April’s CLG event was the first to feature speakers presenting from across continents. It was an inspiring evening, as Jatin Lalit Singh, Founder of Bansa Community Library & Resource Centre, based in Bansa and New Delhi, and Abhishek Vyas, MPhil Education student at Cambridge University and the Community Library’s Academic Coordinator told the story of Bansa’s genesis and evolution.
Both presenters had backgrounds in law, and it was while Jatin was studying law in Delhi that he came across the Free libraries network with its concept of community libraries, and wondered if this might be something that could work in his own home in Bansa, a village about the size of Soham, in rural Uttar Pradesh. Jatin was aware that his own privileged background had given him a level of access to a range of educational resources especially books, but what about the many in India for whom this was just not possible? Could a community library make a difference? The subject was eagerly discussed online by a group of Jatin’s friends, all of whom were law students, but none of whom had met in person.
Across the road from Jatin's home in Bansa was a temple. Jatin reasoned that as temples have large grounds, there might be room for a small library. The temple authorities and village elders were approached with tentative plans, and these were enthusiastically received. The temple leased out the land for a peppercorn rent, and then Abhishek and Jatin started to fundraise. They were not able to get government funding but interested parties contributed to what they saw as a worthwhile and exciting cause.
An architect friend designed the building and gave it its bright colours.
|Bansa Community Library
Soon shelves were up, and books swiftly arrived to populate them. Volunteers reached out to communities, talking to them about the new resource that was shortly to be available; alongside this, colourful wall paintings (in the same colour as the library buildings) sprang up advertising the library. The publicity was needed, as there was initially some confusion. Villagers wondered if the new building was a kindergarten. Or perhaps it was a school, or a community centre? In truth it was a mixture of everything, but this made advertising and promotion tricky – the Bansa team wondered who exactly were going to be their readers.
Their very first reader, who arrived the day before the official opening, inspired them to a realisation that their readers were everyone. Mr. Mahendra was a 63-year-old man, who was absolutely delighted to discover that there were books available for free, and he soon spread the word excitedly around the village about the new library. As Jatin commented after meeting Mr. Mahendra: “we [knew we] needn’t worry if people would come and read because there was no reading culture, [or] because they didn’t know the concept of community libraries, but that day seeing the zeal and enthusiasm of Mr. Mahendra we were convinced that ultimately readers would find the books if they were there to be found, and the library was open.”
|Mr Mahendra with books
Resources grew, a computer was added to the library’s stock, along with books in numerous Indian languages and dialects, and from further afield too (Dan Brown and Harry Potter both proved popular). Alongside this, classes were started for students preparing for state exams. A conscious decision was made not to promote the building specifically as a library as people had so many, often quite different, ideas of what a library should be. Indeed, Abhishek had been adamant from the beginning that the library should be seen as a resource centre, and this was included in its name; ready to serve, change, and adapt to the needs of the 36 villages that would use its services. For some, the building would be a library and a school, for others a community centre. Dance and music classes, alongside a range of talks were started, and locals of all ages took part in activities there from young children to the elderly.
|Bansa Community Library classes
Children were encouraged to visit the building on the days when new books arrived and took a huge delight in seeing and handling them. Determined to make the community library as inclusive as possible it was decided that there would be no fines. For many even the possibility of a small fine would discourage them from using the space and its many resources, so as a people’s library it is truly open to all with no fines, fees, or subscriptions. Anyone, of any age, can come in, give their name which is jotted down in a book, and can then borrow or use any of the facilities for free. Alongside their work in promoting education the staff of Bansa Community Library also promoted the largely unknown concept to rural India of reading for pleasure.
The library was already offering a range of services across its communities but when India was hard hit by a brutal second wave of Covid, Bansa Community Library and Resource Centre became a vital community hub.
In common with many community buildings worldwide, the library became a Covid testing centre, but Jatin knew that people were dying in the Bansa area sometimes because of a lack of medical resources, other times simply because they lacked knowledge about the disease, so the team decided to start its Rural Covid Relief Work, and this would lead the library to become a focal point in the battle against Covid. Alongside Covid testing, it stocked free medicines and medical equipment – everything from thermometers to hand cleanser and masks, with volunteer staff on hand who could race out to those who were ill, with blood pressure monitoring equipment or oxygen level monitors. They also organized vaccine registration, and even provided transport in exceptional circumstances. Staff were kitted out with bright yellow t-shirts, to match the glorious yellow walls of much of the library, and these t-shirts became a sign of hope in the rural communities of Uttar Pradesh.
Abhishek’s insistence on calling the library a resource centre might have seemed odd at first, but suddenly it made sense. Yes, this was a library, but it was also a place where you could borrow sports equipment or toys, learn to play a musical instrument, or study for exams; a place where children could look at picture books, or where you could find a friendly face with an oxygen monitor for your father.
Since then, the Community Library has made huge strides. Children love the building, and a student council has been established who give regular ideas for how they would like the library to be run, and what projects might be useful going forward. This has been immensely important in engaging them with the work of the library, and in improving their self-confidence, and sense of self, and they have become a vitally important part of the day-to-day running of the library. Classes are run regularly to offer advice on homework, and to provide remedial classes for children who are struggling with specific subjects. Peer to peer learning is also encouraged and has proved extremely popular. Law students and young lawyers volunteer to give talks on basic points of law, and to make everyone aware of their rights and how the law works.
A large LED screen was recently added to resources, and this has meant that virtual classes for all ages can now be held online with volunteer teachers from across the country talking about a range of subjects for all ages and abilities. Earlier this year a Cambridge PhD student talked about STEM subjects to a large and enthusiastic audience. The LED screen has also been used in a recent popular venture - film nights - to which all are invited (Home Alone opened the film season).
As the range of activities increased, some dedicated staff were needed and Bansa Community Library and Resource Centre now has a manager to manage all the activities, and the two librarians who are employed there. A female librarian has been employed as the library has become increasingly popular among female readers and students, who find the community library a safe place to work. Its growing popularity has also meant that it is rapidly outgrowing its current two rooms, and there are plans to ask for land to provide a third.
It was an inspiring talk about an amazing project, and I think we all left feeling proud to know what a difference a library can make, and energized by the enthusiasm of the young team who started and continue to run this incredible project.
The young people of the Student Council have put together a YouTube video touring the Community Library. It gives you a real flavour of the joy that is Bansa Community Library and Resource Centre. Do turn on closed captions when you play the video, and change language of settings to Hindi, to make optimal use of the English subtitles.
You can also follow the team on Twitter @BansaLibrary
All photos are courtesy of Jatin Lalit Singh and Abhishek Vyas, with many thanks for their help.
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