Libraries have been my sanctuary – the chairs, the alcoves, the stools in the corner, the smell of old and new books – unquestioningly absorbing the ebbs and flows of my life. In my mind therefore a library was shelves of books that revealed worlds, words and images where I could lose myself for fleeting moments or hours – in silence. More recently however, over the last 10 years or so, my libraries have expanded beyond the written word: they reside in people. They are built on life experiences where the words, images and experience are passed on by word of mouth, embedded in practice, from generation to generation.

For a lot of us, the written word dominates the way we learn, accumulate knowledge and educate ourselves. The mainstream education system lays a lot of stress on writing and reading from books. The written word seems to have a certain legitimacy, often irrespective of the origin of this writing. As a scientist and technologist, the written word was a significant part of my learning and later my professional life. Findings from experiments, field observations, facts, data, research findings of other scientists, all of this was written: in journals, magazines, and books.

About 10 years ago, I found myself in a rural part of Andhra Pradesh’s Rayalseema Region with the intention of teaching Environmental Studies in a residential school. The school community was largely urban in origin and lifestyle but it afforded me the opportunity to engage closely with the surrounding community of small farmers, pastoralists and landless labourers. It was here that I discovered another kind of library – one of the spoken and experiential word.  This library, embedded in the ecological and social landscape, unfolds itself through stories, songs, celebrations, action, practice and life itself. Time, the ability to listen and observe, and a deep desire to learn are the main skills one needs to explore and discover the richness of this library.

To illustrate the nature of this library, I share two experiences which I hope will compel the reader to explore such libraries in their own communities and in others beyond.

Seed saving is at the heart of an agricultural community – whether it is plant seed or animal breed. It becomes all the more critical in a resource fragile environment such as the rural landscape in which I was—a dry, semi-arid, drought prone area with a hilly topography. Women are typically the seed savers. They have to identify the most desirable plants from which seeds are to be collected for the next season, collect the seeds, store them, and check them for germination before the next sowing season so that they are ready for planting. After planting and when the crop is ready for harvest, some of the plants have to be left unharvested to serve as seed for the next growing season. How do they know all this? For example: they have to know which plant to select for seed collection, the qualities that one wants from the plant (hardiness; health of the plant; quality of produce; amount of foliage which may be used as fodder for animals; colour; texture; nutritional content; etc.), the method of seed collection, and how to determine when the grain, fruit or vegetable is ready for seed collection. Once the seeds are collected the women have to know how to prepare the seeds for storage and the methods of storage so that they are in the best condition for use in the next sowing season.

Library of seeds

All this knowledge is not contained in or derived from an agricultural manual or a book on kitchen gardening. In these communities the knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth and by practice, by working on the field, and learning from one’s elders. It is embedded in songs, festivals and celebrations For instance, the seeds of grains are tested for germination through a festival called molakkal ponnami (translated from Telugu it means the seedling full moon day) and if the seeds of the various grains germinate it is a celebration in anticipation of a good harvest from these viable seeds.  So when any song is forgotten or a festival celebration stopped, this library loses some of its knowledge.

There is also the library of seeds that is maintained, expanded and strengthened by reciprocally sharing seeds between families and communities. Together with the seed the knowledge about the seed is also shared. Conversations around seeds in these libraries are not restricted to cultivation: the older women share stories about the diverse local varieties of vegetables, grain, fruit, herbs, medicinal plants that were native to the area; the unique features of each of these varieties; when they must be harvested; how they should be cooked; and so on. Changes in social, cultural, economic practices are also discussed. The seed library that these women hold together is thus a repository of the local socio-ecological history.

