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Focus on Indian libraries

By Margaret Adolphus


India is the world's largest democracy and one of the oldest civilizations, dating back 5,000 years. The second most populated country in the world after China, it is culturally diverse with 17 major languages and 22,000 local dialects.

Libraries are essential to both civilization and democracy: they gather the former's collective intelligence, and facilitate its access. As a publication from India's National Knowledge Commission (NKC) puts it:

"Libraries have a recognized social function in making knowledge publicly available to all. They serve as local centres of information and learning, and are local gateways to national and global knowledge" (National Knowledge Commission, 2007; p. iii).

India takes its libraries very seriously, seeing them as a way of supporting the information revolution and bridging the divide between the information rich and the information poor. Libraries have played an important part throughout its long history, with the modern library movement dating back to the first half of the nineteenth century, which is considerably earlier than in China (the 1920s). The father of Indian library science, Dr S.R. Ranganathan, is also a key international figure, having contributed one of the first systems of classification.

If all that is not sufficient motivation for superb libraries, India is emerging as a major influence in the global knowledge economy:

  • it has a high proportion of English-speaking professionals in the fields of engineering, science and informatics, many of whom are dispersed all over the world and have become thought leaders with rich domain experience,
  • Thomson Reuters recently reported an 80 per cent increase in research papers from India in the seven years from 2001-2008 (Adams et al., 2009).

Good research and innovation needs to be supported by education – and the Indian Government recognizes this fact, investing considerable funds in it. India currently has over 400 universities and more than 20,000 colleges – according to Chand and Arora (2008), it is the second largest education system in the world. Enrolment, now at 10 per cent, is scheduled to increase to 15 per cent by 2015.

Good research and innovation also needs good research libraries, but libraries in India are as diverse as the social structure of which they are a part. On the one hand, it has been claimed that Indian libraries at their best are equal to those of the UK and North America (Seadle and Greifeneder, 2008), and there are ambitious initiatives under way such as the Digital Library of India, whose stated long-term objective is the digitization of the whole of human knowledge. However, at the other end of the scale is the dilapidated, ill-equipped and ill-staffed village library.

Nevertheless, even the best libraries may not be able to offer their students as many for-cost resources with the same degree of ease of access. One major problem is a relatively low Internet penetration rate (7 per cent, as compared with that of China at around 25 per cent), together with poor connectivity, which can be as low as 2 mpbs.

A knowledge economy

The Indian Government has put much effort into creating the right environment for its knowledge economy. There has been a national task force on information technology and software development since 1998; in 2005, the India Right to Information Act was passed, which gave citizens the right to secure access to information under the control of public authorities.

The same year (2005), the NKC – the first such organization in the world – was established, with the major objectives of:

  • building excellence in education,
  • promoting knowledge creation and its application to agriculture and industry,
  • encouraging information sharing, and
  • abolishing the digital divide.

The importance of libraries as part of the knowledge infrastructure is recognized. Ghosh and Ghosh (2009) point out that the librarian and information specialist has a vital role to play in a knowledge-based society, as intermediaries in the information chain and as professionals who can help to educate users in information literacy. The NKC has set up a working party and has made recommendations, recognizing the need for libraries to modernize their collections, services and facilities, and be more proactive and collaborative.

Anil Kumar is one of India's senior librarians, and runs the library of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. He believes that despite its focus on libraries, the NKC does not have clear plans for how to implement its recommendations. The first priority has been education, where there has been a lot of changes; the next priority is networking and infrastructure, which means that in five years' time all institutions will be networked with a good bandwidth. So the foundations are there, but there's a lack of clarity and direction. And, Ghosh and Ghosh (2009) observe that the relevance of the librarian is often underestimated.

