It is important for libraries to be a welcoming space for all people - members, potential members, readers and non-readers. A library that does not welcome all people will easily become a mere storehouse for books, whereas a library is actually a storehouse of ideas realised in the act of a reader meeting and engaging with a book. For libraries to be storehouses of all the ideas potentially available to us, they need to include all people.
In India a long history of exclusion from reading means Indian libraries must go out of their way to welcome those who have been left out of reading, literature, education and libraries. TCLP welcomes all people to its libraries and does so by practicing an active rather than passive welcome. Best practices that work elsewhere in the world also work in TCLP libraries. But these best practices must be seen in conjunction with the history of exclusion to achieve a truly active welcome to the library.
Best practices in TCLP libraries are also formulated with an understanding that reading is an imaginative tool for thinking and that knowledge acquisition through studying is merely one aspect of reading for thinking. In most schools in India, reading is encouraged only for the purposes of studying. This means there is an active effort to limit the number of books children are allowed to access. We are all familiar with the example of the teacher or parent who discourages a child from reading ‘useless novels’ and points the child instead to the textbook which the child is encouraged to read as often as necessary for memorisation of its contents.
In brief: TCLP Libraries embrace best practices that actively welcome all people and introduce them to reading for thinking. TCLP libraries create programs which incorporate and give shape to best practices.
Free membership: TCLP libraries do not charge for membership. Membership is free for all people. Free admission is not only for those who cannot afford to pay for membership; free membership is for all people - those who can afford to pay and those who cannot.
Members do not pay a security deposit for admission. They do not pay any other fees or charges at any time in the course of their membership. That is, they do not pay late fines when they do not return their book on time and they do not pay fines or handling charges when books are lost.
Ease of Admission: Admission to TCLP libraries is made easy by keeping to a minimum the formalities required for people to join. A simple form captures member information such as name (last name is not required), birthdate or approximate age, phone numbers and address. Members sign an agreement to take care of books and to help in the library in the event of damage to the book or loss of the book. Members are never asked for any formal identity proof like aadhar card or voter id card. Members are not asked for proof of address or proof of age such as birth certificate. Membership is not required for entering the library or for reading in the library or for participating in library workshops. Membership is required only if someone wishes to issue a book from the library.
Member Ownership of the Library, ie The Student Council - TCLP libraries offer members an opportunity to assert ownership of the library. Members become member leaders through acquiring library skills they can use to operate the library. Members operate the library’s circulation desk throughout the week, but especially on Sundays. They learn how to issue books, speak to members with love and respect, use Koha, a library system software, do upkeep of the library through cleaning it, mending books, shelving returned books, do read alouds, manage other library programs like game room, arts and crafts etc. Secondly, library leaders act as spokespersons and advocates for the library within the community in which the library is based and as advocates for the library movement within the wider community where libraries are missing. Finally, library leaders elect two among them to represent their interests in the library’s decision making body. Through member ownership, TCLP libraries offer a truly warm welcome to all and successfully integrate the library into the community in which they are based.
Community Walks - On a frequent (not less than quarterly) basis, librarians, volunteers and member leaders leave the physical premises of the library and visit library and community members in their neighbourhood and homes. Community walks are around 2 - 3 hours in length and much of the time is taken up in conversation with members in and around their home. Community walks are an opportunity for us to build our understanding of the community by speaking with the community in their comfort zone, to remove ourselves from our comfort zone so that we enter the conversation with less of the distance which characterises interactions inside the library.
We carry books with us and impromptu read alouds occurs on the streets which result in people gathering around the reader. It becomes possible to talk to the community about the limitations of an education which does not allow children to read freely and to use reading for thinking. In our experience, community members are quick to grasp the advantage of their children gaining access to thousands of books. Community walks also allow community members to raise questions about the library, especially those questions that amount to suspicion of the library, which would be difficult to raise inside the library. Members may ask about the library’s position on mixing of girls and boys. New members enter the library through the practice of community walk. Old members who have lapsed in engagement with the library return to the fold. Librarians gain insight and sympathy for the reasons members fall away from membership and are able on returning to the library to recommit to welcoming all. The best community walks build member engagement in the library and deepen the librarian’s commitment to best practices.
