This is the story of a children’s library.
Come evening and twice a week, the library came to life. It was not a big, or even a lavishly stocked one, and was run in the small balcony of a two BHK ground floor flat in a middle class housing society. The membership was open to all children – from those who were old enough to hold a book, to those in high school. In addition to the two rickety slotted angle shelves holding children’s books, there was the large book shelf in the living room holding the spanking new and gorgeous volumes of World Book Encyclopedia! It was like the reference section in any library and anyone who wanted to refer to them had to sit there and read or take notes for their school projects.
The lady who ran it was not a trained librarian. She was a member and a voluntary home librarian of the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children. The Association lent 25 books at a time to the home librarians, which were then exchanged periodically at the main library. This limit on the books however didn’t work for her, since within days of starting her library, there were more members than the number of books she had brought home! She had to hastily add some books from her children’s collection so that she didn’t have to send away any child disappointed. Her elder son lent his books only after clearly inscribing them with his name to establish ownership! She later got special permission to get more books from the main library.
The subscription fee was a nominal one of Rs.2, which was meant to make the children feel that they were actually subscribing to the library and not getting books for free.
At first only the children who loved books came in but soon parents began urging their children to enroll as members. Some were shy, others were curious and yet others loved lounging on the sofa and browsing through the books. Some children didn’t want to come and avoided the lady when they saw her in the apartment complex. She simply smiled and waited. Sure enough they began drifting in slowly, for most of their friends were absent on library days and they were also curious about the ‘thousands of books’ that were supposed to be there in the mysterious library! The numbers kept growing and soon there were over 100 children, not just from the society itself, but from neighbouring ones too. Library days were more eagerly anticipated than holidays.
The books were arranged in three sections – picture books, books for the slightly older ones and those for adolescents and teens. The books were mostly fiction, with some reference books but had no comics. She observed the children to see their reading habits, level and interests and gently encouraged them to take books that they would be able to read and would also find interesting. But if they wanted to borrow books that she knew were beyond them, or lower than their level, she still let them take them. They would find out for themselves what worked for them!
She sat with the smaller ones, helping them choose the picture books, sometimes telling them the story or reading to them. She helped the older ones with suggestions about which books to take. Her elder son helped in this and also maintaining the lending register. Since he had to take the books only on the stipulate days like the others, he tried to hide the books that he wanted to borrow on the next library day so that others wouldn’t find them! Of course he was caught and the ploy stopped working 🙂 But it was the youngest ones who came with their elder siblings to borrow books that stole her heart. She knew that they pestered their mothers to read them the stories and the way they acted all grown up, choosing what they liked warmed the cockles of her heart.
Within a few weeks, she came to be known as Library Aunty. Most of the kids didn’t know her by any other name and the elders too soon fell to addressing her as such.
She organized drawing and creative writing competitions for various age groups and invited her friends in the field to judge them and interact with the children. But the high point was the quiz competition conducted by the famous children’s writer and her good friend, the late Dilip M.Salwi. His books on science have demystified the subject for children and he has written all genres, including science fiction and plays. His science quiz books especially were very popular with kids. It was a special day for the children as they got to interact with the celebrity writer, who mingled easily with them without overwhelming them with his personality. It was a great loss to children’s literature when he passed away in 2004, barely into his 50s.
A couple of years ago, when the lady returned to the locality that she had left over two decades earlier, she was greeted enthusiastically by the now grown up children and their parents. They had not forgotten the Library Aunty, who had turned a whole lot of them into readers for life.
Over the years I have earned many sobriquets, but the one I cherish most is — Library Aunty.
I have already told you how I became one. Let me tell you why I became one. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, north-west Delhi was just coming up and schools in the area were more intent on academics than on extracurricular activities especially extra reading. At best they had tiny libraries which were there often as mere tokens than for encouraging the reading habit. Even parents didn’t give reading much importance. Starting the library was for me therefore the most logical thing to do under the circumstances.
And I was paid back — still being paid back manifold — for my efforts. When little children called out, ‘Good morning, Library Aunty!’ it made the day a little brighter. When I saw the kids discussing a particular book or recommending it to their friend, it made me glow. And when parents thanked me for taking pains to keep the library replenished regularly from the main library – which involved 50 km round trip — it humbled me.
Running a children’s library is not exactly tough, but requires a lot of commitment and love – both for children and books. When I read Rachna’s post about the librarian in her son’s school, who was actually discouraging kids from reading, I was reminded of that gentle lady who ran the children’s library at Children’s Book Trust in the 80s and 90s – Kamaljit Kaur. Her unobtrusive presence, her keen observation of children and their reading habits and her gentle demeanour with which she enthused them to read, were qualities every librarian should possess.
Libraries can be unconventional ones, run from anywhere — a park, a home, a school verandah. Innovation is often the name of the game — like Priti Gandhi’s mobile rural libraries. When I recently read about her pioneering efforts to popularize books and reading among poor rural children through her mobile library, I felt a special kinship with her. Do read her story.
The crowning moment for me as a librarian came last year, when a young woman who had been a member in my library, wished me on Teachers’ Day saying that I was the teacher who had taught her the joys of reading. What more can I ask for?
The other posts in this series on Books and Reading:
Images courtesy: Homepage- Pinterest.com This page-Allaboutarchitects.com