Digital initiatives

There has been a plethora of digital initiatives designed to strengthen access to information, aimed not just at the knowledge elite but also at the rural poor, and at the abolition of illiteracy. Ghosh and Ghosh (2009, pp. 192-194) provide a useful summary. Examples they quote include:

  • National Informatics Centre Network (NICNET) covering e-government.
  • National information centres for scientists, each specializing in a particular discipline or sub-discipline.
  • Various health initiatives, including the National Health Information Centre (NHIC) which uses a satellite service, and the Health Science Library and Information Network, an initiative for sharing medical information, with a mobile digital library to promote health literacy in remote rural areas.
  • Village knowledge centres, which offer a wide range of services – from lending books to banking and community information.

The Digital Library of India (DLI) is one of the more remarkable and ambitious initiatives of the NKC. Its aim is to build up in searchable form a collection of a million books, predominantly in Indian languages, freely available on the Internet. It also seeks to act as an aggregator for India's other digital library initiatives drawn from areas as diverse as the sciences, the arts, culture, music, film, and traditional Indian medicine.

As of 2008, more than 289,000 books had been scanned, of which 170,000 were in Indian languages (Mittal and Mahesh, 2008). The library's multilingual aspect gave rise to obvious technical problems and the DLI is conducting research on how to search across different languages, and the best optical character recognition techniques for scanning 17 different Indian scripts. All the tools and technologies used have been open source.

Academic and special libraries

India has some excellent academic, research and specialist libraries, for example Anil Kumar's own Vikram Sarabhai Library at the Indian Institute of Management, and the complex of 34 libraries in the Delhi University Library System (DULS) which caters for nearly 220,000 students, 7,000 teachers, over 5,000 research students, as well as scholars from all over the world (Singh, 2009).

Image: Figure 1. Vikram Sarabhai Library.

Figure 1. Vikram Sarabhai Library

Nearly all such libraries are hybrid, with a significant amount of automation and networking. Most use web-based online public access catalogues (OPACs) and library management systems (LMS). The standard for LMS is LibSys, developed by a New Delhi-based software company and used by over 1,000 libraries, which has special language handling software.

Kapoor and Goyal (2007) conducted a study of several web-based OPACs and concluded that they were "second generation" – searchable by author, title and control number, log-on and password controlled, and with different interfaces for novice and expert users. Results tend not to be ranked, however, and federated search is limited, meaning that users have to scroll through a large number of results and conduct different searches in different databases, which makes them abandon library solutions for the relative ease of commercial search engines.

Coordinating and sharing resources

The real problem with many scholarly resources, however, is cost rather than retrieval. Libraries all over the developed and developing world are facing a twin assault from reduced budgets and increased publishing prices. Hence the popularity of library consortia – a group of libraries banding together to get a better price. In India, library consortia exist at both national and local level, forming networks of libraries and coordinating collection development.

The best-known academic library consortium is the Information and Library Network (INFLIBNET) consortium. INFLIBNET networks academic libraries, helping them share resources and services. It creates a union catalogue of its libraries' holdings and provides access across the board to full-text and bibliographic databases.

Another large consortia is the Indian National Digital Library in Engineering Sciences and Technology consortium (INDEST), with 15,000 members. Other examples include the Management Libraries Network's (MANLIBNET), whose coverage includes the various institutes of management (set to increase from seven to 13); and DELNET (the Developing Library Network) which is based in New Delhi. Its prime objective is to promote resource sharing among libraries.

There are also local consortia, for example the Calcutta Library Network (CALIBNET) and the Ahmedabad Library Network (ADINET).

Despite the benefits of consortia, there is a risk, according to Moghaddam and Talawar (2008), of duplication and hence wasteful investment, as well as too much concentration on e-resource sharing at the expense of other services. Anil Kumar believes that efforts should be at a national level, with one national consortium responsible for identification and provision.

If consortia networks of libraries make expensive databases more affordable, open access initiatives and digital repositories facilitate sharing of home-grown resources and indigenous collections, and are a major priority in India. Despite some initial individual and institutional reluctance, there are now 36 repositories listed by the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR). Open access is firmly embedded in the publishing industry, with 350 of India's 550 journals being freely available, and all documents related to publicly funded projects must be accessible to the general public.

