Out of circulation

Apr 23, 2013, 07:05 IST | Asha Mahadevan

On World Book Day today, city librarians speak about the difficulties of financially sustaining circulating libraries

Books have long since been considered to be a goody bag of knowledge, and libraries a treasure trove of gateways to another world. But with books being available with the click of a mouse - literally - circulating libraries are fast becoming relics. As World Book Day is observed today, owners of such libraries are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain their businesses financially.

Patrons browse through books at Roxy Library in Mulund. Pic/Sameer Markande

“Running a library is not a profitable business anymore,” admits Arif Merchant, owner, Victoria Book Centre and Circulating Library in Mahim. “My grandfather founded the library more than 60 years ago. Since then, interest in reading books has declined. Now ebooks and online book stores have entered the market. People are busier nowadays, so they have lesser leisure time.

Bharat Chheda. Pic/Sameer Markande

They put in lesser effort to go to a library and get a book to read. Unless they are die hard fans, they don’t want to put in that effort. TV viewing is more convenient to pass the time. Those who do come want self help books and other specific books. They don’t pick up just any book to pass the time. Earlier, reading books was an addiction. Now people come when they have the time. There is no desperation to read. They have other things to do.”

Arif Merchant (right) chats with a patron at Victoria Library. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

Family first
Merchant says he keeps the library going because it is a family business. “Ours is an old establishment and we have a stock of lakhs of books. We don’t have to invest much. Alteration of our business is not a viable option. But we have diversified into becoming a CD/DVD library too.”

Low returns
Bharat Chheda echoes Merchant’s sentiment. His establishment, Roxy Book Shop and Circulating Library in Mulund, is also struggling. “It is difficult to sustain a library nowadays if that’s your only business. Financially, it is not a viable option. We are an old establishment, so we are still running. We do have other businesses such as toy library and DVD library, and a gift shop.”

Nagendra Bhat at the Dombivli branch of Pai’s Friends Library. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

His father founded the library in 1967. “I have been working off and on in this library since I was in Std V and pretty much full time after I finished college. I’ve seen a lot of change since then. Earlier, children used to read a lot, but now children don’t read that much.

Tanisha Arora

There are so many factors - mobile, internet, TV. I am still running the library only because I am passionate about it.” So passionate that he wants to upgrade their technology so that it will be easier for him and his customers to find books in their collection. “The upgradation is expensive so we have to wait for some time to do it. The business requires a lot of investment, but doesn’t give very good returns.”

Nandini Gaur

Chheda admits that he has a slight advantage because his is the only library in the area. But that doesn’t mean he and his team can rest easy. “We get new books within two hours of its release. We update our website, send emails and SMSes about new releases too. We have to do that kind of promotions. We also deliver books to customers at their homes. Many of them don’t have the time to come to the library. If we don’t offer that service, we can lose our customers.”

Manju Singh

Going online
Reaching out to customers is one of the reasons that Pai’s Friends Library in Dombivli has expanded into the online space. The library was founded in 1986 by Pundalik Anant Pai. His initial intention was to found more libraries in metros but then they realised that going online was a more viable option, explains Nagendra Bhat, co-founder of the library’s online division. The library now has a website where customers can order books and return books they have taken from the comfort of their home.

“People just don’t have the time to go to a library and get a book,” says Bhat. “In our library, if you don’t return the book in eight days, we charge a fine. Often, fine charges exceed the book cost. Instead of paying the fine, people keep the book and don’t turn up after that.” He says online sellers have made a huge impact on the business of circulating libraries. “Online sellers started their businesses by selling books at a discount. People read books but buy them instead of going to a library. Added to this, pirated books are available cheaply.”

Adverse factors
Chheda also agrees that online sellers and piracy have tremendously affected his business. “Online stores affect our sales of books but they don’t affect our library transactions. Pirated books are a problem. It does affect our library business. People get books costing R400-500 for R50 on the road. The quality isn’t good, but they just have to read it once and then throw it away. If the government could do something about that, it would really help.”

