and are taught skills like English speaking.
The TCLP libraries try to maximize their interaction with the students. They routinely have volunteers read out loud stories which the children are interested in. “This generates interest even in students who are initially not inclined to read,” Jatin says. “One thing we notice with these libraries is,” he continues, “that there is a drastic improvement in kids over the years. It makes them more confident and outgoing.”
They also inculcate reading habits in students along with a sense of belongingness. When a student returns a book, they ask them simple questions to ensure that they have actually read a book. Upon completing a certain number of books, they are given a prize. Chocolates after thirty books, a school bag after a hundred and so on. If a child damages or loses a book, instead of a monetary fine, they have to help the volunteers with housekeeping activities.
“When we saw the impact these places have, we thought why not have these libraries in our villages in UP?” Jatin says. A question that led them to take small but drastic steps. They tried the library in Hardoi (which shut after a few months) then waited for the right opportunity to start again.
In July of 2020, one of Jatin’s college seniors, Praveen Kumar contacted him with the intention of opening a library in Cheruia. Praveen had completed his graduation in law and was residing in the district. The biggest reason for the shut down of their previous library was an infrequent number of visitors. Thus, they first set to find out how many would be interested if a library opened in the village. In 2 months, 110 people showed interest, a number good enough to begin with.
Next, they scouted for a place where they could set it up. Someone gave them a rest-house which was fit for use after a little renovation.
Even after finding a place, the cost to set up the library was coming to around 70,000 rupees. The lion’s share was contributed by Praveen’s family and other houses, and the rest was crowdfunded.
The library had its fair share of naysayers. People who were shocked at a full-fledged library.
However, with the money they collected, they went ahead with the plan for the library.
We need to make education & the act of reading accessable to even most marginalized person since it is best tool in existence to free mind.
The only thing that remains is a story that plays in our mind taking us away from our temporary problems & towards a hopeful future.
— Cheruia Public Library (@CheruiaLibrary) August 17, 2020
Cheruia library was inaugurated in August 2020.
They also made an Amazon wishlist for people to order books to Cheruia.
Please DM for Amazon Wishlist Link in case you want to order books and help us grow.
— Cheruia Public Library (@CheruiaLibrary) August 16, 2020
After the Cheruia Library opened, Jatin thought of having one such library in his village, Bansa. Through a survey, he gathered that enough people in Bansa were also interested in a library.
Next came the issue of land. Upon scouting for land, they found a vacant piece of temple land which they were allowed to use for the library. However, this meant constructing the library from the ground up. A task that would require a huge cost.
“We decided to take it one step at a time. First, we estimated how much money we would need,” says Jatin. After realizing that around 3 lakh rupees would be needed, they started a campaign on Milaap.
“We also approached local leaders and government officials. However, one issue with taking the government route was that it would be a long process,” as Jatin puts it. One MP even told them that they were not in a situation to pay for the library as a lot of money had been spent during COVID-19.
There were many well-wishers who have supported this endeavour. As Jatin puts it, “the starting push was when a person from the US, Anurag, whom we don’t know personally gave 50,000 rupees to our Milaap campaign. This gave us the confidence to go ahead with the plan.”
We are building first Library in Bansa village. The foundation that is being laid is not just of a building, but also of a better future for thousands of children and young adults. This library will positively impact the lives over 7000 people living in the 11 nearby villages. pic.twitter.com/7sMhweF0zd
— Bansa Community Library (@BansaLibrary) September 7, 2020
“Soon more contributions started coming in. Even though we haven’t reached our target yet, the response has made me believe that we will manage it,” says Jatin. “Our vendors have also been accommodative. We have promised them to pay as and when we get the money, and they have agreed.”
They also made a wishlist on Amazon, and asked people to send books directly to the library. There have been days when the list seems insurmountable, but there have also been days when the books are ordered at a lightning-fast speed.
The library isn’t officially inaugurated but is now open to people.
The Present Situation
Both Cheruia and Bansa’s functioning has exceeded the founders expectations. While the Cheruia library has been officially inaugurated, the Bansa library has opened up, but is waiting for the official ceremony. “We are looking to invite someone who could also help bring more focus on the library,” Jatin tells us, “so we are planning to host a proper event”.
The flow of readers has been so healthy that they have had to appoint two full time librarians for both the libraries. These are students who manage the library along with their studies. These librarians are in touch with Jatin and Praveen on the functioning of the library, and keep them informed if new books are required.
The Gender Gap
The library has also brought stark realities in both the places. In Cheruia, the number of female readers is abysmally low. Even when they come, they are accompanied by their fathers/brothers. Jatin says that they are looking to start women empowerment centres to have an all woman community activity.
In Bansa, the results have the complete opposite. Due to an overwhelming number of female readers, the male librarian (initially appointed) has now been replaced with a female librarian.
Impact across age groups
“The impact across different age groups has been heartening to see,” says Jatin. People starting from the age of 5 and going upto 75, visit the library. The young ones are interested in basic learning and are found to be visiting the library constantly. Some come to the library to finish their homework. Others, who aren’t going to school, are taught by the people at the library who also give them some homework at times. Soon, they will also have other programs and reading activities.