Open Shelving - all over the world excellent libraries put their books on display with every intention of facilitating the book getting looked at, picked up, and chosen for reading. TCLP libraries believe open shelving is one of the best ways of indicating to readers that books are for them, an idea in opposition to what is conveyed to them elsewhere in the world. Open shelving allows a reader to pick a book and hold it out to another reader, to flip a book over and read the back before choosing it, to note the books by the same author grouped together, to see grouping of books by theme and make cognitive connections that allow them to map literature and ultimately ideas.
Building and Organizing collections specific to a membership - TCLP libraries acquire books through purchase and through donations by individuals and by publishers. Only books in mint conditioner are accepted in the collection. Non fiction has to be current. Books are selected on the basis of member interest and an attempt is made to stock a majority of books in the language spoken by members. Members are allowed to request specific titles through adding these to the wish list maintained in the circulation desk.
TCLP groups books in the library by language, genre, age level of readers, and thematically, all with the intention that readers find the books for which even they don't know they are searching. That is, books are organised to facilitate discovery, amazement and delight. It follows that books are constantly recategorised and rearranged. The only right way to arrange books is according to the local needs of a specific group of readers. One group of readers may favour non fiction that is topical and another wish for romance; one group may find graphic novels difficult and another choose graphic novels as the only literature through which to interrogate the world. A graphic novel about World War 2 may find itself grouped with one about the life of Buddha one week and next week find itself on a shelf of history books so that the history buff can discover this genre too.
Ratio of Books to Members - The standard for how many books a library should stock varies only somewhat internationally and most credible organisations advocate for 3 items in a collection per capita. Another standard and one more achievable and applicable in TCLP libraries is the standard held for school libraries, ie a minimum ratio of 7 items/books per enrolled member and an ideal ratio of 10 items/books per member. The collection should be sufficiently large enough to spark a sense of richness, adventure and discovery. Most TCLP branches serve around 1000 active members and house a collection of over 7000 books.
Free Choice of Reading Material - Members of TCLP are always welcome to read any book of their choice which is appropriate for their age, which means children can read or look at books around their age range, a little above their age range or far below their age range. Older children are encouraged to feel free to read picture books which are sometimes the only books they are able to read because of their lack of reading fluency. Issues of embarrassment around choosing a book below their age range is addressed through reminding them that picture books are for all ages as we all have children inside us. Care is also taken to find picture books that have themes that lend themselves to young adult reading pleasure. Similarly easy reading for adults is made available in the adult collection and care is taken to ensure these books do not appear to be for children. Collections are grouped but not segregated by age. Children are not quizzed on whether they have completed a book unless it is to help them choose books they would be interested in completing.
All libraries face budget constraints and other limitations which make it necessary to be strategic in deployment of resources. TCLP has found that when allocating resources to programs it is crucial to consider how well they realise the goal of welcoming all members and making reading is thinking a reality. That is best practices can remain in the realm of ideas if they are not incorporated into programs. The following are strategic interventions which make the best use of limited resources to promote the maximum benefit to member retention and member access to reading for thinking.
Read Alouds - Read alouds are more than a best program, they are indeed the methodology for members experiencing both a welcome to reading and reading for thinking. TCLP does not believe performative implementation of read aloud programs such as an annual read aloud day or even a monthly or weekly read aloud day is enough to realise the value of read aloud as a method of growing and deepening library membership. It is essential that all children not only have access to books but also have access to daily read alouds. A genuine read aloud program is one that is central to the library as evidenced both in its daily implementation, and in its place of primacy relative to every other library program. It is common in TCLP libraries for read alouds to be held daily inside the library by librarians. Read alouds are also held daily by volunteers. Read alouds are also held daily by library member leaders (aka Student Council) and by library members. There is anecdotal evidence that multiple read alouds are held daily after library hours in the homes of library members where children open books and read them to siblings, friends and parents. Occasionally teachers in area schools will report to the library that the practice is carried over to the classroom by library members who read aloud to classmates. TCLP volunteers also seek opportunities to read in nearby classrooms. TCLP programs like the Reading Fluency intervention embrace daily read alouds. Read alouds open many a staff meeting, and training on various other matters are also often preceded by read alouds. There is even a read aloud club for practitioners to meet and critique one anothers’ read alouds.
The Honour Roll Program - Children need recognition of their struggles to remain motivated to struggle. Children entering the library are almost always struggling readers. The Honour Roll program recognizes the struggle and celebrates their successes. In every TCLP library as soon as a child returns their tenth borrowed book to the circulation desk, the child is applauded and allowed to choose a new book as a prize, which is then theirs to keep. Their name is recorded on a prominently placed chart where they join the ranks of hundreds of others. The Honour Roll program is often the first thing a new member makes note of. Children continue to be celebrated in this program as they achieve key milestones in their reading journey: a star is added next to their name each time they read ten more books and on reading 40 and 80 books they are again able to choose a new book to keep. On reading a hundred books or more and turning in 20 book reports children receive a school bag with books and stationary.
