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Digital Libraries in India
Bridging the digital divide

In India, where top 10% of the population holds 77% of the wealth and close to 80% of the population live in extreme poverty due to lack of access to educational and employment opportunities, the digital divide is only increasing this gap. Access to digital libraries is vital in bridging this divide.

By Geetha M

The importance of libraries in an individual’s life cannot be underestimated. However, in a country like India, there is roughly one library for every 11,500 people in rural areas and one urban library for every 80,000 people. Most of these libraries have not been upgraded. According to the 2011 census, the per capita expenditure on the development of public libraries translates to 7 paise. For various reasons, the potential of library use has not been adequately discussed and campaigned for.

The discussion on the changing role of libraries and the role of digital libraries has barely begun. Access to digital libraries is only available in prestigious higher education institutions. The digitisation of resources is limited to English and at most to Hindi and very few Indian languages. The development of resources in regional languages has been minimal. People are not inclined to use these resources, and the conversation around their use is very limited. The National Digital Library of India, maintained by the Ministry of Education, Government of India is limited to print resources for school level education.
 
In India, where top 10% of the population holds 77% of the wealth and close to 80% of the population live in extreme poverty due to lack of access to educational and employment opportunities, the digital divide is only increasing this gap. A recent study shows that 95% of children surveyed in four states in India did not have access to smartphones or the Internet to access online education during the lockdown period.
 
Access is vital in bridging this divide. This bridging can only happen when different communities participate in discussions around the role of libraries. There is a need to create access to the available information, to make it user-friendly, and to ensure participation from diverse communities. The archiving of knowledge needs to be supported through various means so the knowledge hierarchy can be broken. Interestingly, technology allows for the easy creation and widespread sharing of diverse knowledge systems, yet sometimes also imposes barriers.
 

Interestingly, technology allows for the easy creation and widespread sharing of diverse knowledge systems, yet sometimes also imposes barriers.

Geetha M


 
Imagining the possibilities of what libraries can offer has been a work in progress through the Haadibadi community library, that I have co-founded and continue to engage with. We are now seeing broader engagement and more stakeholders participating in this community library building process. Libraries also fulfil the role of providing information and opportunities for the community to participate in the global economy. We are working towards creating a database to provide information on educational and work opportunities and to support people in applying for these through the centre. The world is increasingly moving towards digital and information technology-based services. People are required to participate in this process by learning to use technology. We have been working on introducing digital literacy in the library and digitising the library’s resources to increase access for everyone.
 
The neighbourhood of this community library constitutes of marginalised communities, where people have migrated from rural areas in search of better livelihood. They are mostly daily wage workers, domestic workers, and garment labourers, who are willing to invest everything in educating their children. Many people can only afford schools where the quality of education continues to limit their learning and participation. In many cases, without adequate support and role models, these students drop out of education and become part of the vicious cycle of poverty and marginalisation. In this context, the libraries offering access to diverse information and knowledge systems have an opportunity to enhance the utilisation of resources and promote economic benefits.
 
The Annual Status of Education Report survey shows that in India, 73% of grade 7 children are still at grade 2 reading level. Only 27% of grade 3 students can read grade 2 level texts. Such a scenario pushes us to re-imagine the idea of literacy learning in the community. Learning to read is as much a social activity as it is the endeavour of educational institutions. The community has to model and lay emphasis on the act of reading and particularly reading/learning for critical thinking. We are trying to push for a community of readers who will then be role models for younger children to pursue reading for learning, pleasure, responsible participation etc. While on the one hand, we are pushing for the library to be used as a space to facilitate literacy, we are also striving to make it a platform for opportunities for independent learning. We encourage parents to be part of reading and discussion circles and to use the space to think and reflect on their roles and aspirations as parents. Through this library space, we envisage building dialogue among students and parents to facilitate better participation in the knowledge economy.
 
The COVID-19-imposed lockdown and shutting down of library spaces has really pushed us to rethink how we use our digital platforms to enable communities to make better use of the library. It has forced us to rethink what these spaces can be like and what it means for communities to participate. We have explored some opportunities through the library but I know that there is so much that I need to learn to continue to contribute to the process.

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