Staying viable
However, Bhat is optimistic that sustaining libraries is possible. “The best model would be a combination of online and offline libraries. People are still willing to read. We have members who belong to more than three generations of the same family, and each generation has a lifetime membership.”

Chheda says the most important thing that should be done is inculcate the reading habit in children. “Schools should encourage children to read. Reading books will help children develop their imagination. Once the children enter the library and see the books, they are eager to read everything - comics, Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, the Geronimo Stilton series which is extremely popular now.”

Forming bonds
Though they might accept that going online is one way of sustaining a circulating library, Chheda and Bhat agree that the atmosphere of a library and the feel of a book in your hand is something that can’t be replicated in an online environment. Says Bhat, “If a reader is unable to find the book he or she wants, a librarian is in a better position to recommend a book than any customer service associate. Also, some readers want to read the first few pages, browse through many such books before deciding if they want to read the book. We can’t incorporate that online.”

Merchant admits that even though he is not much of a reader, he agrees with those who claim that handling books is a pleasure. “A book is a good companion,” he says. Adds Chheda, “When you read a book online or even on a Kindle, you don’t get the feel of handling a book, browsing through a book. It matters a lot.

We have many members who have been a part of the library since it first opened. They continue to be members and their children and their grandchildren are also our members. Over the years, we have become like a family with the library as their second home. We can attend to them personally. You don’t get this kind of a relationship online.”

Nandini Gaur (23), a retail buyer by profession, has fond memories of her childhood days spent in a library in her hometown in Uttar Pradesh. “When I was in school in my hometown, I used to go to a library near my house regularly with my parents. Many of my friends were also members in the same library. The librarian was like a friend to us,” recalls Gaur, who now lives in Andheri, while adding, “Once we shifted to Mumbai, I haven’t been to a circulating library. I am not even aware if there is one anywhere near my house.”

Location troubles
While circulating libraries try hard to sustain themselves and reach customers, and are few and spread out, it is becoming more difficult for Mumbaikars to locate a library near their home. Arya Tawde, an English school teacher, says, “I have never been a member of a circulating library. But then, there are no libraries near my home.

If there had been one close by, I would have become a member. Nowadays, if I want to read a book, I buy it either from the book store near my house or from an online bookseller. It is very convenient.” But libraries are important in a person’s life, she says. “Libraries have a unique culture - browsing through books, maintaining silence and decorum, respecting books - that should be sustained.”

Alternative options
Tanisha Arora (24), a jewellery designer, says she has been a hardcore book reader since she was in Std VI, but she’s never been to any circulating library. “I like collecting the books I read,” she says. “During school days, I would go to the street libraries, get a book and return it only if I didn’t like it.” Nowadays, Arora, Gaur and their friends have formed their own informal circulating library by buying books they like and lending them to each other.

Says Manju Singh, who through her NGO WorldKids Foundation, inculcates the reading habit in children across schools, “Sitting down and relaxing with a book is a great experience.” Singh has been a member of a circulating library near her home for several years now, and regularly orders books. “But libraries need to advertise themselves,” she says. As Bhat puts it, “In the end, members want books to read. If you can provide them books, they will return.” Also read: English Magazine for the Visually Impaired, Hitlist: pg 7

About World Book Day
World Book Day or World Book and Copyright Day (also known as International Day of the Book or World Book Days) is a yearly event on April 23, organised by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. World Book Day was celebrated for the first time on April 23, 1995. UNESCO decided to celebrate the day on this date because of the Catalonian festival and because the date is also the anniversary of the birth and death of William Shakespeare, the death of writers Miguel de Cervantes, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Josep Pla, and the birth of authors Maurice Druon, Manuel Mejía Vallejo and Halldór Laxness.

Although April 23 is often stated as the anniversary of the deaths of both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, this is strictly not correct. Cervantes died on April 22 and was buried on April 23 according the Gregorian calendar; however, at this time, England still used the Julian calendar. Whilst Shakespeare died on April 23 by the Julian calendar in use in his own country at the time, he actually died 11 days after Cervantes because of the discrepancy between the two date systems. 

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