The Book Report Clinic - Most children take about a year to issue, read and return 80 books through the circulation program. It is worth noting that many of these children read many more books while in the Reading Room. After their eightieth book, children are invited to prepare and present books reports in one-on-one sessions with trained volunteers and librarians. The purpose of the book report is to give each child individual attention and encouragement to use reading for thinking, i.e. to connect what they have read to other books, other art such as cinema and to their lives. Questions asked in the book report include : what did you like or not like, what did it remind you of, what was the big idea in this story and how would you change the ending or retitle this story. Younger children are invited to draw their response rather than write and the very youngest do oral book reports where they are assisted in retelling the story and in sharing the thoughts triggered by the story. This is a resource heavy program as dozens of children present books reports each week, and this requires adults to spend on average 15 minutes with each child. Over the course of 20 books reports, children are more acutely tuned to the second voice in every text, which is their own voice interrogating the voice of the text. They gain confidence in their thinking, are able to share it more articulately and identify as readers and thinkers.
Head Start to Reading - This is another resource heavy program in the library which enrolls up to twenty children ages 4 to 6 in a weekly 2 hour play time in the library. On average around 12 of the children show up each Saturday and 3 adults help them work their way through a series of activities that emphasises socialisation through friendship/circle time, read aloud/story time, and play time. Children enjoy snacks and leave the program with a book in hand. Many a 4 year old has stayed in the program to enjoy a graduation ceremony on becoming 7 years old. Children who attend Head Start to Reading show more confidence in the library and operate on the assumption that books are part of their lives and not at all a novelty. In an unanticipated outcome it has been observed that children enrolled in the Head Start program act as ambassadors for library membership within the library. Dozens of children in the same group who are not enrolled in the program respond to the confidence of Headstart enrollees by emulating them.
New Member orientation - It was realised fairly quickly that many new members of TCLP have little or no understanding of libraries and their benefit to members. Most who enter a TCLP library do so because a friend may tell them that is a good place. An orientation to the library is part of the warm welcome in the new admission process. During the orientation a new member is shown the library, collections of books are pointed out, the repair day program is explained, the honour roll program is explained, and a read aloud is provided and an invitation is issued for future read alouds.
If a new member is a child, best efforts are made to invite the parent of the child to the orientation. The support a parent can give a child is invaluable even if the parent herself is unaware of the positive role a library and reading can play in the child’s life. The orientation is aimed at helping a parent feel welcome regardless of whether they are readers themselves or plan to become library members. Most are not readers and do not become library members but appreciate understanding where their child is spending time. Parents are informed that libraries are meant for adults as well as children and that there are programs like poetry nights they may wish to attend.
Repair Day Program - This program allows a member who loses a book or damages a book beyond repair to make good their debt to the library by helping in the library, rather than by paying a fine or paying for the cost of replacing the book. One day in the week is set aside as Repair or Reparation day in the library and children who have lost or damaged books can spend anywhere from 1 to 3 hours, depending on age and maturity, in helping through activities such as dusting books, mending books, data entry. Members are invited to have a snack and to do independent reading or attend a read aloud during their repair time. These activities are counted toward the repair. Once a year all those who have lost or damaged books and have not come in to make a repair, are invited to participate in a general amnesty. Members who admit to lost and damaged books are readmitted to the circulation program without having to do a repair. This allows those who did not take advantage of the Repair Day Program to once again resume their membership.
Art Crafts and other workshops - The library embraces a variety of workshops and no year goes by without workshops and series of workshops covering music, photography, film, theatre, dance, teen sexuality and wellness, gender, media literacy etc. A game room is organised once a week and chess, checker, carom, puzzle solving etc are arranged for children's enjoyment. Artists and author visits occur on average once every few weeks. Some adult activities such as poetry nights and talks are held, as well. Of all these it is important to highlight the role of a regular twice weekly arts and crafts program. For children lacking in confidence because of their poor reading skills, arts and crafts sessions allow them to express themselves and to slowly build confidence. It is a place where there are no wrong answers and when each participant can shine in their own eyes as well as in the eyes of others.