Last week, I had written about a mobile library serving children in rural Punjab. Business Standard (July 09, 2005) now reports on Hippocampus, a children's library in Bangalore started by Umesh Malhotra. As Malhotra describes it,
Hippocampus is not a library, or a club, a work shop, or a community centre — it is all that and more. We call it an experience centre — a vibrant and dynamic environment offering an almost endless range of opportunities from every area of life.
Today, the Hippocampus library has more than 7,000 books for children to choose from. Children can choose and watch DVDs in the film room, or play games on the available PCs. Kids can choose from six Hippocampus clubs — the Art Club, Music club, Journalism Club (a club which lets them start their own newspaper), Nature Club, Cooking Club and the Adventure Club — and particpate in themed monthly activities and creative learning forums.
Our experience centre in Bangalore’s Koramangala residential area was set up for privileged children. In December 2004, we opened a second centre. But we’re far from being just a library for rich kids. The Hippocampus Reading Foundation, which we set up together with our non-profit partners like the Akshara Foundation, among others, is involved in setting up libraries for kids in slum communities, government schools, and NGO-run schools.
We currently run 38 such libraries. They have to prove that they are serious enough about the cause to raise a one-time investment of Rs 5,000 per 20 kids. After that, we work with them on an ongoing basis for free. We have also introduced a reading reward system whereby children are positively reinforced for their reading habits, with quarterly day trips organised for winners. Ultimately, we want all children to read. Just this week, along with Wipro, we began a pilot run of taking over library transformations in lower income group schools. We loan the initial investment to these schools who repay based on an affordable installment plan.
This is not a business opportunity, it was born out of the realisation that we need to fix a problem in school libraries and that all our work can’t be outside schools. We want our entire reading programme to be built around a sustainable model. We charge our beneficiaries in different segments based on their income levels. Today, because our work with less privileged children has expanded so much, we’re running on a bit of a deficit. But we’re working on alternative revenue streams like developing reading fluency assessment tests that we can then sell to mainstream schools for profit. In two years, our entire programme will be self-sustaining.
In the article, Umesh Malhotra also explains how his experience with public libraries in the U.S. prompted him to start Hippocampus.
We need many such affordable libraries in India not just for children, but for adults too. When I returned to Chennai from the Cornell in 1995, the one thing that I missed the most (apart from email and the web) was access to Cornell's excellent libraries. Fortunately for me, the American Library and the British Council Library in Chennai were able to fill the void to some extent. The lack of good libraries got me so worked up, I wrote up a proposal to set up a library in Chennai but found that most people I talked to thought it was the government's job - forgetting the fact that the government was doing little about it and what little it was doing was being shoddily done. I remember making a few visits in 1995 to the Connemara Public library (one of the four national depository libraries in India where a copy of every book published in India is supposed to be available according to the Delivery of Books and Newspapers Act, 1954) and the District Central Library on Mount Road in Chennai, but gave up after a while because the maintenance of the library and the response of the staff was so poor, it was simply not worth the trouble.
There is a strong need for libraries today and I'm very impressed by Umesh Malhotra's focus on making the library inexpensive and affordable to all, but nevertheless finding ways of developing alternative profitable revenue streams to make the entire project self-sustaining. That's the way to go. There's no point being at the mercy of grants from the government or other NGOs and there's no way the nominal membership fees will come anywhere close to covering costs.
An entirely new "public" library system (public not as in state-funded, but as in accessible and affordable to all) needs to come up as an alternative to the public libraries. This will help address the needs of a people hungry for knowledge as well as be a big boost for the English and regional language publishing industry in India as well.
The model of NRI librarian - Jaswant Singh, who has set up mobile libraries in rural Punjab, Umesh Malhotra's Hippocampus and many other such library models across the country that we haven't heard of need to be transplanted all over India.