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Digital Libraries in India
Helping the community through difficult times

Closed colleges, closed schools, closed libraries. In times of Corona digital libraries are needed more than ever. Not only do they provide food for the minds of the young, they also help libraries stay connected with their members. But there are not only advantages.

By Simpy Sharma

What is a digital library? There are many libraries in our country which are growing digitally in areas like cataloguing and circulation, but what is the real meaning of a ‘digital library’? Thinking about the pandemic situation offers a way of reflecting upon what a digital library is and what its role has. At a time when schools, colleges, and libraries are closed, children still want and need libraries to help them through difficult times. When children are at home without online classes from their schools and colleges, they can feel bored and isolated and often do not know how to cope. In times like these they need books to provide food for the mind. As well as being fun, reading books can help lower stress levels and can enhance people’s imagination and empathy.

When it comes to digital library services and programmes, the needs of each community are different.

At the Community Library Project in New Delhi where I am a student council leader, there were a number of reasons why we began to explore the digital aspects of library work. The first was circulation. When we used to manage circulation and cataloguing manually by using cards and envelopes, the cards would fill up quickly as our members read more and more books. Whenever any of the cards were misplaced, we were in trouble. We realised that the cards would have to be stored, but how many cards would we have to store and how? In addition to the challenges of physical storage and organisation, we faced problems whenever we needed to find and compile data. We finally took steps to becoming a digital library and are now able to store our data online.

We now do many things digitally, including:

  1. Circulation and Cataloguing: This was our first step to becoming a digital library. In the beginning we did both things by using cards and envelopes but now we are using the Koha library software. It is easier to keep track of data and manage the records of members or books. We can access information more easily and it saves time. Moving to digital circulation also meant that the staff, the student council members, and other interns from the community were trained to use Koha and gained important skills.
  2. Cyber project: When it comes to digital library services and programmes, the needs of each community are different. At our library, we first set out to survey and understand our members’ digital needs. We used their responses to develop the Cyber Project. Members are able to come in and use the laptops in the library with Wi-Fi for school, work, or for entertainment, much like a cyber cafe.
  3. Duniya Sabki: We made this online programme during this pandemic and named it ‘Duniya Sabki’ (‘The World Belongs to Us All’). At a time when we are unable to loan books to our members, our series of readings ensures they are not going bored and can learn many new things. As well as sending readings we are keeping our members updated by sending them news on ration relief, college admissions, etc. We have learnt many digital skills and are applying these skills in creative ways. The many challenges we have faced include the difficulty in reaching people who don't have smartphones or access to the Internet.
  4. Internet Kholo: The Internet has now become an essential need for students today. During the pandemic all students need the Internet for their online classes but if they do not have the Internet, how can they learn and take classes? Our library team and others demanded more widespread access to the internet via social media using the hashtags: #internetkholo #Freeinternet #Freedata.
  5. Online workshops: We are running online workshops for our library members, enabling them to learn exciting things by staying at home and ensuring that they do not get bored. This is one of the key ways we are expanding the role of our digital library.

While the many advantages of digital libraries are clear, we must not forget their disadvantages too, including:

  1. Environment: Because a digital library is easy to access and has so many advantages, few people consider the significance of the library environment. Digital libraries cannot reproduce the environment of a traditional library. Many people also find reading printed material to be easier than reading material on a computer screen.
  2. No internet: There are people who don't have smartphones or access to the Internet. So how can they use digital libraries? Digital libraries are not beneficial for them. We are doing our best to fulfil our members’ needs, but I don’t think that digital libraries will ever replace the real, physical library. However, learning digital library skills puts us in a position to use these things in a good and creative way for our members in the future.