Open Sim-Sim: Digital Doors to Community Libraries

Perhaps glum statistics aren’t the best way to begin. But sometimes, glum statistics are hard to ignore. “Mapping Children’s Literature in India”, published by Sir Ratan Tata Trust (SRTT) and Parag Trust, tells us that there are 1.5 lakh libraries in India, but no data available on the children’s literature on their shelves. Seventy-four percent of school children in India have negligible or no access to libraries.  While in the United Kingdom one child enjoys access to six books, a less abundant picture emerges in India. In urban areas there is one book for six children, while in rural India there is one book for eleven children.

When I read things like this, I realise how very lucky I have been. Growing up, libraries were a constant and reassuring presence in my life. There are three libraries from my childhood that stand out. A small classroom library in primary school that consisted of perpendicular, book-lined shelves and a single chair, from where Mr. Hawes read us Matilda and Charlotte’s Web. A public library in the borough of Pinner, Greater London, where I discovered the magic and kindness that a great librarian embodies. And Eashwari Lending Library in Royapettah, Chennai: a rabbit’s warren of rusting shelves bursting with enough romance novels and Eric Segal’s to soothe my aching, adolescent heart.

The avenues, crossroads and lanes of my hometown, Chennai are dotted with circulation libraries. These one-room wonders are bursting with books: on shelves, on the floor, on windowsills. They have none of the dignity or grandeur one might wish a library to possess, but they serve an essential function: a never-ending ladder of books to keep climbing. A ladder I assumed all children, everywhere, could climb should they wish. It is only in the last few years that I have come to realise how privileged I was to have got a leg up on this ladder.

But, as the SRTT report shares, not all children are as privileged. So, can we then reimagine libraries? What if it looked like a book bag hanging on the wall? Or a hand-pulled cart? A tablet? A mobile phone?  A series of personal computers in a lab? Or sheets of paper laminated in a ring binder placed in baskets? How can we help more children have access to books to read?’  What is important? The physical appearance of a library or the ideas it contains and the opportunities it offers those who can access it? As a member of the digital team at Pratham Books, I’ve witnessed first hand how technology and open licensing can begin to make inroads to help address this problem. But this first requires us to sidestep predictable arguments that surface when speaking of books and technology in the same breath, and stretch our minds to reimagine what libraries should and could look like. Would we have a debate if technology were a means through which underserved children could have wider access to books, for free? If they could read books in their mother tongue where few exist? If technology could help seed fledgling community libraries where there are none?

Digital repositories like StoryWeaver, The African Storybook Project and BookDash are helping create more books in mother tongue languages by openly licensing books, placing them in the public domain and making them available in a variety of formats that are easy to access and share. Content on all three repositories is licensed under CC-BY4.0, one of the most liberal Creative Commons licenses that allows users to not only read the books but also repurpose, print, distribute and sell them as they please; a model that has seen tremendous uptake.

In South Africa, Book Dash, a non-profit children’s publishing house is helping children—specifically black children and children of colour who are under-represented in literature globally—get high quality books for free in which they can see themselves and their realities represented and celebrated.

“At Book Dash, our vision is that all children own 100 books by the age of five. The organisation’s systems for making and distributing books are centered on access: the books are created through a unique model where professional teams – a writer, an illustrator, a designer and an editor – collaborate and create a book in one day!” shares Larissa Johnson, Project Manager at Book Dash.

Book Dash books reach communities through a network of beneficiaries and often the organisations that sign up are libraries. In line with the organisation’s vision, when they make a donation at the request of a library, estimates of the number of children that use the space are kept in mind so that enough books are sent so that a child can take home at least one book, in addition to those kept by the library.

“Our books are also available online for free with no sign-up required. They can be read, downloaded and printed as the user pleases, so if libraries have computers and Internet access, which is happening increasingly in South Africa, they can also act as a digital reading hub without having to ever pay subscription fees to us.” says Larissa.

Tamarind Tree in Dahanu, Maharashtra, is an experiment in education that is working towards building a culture of learning and equity by aligning itself with a global movement to encourage and use Open Educational Resources (OERs).

Michelle Chawla, Founder of Tamarind Tree says “There is not a single book shop in the entire Dahanu taluka from where a child can buy a book. A few stationery shops in the municipal area may keep a book or two, but that’s insignificant. Contrary to what’s being said about a digital India, there is no broadband infrastructure being set up in the 174 villages of Dahanu taluka, where 68 percent of people are tribals.”

So how are they using OERs and technology?

The school’s e-library server hosts books, newspapers, journals and periodicals, and uses Calibre, a comprehensive and open source e-book management tool. The libre in Calibre stands for freedom, indicating that Calibre is a free and open source product, modifiable by all. The server currently hosts approximately 2000+ books and is hosted in a room on the campus. The server is linked to a 2.4 Ghz radio on the Tamarind Tree network and making the library available anywhere on campus on a digital device (android phone, tablet or a laptop). Students, teachers, visitors can now read books from on their phones or machines on the Tamarind Tree Network without having to log onto the internet.

“There are no joyful children’s books in my mother tongue. Can you please help me?”

Pratham Books’ StoryWeaver regularly receives emails from community members, passionate teachers, librarians and literacy organisations who want to be able to provide the young people they work with, books to read in a language they know. Some of these language additions have resulted in truly amazing things. The creation of 65 books in Kora and Santali (Bangla Script), tribal languages spoken in Birbhum, West Bengal. Over one hundred Konkani books for children to read. Fifty picture books in Tibetan. Suchana, the organisation behind the Kora and Santali translations are printing 10,000 copies of these books to distribute in a number of ways, including a mobile library that plies the six villages they work with.

But what happens when funding is scarce? Communities Rising wanted to stock six after school resource centres in Villupuram, Tamil Nadu with books in Tamil. They downloaded openly licensed books, printed black and white copies of them and then laminated the books in a ring binder. These books are now part of a highly successful reading program the organisation runs that has galvanised children into becoming Super Readers. Innovative educators and organisations are creating libraries that teachers and students can both access in inventive ways that suit their needs.


While these success stories are wonderful to hear, it’s also important to think about existing gaps and how they can be bridged. Technology hasn’t made inroads into all corners of the country. Without an Internet connection, how can these books even be accessed? And then there are issues of quality. While enthusiasm and passion play a huge role in translating books to languages, that doesn’t automatically ensure the quality of community translations. Nurturing translators is of utmost importance, as is the need to provide basic technical education to those who are not digital natives.

Back in 2005, when TED was a toddler, Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia spoke about how he assembled “a ragtag band of volunteers,” gave them tools for collaborating and created the self-organizing, self-correcting, never-finished online encyclopedia. In his TEDTalk, he says, “We might not always meet the highest standards, but we constantly strive to meet them.”

That will to strive towards betterment is fortified when I read an email like this:

“Today, our children were read a story in their mother tongue, Surjapuri for the very time. They were amused, amazed and happy.”

I sit back for a few moments and allow the weight of these words to sink in. What must it be like to read a book in your mother tongue for the first time? If technology is the way through which we can make more books available to more children, then strive we must.

Image courtesy: StoryWeaver

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