Open Libraries: Realities and Radical Possibilities

Usha Mukunda in conversation with Vivek Vellanki

This conversation is an edited version of a podcast originally featured as part of Dialoging Education, a podcast developed by the Regional Resource Centre for Elementary Education, University of Delhi.

As an 8-year-old I eagerly waited for that one hour every week we used to get to spend in our school’s library. I had memorized the chore. We would all stand in a line outside our class, with fingers on our lips. The librarian, Rukmini Ma’am, would walk us to the library. All the while, there would be murmurs along the way; do you think the Hardy Boys solved the mystery? I am going to finish reading that story about Shikari Shambu today; I can’t wait to find out what happens to Harry Potter once he gets off the train. The library was a magical and yet strange place. We were surrounded by hundreds of books and limitless possibilities. It seemed like such a relief compared to the classroom where the teacher and the textbook were the final say. But yet, when we sat down, Rukmini Ma’am had designated shelves she would open for that hour. Sometimes that meant no Harry Potter this week. Or only the encyclopedia section this week. I had come to accept it as the norm. My librarian was one of the sweetest people I knew but she still followed strange rules around the library, rules I never really understood. In 2014, I sat down with Usha Mukunda in her house in Bangalore to talk to her about open libraries. Yes, libraries with no locks, where children are allowed to access any book they want. Usha Mukunda is an ardent advocate for open libraries. As I read more about open libraries, I imagined Rukmini Ma’am cringing, brushing it off as an impossibility, or straight up passing out at the thought of having an open library. So, I wanted to ask Usha Mukunda how she convinces librarians to do this and if this is a good idea at all!

In 2014, I sat down with Usha Mukunda in her house in Bangalore to talk to her about open libraries. Yes, libraries with no locks, where children are allowed to access any book they want. Usha Mukunda is an ardent advocate for open libraries. As I read more about open libraries, I imagined Rukmini Ma’am cringing, brushing it off as an impossibility, or straight up passing out at the thought of having an open library. So, I wanted to ask Usha Mukunda how she convinces librarians to do this and if this is a good idea at all!

I am Vivek Vellanki and this is a conversation with Usha Mukunda. Usha Mukunda identifies herself as a librarian. She is a founding member of the Center for Learning school in Bangalore and has written extensively about libraries, reading, and children’s literature.

Vivek Vellanki (VV): You have worked extensively in setting up libraries and supporting institutions towards this goal. Now as a strong advocate of open libraries, could you tell us a little bit about the concept of open libraries, and why you like to support it so much?

Usha Mukunda (UM):  Yes, it has been a very strong reality for me. It has not been just a concept, maybe because I grew up going to a school library where everything was locked. And I was given a book only during the library period. Anyway, that is a familiar story even now perhaps, so I need not go into it. The main thing I feel is that the spirit of openness—both for the child and for the adult—is important because something else is happening there, apart from the fact that books are on the open shelves, and you can go touch them, you can pull them out, you can look at them. Apart from all that, there is a beginning of trust happening. And that is an important thing for a child to take in or to absorb. So, for me, the open library has been very important, as a builder of responsibility, trust, openness; and open is not just open doors and open covers, but open in the mind too—to what they are reading, how they are reading, open to wheelchair access. Open in every way! Inclusive!

VV: I can imagine most librarians, at least the ones I have met, cringing at this idea—that there are no locks, no shelves, that children can pick up any book they want. How would you convince some of them to make the shift, especially within schools?

UM: I think it is a multi-pronged approach. One is that many of them may individually be quite happy to have an open library but they are afraid of the management; they are afraid of being penalised. So we have to work on that level first, which we have.

Through the Karnataka Knowledge Commission, we really brought in this directive that there should be no punishment for children if they lose books, but it does not mean that they can lose them uncaringly or willfully. I think communication with the children is for me the ground. So that is at one level. Then, hopefully the librarian will see that he or she is not a lone ranger. Library activity or a library process is a collaborative thing with teachers, with management, and most importantly with students, so having open access does not become a problem.

There is no need to feel like the whole burden of the world is on my head, and if I open the cupboard, things will get lost. I can talk to the children about it, about why I am opening it. Why am I afraid? Maybe the librarian can even share that: “I am afraid of opening it because I think you will take it away.” Collaboration for me is very important, and on a happy note I should say that there have been a number of government school libraries which have become open libraries.

Since you have talked about my near obsession with open libraries, I want to make a quick point. This is a new learning that has happened for me. I wanted libraries to be open. And so I have been going around to schools, talking to management, maybe persuading them, convincing them. But what I found finally in many schools was that the cupboards were opened but the materials in them were sub-standard. So the children had total access but to what? Horrible, awful books! So for me now, along with the open library, is the quality of the collection. These two have to go hand in hand.

VV: You have shared some interesting experiences where books have come back six months later, a year later. What has been your reaction to a situation like that? How do you respond?

UM: With great happiness! In fact, a hug is what goes with that returning. I know that basically they know I will be happy about it. I am not going to say why, what, because I know that the child would have made sincere efforts to look for the book. There is a process here, it is not that books are lost and I do nothing, and six months later they come. There is something else which is going on, which is asking friends to help to find the books, parents to help, I myself have given ideas sometime, I have gone into their hostel rooms, or homes! It is all on a light note. I mean it is not heavy. But when they do bring books back, instead of saying how I deal with it, I would say what I see is that they seem to be happy to bring them back. When I started working at the Valley School in Bangalore, a whole lot of books went missing and I started putting up posters saying “Come back, come back! Calling all books that are lost,” like there was a warm welcome waiting for them. Then they came back.