Reciprocity keeps the people’s library alive

Water follows the seed. Without water, the seed cannot germinate and carry its knowledge into the next generation. In the arid landscape of Rayalseema, all conversations begin and end with water. In the midst of a seven-year drought cycle all of us on the school campus were obsessed with trying to make every drop of water go a long way. The elders in the villages around us talked of a childhood when streams flowed in the wet season. Anecdotes were shared of how water was managed by the community. In an attempt to understand why all the wells were dry, when and why did those flowing streams disappear, a few senior students and I reconstructed the history of water in the area. We used the school library, the internet and reports from the Groundwater Department to collate meteorological data; trends in water levels in the area; data on number of wells and water bodies; and tried to access documentation on change in agricultural practices, water management etc. However, we still could not put together a comprehensive history around water and water management. On a walk through the Village Panchayat one evening, a few of us met an elderly farmer Kitappa who was a familiar figure to anybody living in the area. While enquiring about each other’s health, the weather, etc., the conversation inevitably moved towards water! As Kitappa began reminiscing about the flowing streams, the diversity of trees in the surrounding hills and the connection between the trees, rain and water, I realised that the ‘people’s library’ was the answer to build a comprehensive history of water in the area.

The next day we returned with our notebooks, with specific questions to steer what we thought might be a rambling conversation with Kitappa (he was 85 years old). Four other elders joined us and what emerged was almost like a chapter out of a hydrology book! Kitappa led the recounting of a chronological history of water sources, water extraction systems, water management systems and their evolution. The other elders provided specific details at various points: once again the people’s library was in action.

The story started from the 1930s when the population (human and animal) was low, rainfall was scarce but timely (during most years) and people drew water manually from the streams in the wet season. Channels from the main streams were used to convey water to the fields for cultivation after the wet season. Most cultivation was restricted to rain-fed crops such as millets and dry land paddy. The hardy goat and sheep, produce and game from the forests in the hills, a few vegetables provided livelihoods and food in the dry season.

From there the story unfolded to illustrate how access to different forms of energy shaped the history of water. Till the 1950s and 60s people drew water from the wells (human energy was used). During this period bullocks were also used to draw water from open wells. Human and animal energy were used to draw water till the early to mid-1980s. With the onset of the green revolution and electrification of the villages, borewells were drilled to pump groundwater up to the surface. This changed everything! There was water for year-round cultivation and people who had money began pumping water continuously to grow cash crops and earn more. Water levels started falling and as rains became more erratic and unpredictable the wells began to dry up and the area became water scarce – ecologically and socially the community became resource fragile.

As we prepared to wrap up, Kitappa was surprised; there was more to this story. We had only learnt about the evolution of water extraction systems. How was this water managed, shared, maintained year after year?  The people’s library was not categorised into hydrology, sociology, economics, agriculture etc. Instead of looking at a number of books or sources for information on all these aspects of water, we could get all the information from one set of people.

Historically the neergatti community was responsible for management of water resources in the area. They reviewed the state of local water bodies (tanks, ponds, streams) after the rains, allocated water resources to the rest of the community by regulating the flow of water from the water bodies. Decisions on what crops to grow were taken through a larger consultative process. Water, a common resource for a long time, albeit with caste and class hierarchies dictating its use, became a private resource with the arrival of electricity and bore wells. The impact of all this on the land, soil, animals, social life and livelihoods was interwoven into the story of water. At the end of three hours of this conversation, Kitappa concluded with this statement: “In the past when we had drought we were confident that we would not have famine. We had grain and preserved foods that would tide us over. Today when we have a drought I am afraid we will have famine. We have drawn too much water from the earth to earn money [cash crops] and are dependent on somebody else for food [the Government Public Distribution System for food].”

The students and I emerged from this conversation as if through a time-travel experience. Learning through stories teaches you about the whole, the interconnections and reveals the complex web that we call life. To understand the history of water in the area we needed to view it in the context of land, forests, people, animals, economics, politics and the social condition. We could not look at water in isolation! The living people’s library taught us this as they unravelled the story of water in the area by embedding it in life.

The written word and reading are powerful, but often exclude people who cannot read and their knowledge. Libraries of the spoken word can cut across this and be more inclusive.  We learn through multiple ways – observing, listening, reading and experiencing. We must find ways of learning from all these libraries that exist in communities around us: our families, friends, neighbours cutting across generations and other barriers that we create of class, caste, gender and religion.

In these times of ecological and social uncertainty and unpredictability the libraries embedded in people provide us history, hope, strength and resilience.


This article emerged in its present form thanks to some pithy insights provided by my permanent editor and critic Gopakumar.

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