The picture one gets, however, is of an increasing amount of activity, but with projects happening in isolation: there are a lot of dots, but they are not joined up. According to Kumar, although open access at a basic level has been accepted, the problem still is of knowing what is available and where. He believes that there should be:

"one open access portal with a search engine where you can look up all documents, not just those in institutional repositories, but also any publicly available document."

An even more ambitious project, this time originating outside India, is cited by Kumar as a way of resolving the problem of information retrieval across a large number of databases, as discussed above (although federated search products are starting to be sold in India). This is the Open Library Environment Project (OLE), the goal of which is to link to library catalogues, subscribed journals, digital libraries, and institutional repositories, all accessed by a simple interface.

In addition to being a union catalogue, the OLE also seeks to create a software framework which will free librarians from mundane administrative tasks, and help them spend more time working with scholars. Effectively, it's an open source, community driven, integrated library system and electronic resource management combined. The first deliverable is due in Autumn 2011.

If Kumar is correct, and the OLE Project becomes widely accepted in academic and research libraries in India, then it's a solution which will bring India firmly into the Library 2.0 world of sharing, integration and open source. Essentially, libraries will be leapfrogging over the federated search solution to information retrieval, enabling students through one relatively simple operation to access both the host library's resources and those of libraries all over the world.

Offering a comfortable and convenient space

And so there is a trend, although it may be happening at a varying pace, to look to technological solutions at an aggregated level. But this does not lessen the importance of the library as place.

Kumar believes that the first and fundamental objective of an Indian library is to provide a convenient and comfortable space for study:

"The most important objective of any library in India is to offer the user physical space to come and sit and read. If you look at the social fabric in India, the house of the common person does not have a separate study area like you do in the US or the UK."

Areas for group work and discussion are also important, and, of course, the library houses the collection and the catalogues, both global and local. In a country where Internet connection is still quite low, people need to physically go to the library to access resources.

And finally, it's a source of expertise, a place where the library user will be able to find specialized people who can guide them through searches and help them become more information literate.

Public libraries

Compared with academic and research libraries, public libraries occupy a somewhat Cinderella position. While they are well established throughout the country, in state capitals, district headquarters, talukas (equivalent of county) and in villages, many are poorly managed and in a bad state of repair. Writing around five years ago, one observer commented:

" ... public libraries in India are in an abject state. Possessing neither regularly renewed print collections nor vibrant non-print multimedia resources that could lure in illiterate or semi-literate folk, they suffer from a variety of infrastructure, manpower and monetary constraints, as well as being low in the priorities of policy makers and implementing bodies" (Ghosh, 2005: p. 181).

Since then, there has been some improvement, but it is slow: many public libraries are located in simple thatched buildings, with no information and communication technologies (ICT) connectivity. Public libraries are on the agenda of the NKC, which has come up with some recommendations but no clear plans.

On the other hand, there is talk about the social inclusion role of the public librarian in helping develop grass-roots information literacy skills. Libraries, it is suggested, can offer both access to information and computer classes; they can also become the hub of a community information system.

And there have been some excellent initiatives in particular parts of the country, mainly designed to make government services more accessible to the rural poor: for example, the Gyandoot digital libraries in the Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh, or the Akshaya project in Kerala (Ghosh, 2005).

The biggest need for public libraries is the development of a computer network which can automate both back-end systems and user services, as well as digitize catalogues and resources. As with academic libraries, the creation of a union catalogue becomes a key objective – at a state, regional or national level, and accessed through a single portal.

Needless to say, this is an expensive project, but India's premier information technology institute, the National Informatics Centre (NIC) has developed e-Granthalaya software which can automate in-house activities and user services (Matoria et al., 2007).

Kumar, however, believes that the solution lies not so much in strengthening the infrastructure of public libraries, but in building on the existing libraries of educational institutions – colleges and libraries – which are found all over India. Instead of a number of different libraries all investing in collection development and inevitably duplicating effort, have specialized online collections, and, at a local level, a decent building.

