Ever since I began working, libraries have been part of my work. I had an experience of working at the research and reference wing of Ramoji Film City, Hyderabad. In my previous organisation and current one, my work takes me to children’s libraries in schools. For a long time, I did not realise that communities and libraries are intertwined, and meant to be a part of each other. It seemed to me that libraries were meant for either children or adult readers. And reading for me was reading the text. Community members were seldom part of library activities because they did not access libraries for reading books.It was assumed that in order to engage one needs to be literate. I did not find this odd till I realised, in the course of my work, that reading is not limited to reading only the text but goes beyond that. And a library, while primarily a place to come and access books and information, is also a place to meet people, experience culture and stories in different forms other than the written text.
Over the last year, I have worked intensively in the rural district of Yadgir, in Karnataka, helping set up school libraries. During regular school hours, it is difficult to involve the community in the running of the library. But the summer library programs this year saw keen participation from community and changed my understanding and attitude towards the possibilities of a collaboration between the library and the community. During one library session, the Police Inspector had been invited to do a storytelling session. Having never met a police inspector personally, children and staff were excited and eager. As per the summer reading schedule, a prominent community member such as Sarpanch, doctor, artist or School Management Committee member would read to children. As the police inspector narrated a story, children listened carefully. It was a different experience for children but also for the police inspector who had never before interacted with children in a library space.
Policy documents visualise the “school library as an intellectual space for teachers, learners and members of the community to deepen their knowledge and connect with the wider world”. Knowledge can be defined in different ways and merely having skills of reading and writing is not knowledge. As this experience taught me, oral tradition is as engaging as reading the text and as important as reading and writing.
In another library two parents were invited to sing folk songs. At first, they were nervous and uncomfortable, having never stepped into a library before. Library for them was a sacred space where you went only if you could read. What could they share if they did not know how to read and write? With some hesitation, they started singing and sang continuously for 30 minutes. Children enjoyed the folk songs and related to them. The two women later shared they felt honoured at having this opportunity to sing before school children and villagers inside a library. They felt their knowledge was acknowledged even though they did not know how to read and write. While I did not understand the Kannada songs, such folk songs are part of every culture. In rural Mahatrashtra women sing songs while working or for pleasure. It is called Ovi. However,these songs are being heard less. If a library is able to give the space for this rich oral tradition to continue, it adds value to the library, its members and the community at large.
In another library on a hot summer day, a grandfather narrated the story, “Nose of Gangamma”.He started with a general discussion around noses and went on to the story. Children were completely engrossed. The important aspect here is the local flavour that he brought to the storytelling, the language he used that children could relate to and the fact that he was from among them.
It is already established that as a narrative discourse, oral stories expand imagination and lay the foundations of logical understanding. As a sector of language learning, listening also needs to be enriched with the help of music, which includes folk, classical and popular compositions. Folklore and music also deserve a place in the library as discourses capable of being developed with the help of exercises and activities unique to them (NCERT). These can be done in the library by inviting the community members on a regular basis. These experiences were different from my earlier interactions with a community, where parents and community members were passive players. At Yadgir their engagement was deeper and richer.
Community involvement in the library is not a one-way street. While community can contribute richly to a library’s resources and experiences of children, I saw that community members too enjoyed listening to stories being read aloud by children. Thus, both oral and written stories found space in the library and complemented each other. This resulted in forging partnerships between the schools that held the summer reading programmes with the community. Now the libraries are spaces for reading and borrowing books, for holding discussions on locally relevant topics, interacting with local craftsmen and women, and also for experiencing culture and tradition orally and visually. This became possible when we invited the community into our library.