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From Vision to Mission: Free Libraries, Digital Libraries, Together

What does a digital library mean for the free library movement? How does it work? What has been the experience of librarians in building digital libraries?

By Simpy Sharma

On 19th August 2021, at 10:20 AM, librarians spread across three community libraries in Delhi and Gurgaon were trying to find a working link. This link was for a webinar of “Trends for the Future” session by the Emerging International Voices at the WLIC 2021, in which a presentation was going to be made on the digital library work done by free community libraries. After many minutes of confusion, the correct link was found and shared and around twenty librarians joined and held their breath for the presentation to begin.

Because of technical difficulties, the video presentation could not be fully played at first. After some time and effort, it was played. I and my colleagues at The Community Library Project were all smiles when it was played. We were able to share our ideas about the free library movement and digital libraries with so many people all over the world.

During the Congress, we also heard many interesting thoughts about technology and libraries from librarians who work in different places with different conditions. Damilare Oyedele, for instance, said in his session, “it [technology] is the future of libraries and the future is now. This connects that it is essential for libraries to harness various technology tools to offer services. Building on this, physical library space will be redefined to foster a hybrid library system over the next decade”. We, too, at TCLP have begun to use technology a lot more than before. For us, we have our Duniya Sabki online library where we use technology to make videos and audios and we use technology to share these with our members. We provide access to laptops, headphones and WiFi in our physical library spaces, we do many trainings and workshops online, and we help our members to register online for Labour cards and Vaccines. All of these important programs are connected to how the library uses technology.

After the Congress, we asked community librarians who had tuned in to the presentation to share why they thought technology was important for free libraries and what challenges library members face when it comes to technology.

It is vital for community libraries to run programs which can build real, meaningful access to books. These programs are especially important in communities which have not had access to books. One of the programs run in the The Community Library Project space in Khirki Extension, New Delhi, is a seven week intervention in Hindi and English reading fluency which was moved online in 2021. Bhawna, a Reading Specialist who teaches these interventions, says, “Some of the major challenges that members face are opening links on a web browser, setting appropriate volumes, using shortcut keys, and sharing their screens.”.

 Sonia is a coordinator of a community library in Gurgaon, India. Right before the COVID-19 lockdown began in India, this library with around 1200+ members, most first-generation readers, was asked to vacate their premises. The library had begun a digital library program during the pandemic to reach the members who could access smartphones and basic internet packs. The library reopened in July 2021, after a year and a half.

Sonia has seen the library under both circumstances - before, where the use of technology was limited to now, when technology plays a role in so many of the library programs and in the physical space as well. She says there are two sides to this. “Using technology in our libraries is giving us the chance to do many things in a better way. It is making our job a little easier, we are able to save all our library data in one place, we are able to create elaborate reports on our numbers and data which allow us to reflect in more detail about the work we are doing. Because technology is freeing up our time by allowing us to do some of our work faster, we are able to give more time to interacting with members.”

But we face many challenges. “There is a fear that because some members cannot access technology, it will stop them from coming to the library. They may feel inferior, or compare themselves to one another on the basis of technology. Technology creates that difference.”

Najish is a librarian at The Community Library Project in Khirki. She has made dozens of video read-alouds for members to watch on their phones at home, and now that the library has reopened, she does both - live read alouds with members who walk into the physical space and ask for a story, and recorded read-aloud videos and sound recordings for the online library channels. 

“At this time, technology is playing a vital role for developing the free libraries all over the world. With the help of technology libraries can connect with library networks. They have resource sharing options too with other libraries in a short time. With the use of technology libraries are expected to provide more information quickly and in greater volume than before. So adapting the technology libraries can serve their members in the best way and it's a very good solution in order to develop skills.”

Like Sonia, Najish is also very aware of the limitations of technology. “Many people don't have access to the internet and other technological resources, nowadays most of the libraries are using technologies so members don't know how to use library tools.They don't know  how to use OPAC, how to access the right information quickly and how to retrieve information using library databases etc. Sometimes members have a lack of knowledge of technology, so I think most of the time they can feel inferior that they couldn't find the information with the use of technology quickly and it's a big challenge for them.”

To conclude, as we always say, “we work for the free library movement”. 

All of us, our work, our principles in action, create the free library movement. We want that everyone gets to read books, that too for free, that no one is stopped from reading books. When we use technology, it has to fit into this goal. For many years and even today so many people are kept away from books and reading because of caste oppression, class, gender, and more. There are so many public libraries which do not allow everyone in equally, they charge so much money that most people cannot go there. As part of the free library movement, we are creating excellent community libraries that are free and open to all and technology can help us work towards our mission better.