One of my teachers in the library science course that I took—someone I can never forget, Prof. Gopinath used to say, “No book is ever lost, it is being read somewhere by someone.” And I think that is a good point. Of course, if there are expensive books that are very rare, you might want to be much more careful and have a word with the student, and say, “You know this is a very special book, and I am giving it to you like a caretaker,” but by and large it is not so terribly difficult to replace the book. The first mindset we have to break is that they are doing it wilfully and maliciously. If we accept that it is carelessness or forgetfulness, let us work on that. Because we too forget, don’t we?

VV: What are some of your favorite activities to introduce books and make the library a more welcoming space for children? Because clearly from what you have articulated so far, it is the space where fun things happen, and the hierarchy between children and adults is broken. So how do you enable that?

UM: I think, first of all, any activity that is different from the usual school routine, is a welcome break. Activities themselves have many subtly in-built learning skills, which are not perhaps apparent to children, which is why they are fun! For me a very important activity has been a book talk, which is given by students after reading a book. They share a little bit about the book they have read. They don’t tell the whole story; they share bits of it. They share what drew them, or what struck them, maybe the illustrations, the page layout, the characters, or the setting. But a very interesting thing in this is the discussion that follows, the questions asked by others. Another unusual thing that I noticed about a book talk is that there are troubling issues which come out very easily in a book. For example, having a girlfriend or boyfriend at a young age. Or maybe having some bad habits, or some other problems. These are related in the story so well that the child does not feel targeted, feeling “Oh this is about me,” but the child feels a sharing of that pain. It could be about losing a parent or parents getting divorced; there are so many possibilities. So in that discussion I feel there is a kind of opening or a space to be explored with no sense of shame. I might say, we have read that book and you feel a certain way about it, because you may be going through some of these things. Then they may feel ready to say, “Yes, it did feel a bit close.”

A book talk is not only for students, we also invite teachers. It is a new space for the teachers to come and talk about a book that they have read. For the students too, it is interesting. They discover new facets. “Yes, this teacher is fun.”, “She has been reading a sports book,” or “He has been reading some crafts book,” etc. It is a glimpse of that teacher. The support staff can be part of this activity too. I have found that very nice. Say if you are in a residential school, or even not, the woman who sweeps or cooks, maybe you made sure that she reads some books. Then she talks about the book, and how she relates to it. That has been an amazing experience because the kids start feeling so respectful of this person. And that person feels good. So that is a very important thing to do.

The other activity I like very much is the treasure hunt. The treasure hunt is something I always start with. It is a game wherein clues lead from one book to the other, in the library.  The first one is a clue to find a book. So, they go hunting for the book. In that they find the second clue, and that leads on. At the end of it, they listen to a nice story.  That is the treasure! But the nice thing about this is that they have to think about what the book might be, its location and the best part is, after one round they all say, “We want to set one for you. Setting a treasure hunt is much more challenging, because it requires an even greater awareness of the resources in the library. They send me out while they set it up.

VV: And you happily accept it.

UM: Oh, of course! First of all, it goes without saying that throughout, whether it is an activity, whether it is anything, the relationship between the adults and the children has to be comfortable and easy. Then they feel a sense of ownership to the space.

VV: The way you put it, you envision the library as a radical space. Where some of these hierarchies and differences can be challenged, and be equal across class lines, across age lines. But with the advent of e-books, online books and repositories, do you feel that the space for libraries is under threat for children and adults both?

UM: “Radical space” is a nice way of putting it. I should use that! About the advent of e-books, for children, I can say confidently that the space is not really under threat. I notice that at the present time, children cannot sustain their interest in e-books for long. It is like a novelty. They read it for a while, but then they seem to come back to the library. As you said, it is a radical space they like seeing. Unexpected happenings, new things and new ideas coming in. It is also a shared space, an interactive space.  The library need not be a fixed place. I have taken children from libraries to bookshops to choose books. That is one way of combating the e-thing. They love that. Because they say, “Oh wow, I did not know there were so many books!” Or “Oh wow, if we go on Flipkart, we do not get to touch the book”. The library for me is not in just one place but it is a mind, it is a thought, it is a spirit. It can move anywhere.  I personally don’t feel afraid. I am not setting up any competition, and saying no e- book. That is also important. Let us live together! That is possible. There are some things for which e-books are great, and there are some things for which the book is still fun.

VV: Would you like to leave us with any thoughts or message to our readers?

UM: I love this quote by Rabindranath Tagore, which he relayed on a radio broadcast in New York City many years ago. Talking about children, he says, “Their minds should be allowed to stumble on and be surprised at everything that happens before them, a mind that is always open in abundant hospitality.” I just love that because it is not just for children alone, it is for us too. I think if we have that abundant hospitality, we can do many things with children without feeling a separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. I think that is most important. There is no barrier there. We create it.

VV: As I left Usha Mukunda’s house and took an auto back to my hotel, I kept replaying parts of the conversation in my head. In particular I was stuck by her humility. For Usha Mukunda the pursuit of open libraries is still a work in progress, she is tweaking her ideas, rethinking her approaches, and learning from students and teachers along the way. I guess the point is not simply to keep libraries open but to find ways to tear the barriers that come in the way—between adults and children; between students and teachers; between books and readers. I hope some of you will be inspired by Usha Mukunda and chip away at these barriers that we have created.

Usha Mukunda has happily worked with children and books for 30 years now. She is a founder-member of Centre for Learning in Bangalore where she set up an open library. She is a school and children’s librarian who regards this role as a crucial one in the reading growth of a child. Usha is also a key member of the Torchlight team.

Illustration and Photo: Arnav Gupta

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