The Madras High Court recently had occasion to comment on the significance of libraries for the intellectual upliftment of society, calling on the State of Tamil Nadu to file a comprehensive report on the steps carried out to take the public library movement in Tamil Nadu to the next level.
Opining that the significance of public libraries cannot be lost in our increasingly digital world, Justice M Dhandapani also remarked that while Google can fetch 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring back the right answer.
“It would not be out of context here to state that every citizen in this country carries a smartphone and any information required by the individual can be googled in no time. However, it is to be pointed out that though “Google can bring you back 1,00,000 answers, a librarian alone can bring you back the right one”. This requires much more sophisticated and automatic indexing of the resources which is the need of the future, as digital libraries providing audio, visual, Multimedia, etc., would attract the public to use the system to greater benefit,” the order said.
Keeping in view the object of the Tamil Nadu Public Libraries Act and its Rules, and in hopes of navigating ways to improve the system, the Court proceeded to direct the State to file a report on the following aspects:
- The staff strength and vacanciesacross various libraries in the in the State
- The utilisation of fundscollected in the form of cess and other payments received towards membership, as also the funds provided by the Government to the Local Library Authorities.
- The provision of e-facilities for the library information system, digital access or digitization of materials and the forms of digital records or materials maintained with the various Local Library Authorities and the funds allotted for provisioning such digital access.
- Programmes conducted in the form of lectures or classes and the steps taken forsharpening or honing the skills of librarians and other staff members associated with libraries for their better performance and in guiding the public.
- The blueprint, if any, drawn by the State and the Director of Public Libraries for the establishment of new libraries across the State, especially in the villages, in consonance with the library movementinitiated by the Government in 2009 (2009-2010 was celebrated as the Library Rejuvenation Year), and for improving the stature and infrastructure of present libraries.
- Steps taken by the authorities to promote reading habits among the public, more especially, among the school going students.
- Efforts taken for the establishment of libraries in Government run institutions and also for taking the public library movement to the next level by bringing in active public participation.
Case before the Court
The Court was dealing with a batch of petitions challenging an amendment to the Rules under the Tamil Nadu Public Libraries Act, whereby the Director of Public Libraries was given the power in employing and transferring library staff in public libraries.
The petitioners contended that provision vesting such power on the Director of Public Library usurped the powers granted to local library authorities in matters relating to the appointment and conditions of service of the personnel under the local authorities.
The petitions were ultimately dismissed, with Justice Dhandapani opining that the Local Library Authorities had not been granted exclusive powers in these matters.
“… it is to be held without any iota of doubt that the power of appointment vested with the District Library Officer is only discretionary and not mandatory, as is evident from the usage of terms forming the said provision and also on a consideration of the entire gamut of facts as revealed by the records placed before this Court”, the Judge ruled.
Libraries of the world under threat
Having concluded the immediate dispute, however, the Court’s attention was drawn to the general state of functioning of public libraries throughout Tamil Nadu, its maintenance and upgradation.
“The libraries of the world are under threat … Libraries are essential in a process of giving citizens access to knowledge. In digital times they are needed more than ever before. In times of the internet, everyone can visit a library without leaving home. It is just a matter of opening a library website, and you can not only borrow an ebook but also ask the librarian an online question. Most importantly, however, libraries are the places where you can expect smart and clear answers to even the most difficult questions“, Justice Dhandapani opined.
Among other observations, the judge went on to remark that libraries play a fundamental role in our society.
“They are the collectors and stewards of our heritage; they are organizers of the knowledge in the books they collect – adding value by cataloguing, classifying, and describing them; and, as public institutions, they assure equality of access for all citizens. They take the knowledge of the past, the present, and lay it down for the future,” he said.
The Court further noted that there are various provisions in the Public Library Act which deal with the materials that ought to be available in a library, the provision of lectures and holding of classes by public libraries, and the ways in which the library can impart knowledge to the locality as a part of the Education Department.
However, the Court lamented that these beneficial provisions remain on paper and such events rarely take place at libraries.
“… nowhere in any of the libraries throughout the State such activities are performed for the benefit of the residents of the locality”, the Court said.
A paltry number of libraries in villages
Another issue flagged by the Court concerned the disproportionately low number of libraries in the villages of Tamil Nadu. The total number of libraries in villages, according to statistics maintained by the State, stood at 1,915, the Court observed. While so, there were 15,979 villages in Tamil Nadu according to 2011 census information.
Even if part-time libraries were factored in, the Court pointed out that “it is manifestly clear that for the 15979 villages, only a paltry number of libraries, viz., around 1915 village libraries, 14 mobile libraries and 745 part-time libraries, are alone available, which works out to roughly 15% of the strength of the villages.”
The Court added that libraries are also vital for the advancement of socially and educationally backward classes.
“Everything you need for better future and success has already been written. And guess what? All you have to do is go to the library,” the Judge said.
Libraries in villages to be opened as they were prior to COVID-19 pandemic.
In another order passed the same week, by another Bench comprising Justices MM Sundresh and S Ananthi, the Madras High Court also directed the State authorities to re-open public libraries in villages in a full-fledged manner, like they used to be prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (M Soundarya v. The State of Tamil Nadu and ors).
The Court was hearing a plea raising grievance that public libraries other than those in villages have been re-opened by the State, whereas COVID-19 restrictions only continues for libraries in villages. The petitioner sought the re-opening of village libraries as well, subject to compliance with COVID-19 safety norms.
The Court directed the State to resuming the functioning of libraries in villages throughout Tamil Nadu opining that there is no logic in not opening village libraries, when the libraries in towns and cities are open,
“It is well known that pandemic has not spread to the villages as done to the cities and towns. In such view of the matter, we direct the respondents to open the Libraries in the villages throughout the State bringing the same position prior to pandemic. The aforesaid action will have to be done within four weeks from the date of receipt of a copy of this order,” the Court said.