This general local and specialized national approach is one favoured by the NKC, which states that the library network should:

"serve as a local centre of information and knowledge, and be a local gateway to national and global knowledge" (see:

Kumar wants to see a concentration of investment in one or two good libraries, shared across institutions, rather than a scatter-gun approach. He outlines his vision thus:

"At the lowest, grass-roots level, you have libraries which cover all the disciplines, and in different regions of the country, according to the environment, you have special libraries set up which are totally digital. So that, for example, an agricultural library could be set up in Chandigarh or Punjab in the northern part, in the southern part you might set up a technology library, and in the western part trade and business. Together these libraries could form a grid which could be networked into general libraries. So that a person in a very remote part of the country has access to a general library, but is also getting support of the grid library from different parts of the country."

Information literacy and the training of librarians

One of the principal roles of any librarian is to help develop information literacy, whether this be in the area of e-government, health, or high level knowledge work. India is especially conscious of this need, because of its role as a major player in the knowledge economy and its awareness of the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Library instruction and research techniques are taught in most higher education institutions, while knowledge workers in corporations and R&D centres are expected to have high information literacy skills (Singh, 2009). At the University of Delhi, first-year students receive general instruction in information literacy by means of a game, while in subsequent years, programmes are tailored to the specific needs of the student's course.

Public libraries have a recognized, if not always supported, role in developing literate citizens:

"ICT-driven public libraries should act as an intermediary centre with suitable awareness programmes for improving literacy, awareness, welfare and cultural awakening. It is the intention that public libraries could offer a single, integrated environment for the dissemination of information concerned with all aspects of human life" (Ghosh, 2005: p. 183).

Image: Figure 2. Ghosh's vision of the public library as information hub for the whole of human life.

Figure 2. Ghosh's vision of the public library as information hub for the whole of human life

Librarians, according to Kumar, need to move from a purely support role to one where they are partners in the educational process, not only in, but beyond the classroom. That, however, would mean a thorough revamping of library education programmes: currently, graduates coming out of library school don't have much grounding in information literacy. It also means getting back to the importance of the librarian's domain specific knowledge, so that, for example, a business librarian can be trained in the use of relevant resources. This applies to formal education and also in-service training, so that a librarian can be retrained when he or she moves into a new domain area.

An appropriate model of development

Considerable progress has been made, since the turn of the millennium, in the creation of a networked library infrastructure which can support the research and education necessary for India to continue to be a key global player.

However, more needs to be done to:

  • improve dilapidated buildings at the local level,
  • link digital projects so that these do not happen in isolation, with the risk of duplication of effort and funding.

Library education needs to be redesigned so that it takes more account of the need to teach information literacy skills. If this can happen, then perhaps the NKC's objective of local centres of information and knowledge, with gateways to national and global knowledge, can be achieved.

Perhaps the most positive aspect of Indian librarianship is the desire to link disparate digital initiatives into a whole, in order to derive maximum benefit of resource and cost sharing. If technological solutions can be sought at a high level, then we could see an efficiency of resource sharing that bypasses individual institutional attempts to create state-of-the-art electronic libraries, as is happening in the West.

This resource sharing is very Library 2.0, and it may be a model that better suits the developing world. Kumar believes that India, rather than adopting a Western model where libraries fragment into different specialties of public, research, academic, health, etc., should look to a binary model of creating grass-roots level general libraries from existing academic libraries (generally better equipped than their public counterparts), while specialist R&D organizations are converted into digital domain source libraries. The latter would be joined by a grid across the country, so that information would be available in the remotest corner, the grass-roots libraries serving as access points.

That means, it would seem, investing in buildings at the local level, and in networks and collection development at the national level. It also means a highly planned, orchestrated approach, something Kumar sees as missing from current library initiatives.

When asked how he sees libraries developing in the next five years, Kumar is cautiously optimistic, because he feels that the emphasis on research and education provides the necessary encouragement. There's a realization that investment is needed, but a lack of clarity in its implementation.

However, throwing money at a situation does not always resolve it. There needs to be careful planning and joined-up thinking. There is much hope for libraries in India, but it would be a shame if the hope were to disintegrate into a lot of fissiparous projects. Bold thinking and action is called for – and then India may well have libraries that can lead the world.


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