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Focus on Indian libraries

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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.