On the 3rd October, 2015, the Saiden village, located near Nongpoh (headquarter of Ri Bhoi district of Meghalaya) opened its own public library. This event is very significant for many reasons. Firstly, the opening of a library is happening at a time when libraries are facing a crisis of relevance. The growth of digitization and information technology has come up as an alternative source of information. The internet revolution which started more than two decades ago has brought about a rich plethora of information sources which any library, especially one such as this one, would find it extremely difficult to compete with. But the most important innovation that makes internet superior is the ease at which information can be searched. One does not have to spend a lot of time searching for what they want. A few key words typed into a search engine and we can have all the information we want. This ease and extravagance of information is hard to beat. This is a general problem that libraries are facing around the world. Secondly, there is a specific problem that has been making the news recently, the purported Digital India Revolution – the attempt to improve online infrastructure and provide internet connectively to the remotest parts of rural India. All of this suggests that the odds are heavily stacked against a library, especially one as such that has started in a nondescript location. So is the library doomed to failure? Not at all, in fact the opposite is the case.
The basis of all information technology are not electronic equipments but electricity, i.e., power. Power is the juice that makes all these technologies function and without electricity none of the sophisticated gadgets will work. They will be nothing more than scarps of metal. So in order for information technology to change the lives of the people, provision of electricity is the prime requisite. However, just over half of the rural households in India use electricity as their primary source of lighting, which means that almost half of the rural households have no access to electricity. In North East India, except Sikkim which has a very small population base and huge hydroelectric potential, a substantial proportion of rural population is still living in darkness. The case of Meghalaya is much worse with rural electrification being lower than the national average. Access to electricity and enjoyment of reliable service are not the same things. Even in places that get electricity, it is only for few hours. Furthermore, load shedding especially during dry months is a major problem and a common recurrence in Meghalaya. The memory of the power crisis from the previous year is very fresh. This means that around half or more of the people in the state are not be able to take advantage of the benefits of information technology and as such will be bereft of the benefits of the Digital India initiatives. This situation can be replicated throughout the country. Access to reliable electricity is not the case at the present, and while it is hoped that this should change as soon as possible, thinking rooted in fantasy is not helpful. But the argument that since the benefits of information technology cannot be accrued at the moment libraries are relevant is also not the right approach. Arguing from the negative is not sustainable. So what are the advantages of having a physical library?
Libraries retain one aspect which digital technologies have taken away from us – the human contact. Learning is not a solitary exercise. While one can read alone but if one wants to truly understand and grasp the full implications of what is being learned it has to be shared. Knowledge grows by debate and deliberations. It needs a space where people can come together. One can argue that information technology does provide that space. The advance in information technology has indeed brought the world closer but this is being done at a very highly individualized manner. We can connect with anyone in the world (provided they want the same) which brings us into contact with people who share the same ideas. Ideas are exchanged, collaborations launched and relationships established. But all of this is done without any physical human contact. This lack of human contact is further reinforced by another aspect of information technology – personalization. All of this is ‘done by you, for you and on your own device’. It is an individual who establishes the connection, for his/her personal interest and done on a personal device, i.e., computers or phones. The most important implication of all this is that here, it is persons coming together not people. And this is the biggest challenge to learning: learning progresses by engaging with those who have a different perspective rather than spending time with people who think in the same way. The lack of direct contact can also hinder learning in another way. I may learn a lot from YouTube but it is not the same as sitting in a class. In a class I can directly interact with the teacher in a two-way process, which is what learning is all about. Here knowledge is being created because of the interaction rather than it being delivered unto us. Even when a two-way communication over virtual space is possible it is more efficient when physical face-to-face contact is practiced. Skype has not replaced seminars and conference where people from all over the disciplinary field come together physically to discuss their work. More of these seminars and conferences are in fact required. A library is a place where people can come into physical contact with each other. This physical contact in turn helps prevent knowledge becoming an incomplete and passive entity.
But maybe the most important appeal of a physical library and a public one as such is that it provides a very important social service. Internet is not a free commodity and the information that we access has a price tag on it. Depending on how high we can pay, efficiency of the service varies. Also many sites, especially academics-related are paid sites where payment is required to access materials from it. However a public library provides the same service to everyone. Here all are equal. Again, people who reside in areas that have no electricity can still enjoy the services of a library – you don’t need electricity to be able to read a book, a candle light will do. A library provides knowledge to everyone irrespective of which class they belong to and what area they reside in. In many developed nations, e.g. USA, public libraries have become a place where the homeless come to read during the day time before returning to the streets or their shelters at night. Whether our libraries back home perform this function is not known. But this demonstrates the capacity of libraries in promoting social well-being.
In Meghalaya more than 1/4th of the people are illiterate and almost half of the population resides in darkness. In a situation such as this the efforts of the people of Saiden in coming forward to establish a public library is highly commendable. It has a great potential to act as a vehicle for improve the lives of the people of the surrounding area as well. It is hoped that this effort will have an effect to galvanize others to start similar initiatives in the rural areas of the state and bring learning and education to everyone.