Tete-a-tete with Mridula Koshy, community organizer, The Community Library Project
We had the opportunity to interact with Mridula Koshy, who along with her partner Michael Creighton started the Community Library Project. Read on to know how Mridula started her journey of building a community library which is sustainable and replicable across different communities.
- What was the motivation behind starting The Community Library Project? Can you take us through the initial years of setting up and running the library? How did you attract visitors in the initial months?
Initially, my partner Michael Creighton and I were trying to do a small good thing in reading to a couple dozen children at a school run by Deepalaya NGO. But we realized there was in fact no library in the school of nearly 500 students and we started a school library run by school staff. Some years later when the school closed, we were given permission by Deepalaya to run the library as a community library in the Ramditti J R Narang Learning Center. By a community library we mean a library that is free and open to all. The first visitors to the library were children who had been scattered by the school closure. Word of mouth brought more.
We adopted best practices like a truly accessible admission process so that even a 5 year old can self enroll, a policy of treating everyone with love (pyar se) and a policy of never fining members for lost books (members who lose books instead work for a few hours in the library).
Today we are registered as an independent Trust and while we run our libraries in collaboration with other organization like Deepalaya NGO and Agrasar NGO, we also have our eyes on the prize of a publicly owned library system.
2. You have written three books, are the characters in your stories inspired by people you have met while working in communities?
The questions in my books, my curiosity about these questions, are the most important connections between my writing and the lives of those around me. I write to answer questions raised in the real life world. My third book, Bicycle Dreaming, is my attempt to understand how family life is sustained among the working class. I wanted to know if there is a level of poverty below which family life — mutual love and sacrifice — is not sustainable. The book is set in a single household in which the father is a waste worker. The story is from the perspective of his young daughter who responds with confusion and anguish as Mohamad Saidullah loses his job as a kabadiwala and sinks into the lower rungs of waste work, i.e. scavenging on the waste heap.
3. With much of education becoming more digital, why is it important to encourage analogue experiences?
Some information is only available on-line these days, and we think that access to that content is important. But in areas where access to digital information is limited — which is to say most of Delhi — a printed book is still the most reliable way for people to access ideas and information. We’ve often joked that for most of our libraries’ members, a book is still the best app around.
And we should be clear: books have a centuries-long track record of working with people of all ages. They don’t distract readers with notifications; they demand and encourage sustained attention in a way that many digital tools don’t. In a larger sense, we think all children should have access to opportunities to think and play in real-life.
Our read alouds are successful, in large part, because they are social experiences that take place in real life. In our Head Start program for 4–6 year olds, children hear stories, solve puzzles, and engage in art and imaginative play.
4. What are the different kinds of reading initiatives you run at the library to help children improve their reading skills? What obstacles or challenges have you encountered along the way?
We read aloud to children dozens of times a week, and we have worked to create a culture where children read to each other. That, along with the fact that we allow children access to books, is the single biggest thing we do to help children improve their reading.
In read alouds, they learn that books are worth reading, and the point of reading is to make meaning, to think. There is a great deal of robust research that says children who are read to are better readers and students.
In addition to read alouds, we run annual camps for members who want to improve their reading fluency and stamina. We’ve seen great results: in three weeks, students not only read faster, as measured by our pre and post assessment data, but we see them reading more confidently and more adventurously.
Our experience and research confirms what many of us suspected: most children in Delhi can read, but very few can read very well. This is true in large part because schools may give children time to answer questions and revise lessons, but there is little time given to students to actually practice reading. And without a great deal of practice, no one can be anything but a functional reader, capable of filling out forms, but incapable of accessing and engaging with the ideas that are found in literature, history and science.
5. How does the library work on a regular basis? How many students does the library host every day? And how many students have you impacted so far?
At our first location inside a Deepalaya Learning Center, we have signed up 1400 members; most of them are children. Around 900 of those we have signed up are using the library with regularity. Some days we see up to 200 children in the library. The library circulates books 4 days a week. The Reading Room is open all 7 days.
Around 850 children have read 10 books or more and around 50 have read 100 books or more. Most importantly children in the library know reading is for thinking and not just for learning and memorizing facts.
6. Where do the books come from? There may be many books, how do you go about selecting them? Do you have a single-handed screening process? What are some books that children are always drawn to? Any bestsellers?
We either purchase our books with donated money or receive donations of new or used books. The greatest need is for engaging reading material in Hindi. We also have books in English and some books in Bengali and Urdu. The vast majority of our collection is fiction although we have a strong selection of current non-fiction of general interest. Even older children in our library strongly prefer picture books and our collection of 6000 titles includes around 1500 picture books. Of course we have a strong selection of comic books, as well. We try to find books of greatest relevance to our members and often these are books that have settings that are recognizable to our members.
But our members also enjoy books with unfamiliar settings and book like the Hindi translation of Pippi Longstocking (A and A Book Trust) is as beloved as is a Tulika, Pratham or Young Zubaan story set in India.
7. Why do you think The Community Library Project appeals to children and teens?
Children and teens who come to our libraries find out soon enough that books are a way to think. Volunteers who read aloud all week long to children give them multiple opportunities to discover how stories operate, how a narrative mores forward, how it is full of rhythm and rhyme, fun and adventure, unexpected twists, turns, and all around bafflement. These read alouds get children thinking by demonstrating that reading and thinking go together. The volunteer explicitly asks children to think: ‘What will happen next? What do you think?’
Often enough stories we read aloud provide for thinking that is fun and enjoyable. Children also have plenty of opportunities to discover books are a way to think about the things that make them sad and angry. Again a read aloud can prove a comforting place to explore sadness through books.
Initially, most of our members are reliant on read alouds to access the pleasure of thinking sad and happy thoughts with books. Eventually, they read on their own — for the same pleasure of thinking.
8. Any exciting projects you have on the horizon?
It’s not on the horizon quite yet but we can imagine a future in which we will have worked our way out of this job of running community libraries. There will instead be publicly owned libraries — a 1000 of them in Delhi alone — where people of all backgrounds will be allowed equal access to books and literature of their choosing.
9. Do you have a favorite writer?
I have many favourite writers. I especially love a writer recommended by favourite readers. These days I try to read everything recommended by my son. Recently he told me to read China Mieville.
Mridula Koshy is a community organizer and writer. She brings people together to create libraries in communities that would not otherwise have access to books and reading. Her most recent novel, Bicycle Dreaming (Speaking Tiger) is an exploration of family life in a waste worker community in New Delhi. Her novel Not Only the Things That Have Happened (Harper Collins India) was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award. Her short story collection, If It Is Sweet (Tranquebar Press and Brass Monkey Australia) won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award. You can read more about her work here.