For the youth, the libraries have become a centre to prepare for competitive exams. As the nearby cities are not accessible to everyone, a lot of people congregate at the library for their studies. Currently the students there are preparing for exams such as UPTET (Uttar Pradesh Teacher Eligibility Test), CTET (Central Teacher Eligiblity Test), SSC CHSL (Staff Selection Commission-Combined Higher Secondary Level) etc.
People have gifted the Bansa Library a computer system, a television set, and an inverter to power all that. As a result, they have started having classes online. “Twitter has been a huge help. We post about our requirements, and people send money, books. Some even agree to teach,” Jatin says. Since everyone wants help with English, they have language classes which are held collectively for all exams. Math classes are also held thrice a week. Apart from that there are 5-7 groups who study for their exams together.
However, they are still trying to procure a computer for the Cheruia Library.
“Eventually, we want to have a tie-up with some coaching institutes who have online classes, so that people do not need to go to the nearby cities, and can learn from here,” Jatin says.
The Surprising Part
People outside the ambit of ‘format education’ have also been attracted to the library.
“Here, having a newspaper of 3-4 rupees is also a big deal. What used to happen was that a few people collectively ordered newspapers earlier. But because we have newspapers and other magazines coming, the elders come and read these.
Some got reminded of their childhood by seeing books from Premchand.”
“The library currently has a policy of issuing one book a week, which several elders have complained about, as they finish their books within a day or two,” Jatin smiles as he tells us.
Due to their voracious reading appetite, the library administrators have started looking for more books. They found a seller from Gujarat who is selling them books at a heavily discounted price.
“It is fascinating for them as well, as they have not seen such a thing in their time,” Jatin explains.
The libraries also get book requests from time to time. People request for specific books, usually when they are appearing for competitive exams. They put the books on Twitter, and ask if anyone would want to order. So far, their requests have always found willing buyers.
Jatin says that they also try to help others with the resources they have. “It’s a community we are building at the end of the day” he says, “there is a library in Jammu, called a Traveller’s Library. We saw that they needed some books which we had and no one was reading. So we sent it over to them”.
The Bansa Library is catering to around 40,000 people, Jatin estimates. There are 36 villages close to Bansa and around 20-21 people from nearby villages visit them. The same goes for Cheruia Library.
We have spoken before about how finding a community of learners can do wonders. This is happening first hand with these libraries. The students after learning something themselves have been teaching it to others.
As a corollary to the library what has also happened is that people are slowly getting to be more aware about their rights as well. Recently, ‘ALI’ which stands for Association for Lawyer and Legal Initiative sent them booklets on domestic violence which are being read by people in the community.
There are booklets on the powers of the police and what any person is entitled to in case a police officer approaches them. “People are scared of the police. In the lockdown, this has gotten worse, as people are unaware of what they could do,” Jatin says, “this would hopefully let them be more informed.”
In one corner of the Bansa Library, there is a photo of Ambedkar and a copy of the Constitution. On one of the walls outside the library, they have painted the Preamble to the Constitution. On Constitution Day this year, they also conducted a program on the rights of citizens.
“These activities are making people more aware of what they are entitled to,” Jatin says, “which is very empowering in its own way.”
“This is our attempt to make quality education accessible to learners from rural areas. Through these libraries, we not only wish to create a culture of reading but also promote them as centres for educational resources within the community. The idea is to encourage and support everyone who wishes to pursue their education with seriousness- and as far as possible, not let socio-economic disadvantages become impediments in their learning,” Abhishek Vyas, a graduate from GNLU, who is the Curriculum Head at both the Libraries.
When asked about future plans, Jatin says- “One of the things we want to do in the near future is to start a ‘Krishi Corner’. We want to have books on farming. There are many techniques that prosperous farmers are using but aren’t used by farmers in UP. This would help them in trying out new things.”
“We are also looking for people who can spare some time and resources and teach these students, online. Right now, I am in touch with coaching centres to see if they can give us their video lectures for free,” he says.
Many people, being inspired by this, have approached them to open a library in their localities as well. “Opening a library isn’t as difficult”, Jatin says, “to start off with, we need a place to open it, and a commitment by at least 50 readers that they would visit the library constantly. Rest all would fall in place automatically.”
They have also been approached by people who have promised generous donations or books, but on the condition that would restrict entry, or have certain books of their choice would be kept in the library. They have refused donations from such bodies till now.
There are also various people without whom the library wouldn’t have functioned. Here are their names:
Ms. Malvika Aggarwal, Director of Bansa Library.
Mr. Nagraj Prasadh who sponsored a TV & many books.
Mr. Uttam Kumar who sponsored an Inverter because of frequent power cuts in village.
Mr. Anurag from US, who was the first to donate to their Milaap campaign.
Mr. Tamilr from Singapore, who sponsored the computer system.
Countless volunteers who worked for the library and many others who donated their time, books, and resources.
Their story has been one which made me smile throughout the conversation and reaffirmed my faith in building communities, learning, and reading. It is a testament to what could happen when a few people get together and decide to do something basic yet enriching: read.
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