Libraries, Love, and Resistance: Notes on Building a Free Digital library during the lockdown

11th November 2020

A lot of what we do is based on the act of resistance. 

We resist the idea that only a certain section of society has the right to literature. We resist practices that maintain hierarchies of access to books, we resist the image of a library as populated and defined only by its books and not its readers. We resist hate and discrimination in all its insidious forms. Our libraries strive to be reliable, safe, free community spaces where all are welcome. 

In March this year, The Community Library Project was forced to imagine the free library online - something that we had, while our community spaces were open, resisted. This was driven by the need to continue to serve, in whatever capacity we could, a membership that was suddenly cut off from the community libraries where they had built their first relationships with books. These members had found their identities as readers in and through the library, going on to shape the distinct noise of reading / thinking that defined it. The closure of schools, libraries, and the unavailability of books put that identity at risk for many. 

But for a free library to submit its online avatar as a solution to the closure of physical spaces would be a painful contradiction. How could one maintain that ‘all are welcome’ when only a section of our membership had the device, the internet, and the know-how to enter? The act of making literature available, of placing books on a shelf, is a far cry from making it accessible. It was clear, then, that our digital library would be powerful only if built not as a replacement for the brick-and-paper spaces, but as an extension that could be meaningful for some members as they grappled with the pandemic’s excruciating impact on education, finances, security, and physical, social and emotional health. It would be meaningful only if it was built, above all, with an awareness of the particular needs and limitations of our members.

We built Duniya Sabki using mostly open-source, freely available books by publishers such as Pratham Books and Eklavya, and across multiple platforms - twelve Whatsapp groups, a website, a Youtube Channel - but unified in its objective to provide digital access to information and reading material. Duniya Sabki is a library that not only provides reliable information on COVID-19 and helps readers access an excellent collection of books, but one that also prioritises low data consumption and its member’s needs in the field of digital literacy. 

As Linda Hoiseth, teacher librarian at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, puts it, “A librarian should be a person who uses their understanding of their patrons’ needs to curate and provide access to a relevant collection”. With the pandemic, both our patrons’ needs and concerns of access have been thrown into sharp relief. Now when we share reading material and read-alouds on our Whatsapp channels, we stress on small file size and share corresponding audio files for each video. Each piece is shared with a caption that invites engagement with the material shared. On our website, we have curated links to several books which were favourites in our libraries - their spines broken in, their edges bent from the turning - along with several texts that are no longer available in print. 

Duniya Sabki was built with all the hope and care that love brings with it. That is what I see driving the free library movement - an unceasing, radical love between readers, books, libraries, ideas, and communities that is made possible by the small acts of reading, thinking, and questioning together.

As with all acts of love, this too involved a process of making ourselves vulnerable; a digital presence could not have been built if we had not confronted the necessary mutability of a library’s responsibilities to its members. 

Embracing this mutability meant that we worked not only on the what and how of sharing reading material, but also on building among our readership the skills that lie at the points where technology and literacy intersect. How can one open web links to read books or access a PDF? How can one navigate websites like Pratham Books' Storyweaver on a smartphone device? How can each member play a role in creating a safe environment as part of our Whatsapp library groups? 

These questions proved inseparable from the act of making reading material accessible to our members. Librarians everywhere evolved their skills at a groundbreaking pace, learning to record audio and video read-alouds, tutorials, deliver technological support, and in doing so adapted to the changing needs of their members during this pandemic. These are now not peripheral aspects of a librarian’s job, but are fundamentally tied to the ability to access books, education, and information, rendering them crucial to our roles as equalisers in the communities we work with.

And yet the fact remains that we cannot reach a large number of our members. Duniya Sabki is read and shared by many - teachers, educators, students who never stepped into a library - but several of the members for whom the library once was an everyday business now no longer have access to books. This is unspeakably painful for members and librarians alike. More than anything, this is an affirmation of the physical community library space and its irreplaceable democratic potential.

Today, as we approach the reopening of our community spaces for book circulation in a precautionary manner, the question of the digital library remains an important one. Out of the many library members who left for their villages after the lockdown was announced, many may never return to the neighbourhoods where their community library was but a short walk away. For some, our online presence continues to be the point of engagement with their identities as readers and thinkers. But for how long? Will the digital library grow in reach and significance over time, or find itself in a state of disuse? How much can it grow when inescapably bound by a device, a recharge, a reliable connection? One thing is clear: the past year has shown us how critical a parallel movement that agitates and advocates for governments to provide free internet and devices for all students really is, for no form of online education is truly free if it places this burden on the learner. 

I began by speaking of resistance. It is through our refusal to comply with the exclusionary bent of this world that we demand a better, more equitable one. And through our work, we attempt to create it. 

I see the process of working towards an accessible, free, inclusive digital library as a part of this very goal. It will continue to be difficult, complex, and packed with possibility and failure along the way. In this it is much like all other aspects of community library work. It is driven, like everything else we do, by the belief that literature is not the estate of a few people. It is fueled, finally, by love.

Links:

Watch a Read-Aloud by TCLP volunteer, Arti: Jui Mausi Ki Beti 
Watch a Read-Aloud by TCLP Student Council Member, Simpy: Betiyaan Bhi Chahen Aazadi
Listen to a story narrated and written by acclaimed YA author Paro Anand: Babloo Ki Bhabhi
See more on the Duniya Sabki website.

Zoya Chadha is Reading Specialist and Project Coordinator at The Community Library Project.
The Community Library Project
Dharam Bhavan, C-13 Housing Society
South Extension Part -1
New Delhi - 110049
Donations to The Community Library Project are exempt from tax under section 80G of the Income Tax Act. Tax exemption is only valid in India.

Illustrations provided by Priya Kurien.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
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