A Library That Nurtures Choice And Freedom

by | Jan 11, 2023

I bleakly recall the image of me as a child looking with awe at the encyclopaedia and a lot of giant picture books kept high up on the shelf of our school library. We used to have a library period when we would go through the shelves and pick up a book with our own hands – usually a Champak, a Chandamama, a Tinkle or any other such fun-looking story book. However, we were handed down the Scientific American magazine.

Additionally, we were told to not even touch the bookshelves, forget carrying these books back back home. At that time, I used to wonder if reading books for pleasure would make me look ‘non-studious’. It was a term not appreciated enough. So, I’d quietly read Scientific American magazine to ‘gain knowledge’. If I had seen reading as a leisure activity, something associated with pleasure, even a few years earlier in life, things would have been quite different for me today.

Why am I thinking of my school days, you ask? I went back to these memories from school when I came to Bihar as a fellow. I’m here to work at this unique children’s library of PRAYOG, where the kids are unconditionally and warmly welcomed, at priority. The message is clear to them – Pick any book that catches your attention, skim through its pages. Like it? Take it home. Take one, two, three if you want!

Children picking books in the library

What struck me the most is how children are free to take home the books of their choice. This freedom could mean a lot specially during childhood because that’s the phase when elders make most decisions for you. People tell you that you are a child and hence, you lack understanding and ability to make an informed choice. A library like PRAYOG then becomes a happy place where children feel validated and accepted. A place that lets them be.

A child choosing a book is an interesting sight to watch. Awestruck with the number and the vibrantness of the books. The new ones are surprised and happy that they could not just pick their own book but take it home too! There’s joy, there’s wonder, and also confusion in those eyes!

Their choice of a particular book says a lot. Why would a child in class 7 pick a wordless book classified for the students in class 1 to 3? Why does a child in class 2 pick a text-heavy book kept for a higher age group? Why are children in particular attracted to the illustrations?  These are some questions I’ve been pondering about.

A part of me wants to answer these questions by looking for no intellectual explanation but the simple inner urge of the child to be curious about the unknown and feel the joy of finding out something new. Reading for self, without the reason to give exams or to prove one’s knowledge is nourishing for a child’s soul. A library taking into account a child’s choice of books and much more, then. It becomes an open space to laugh, to tear up while reading a book, to listen to other’s stories, to share your own story, to imagine anything and everything… a place to experience joy, laughter, love, and care.

Children selecting books from the display

One can see children picking books more relevant for another class or age group. This is also because, at PRAYOG, there are no restrictions to stick to a particular set of books. It is upto them to decide whether it’s their level or not. In fact, unconventional choices are welcome as they often spark meaningful conversations.

Role of library educators

The library educators, whom we fondly call the ‘People Of The Library’ are the persons who engage as well as sit with the children and help them understand what they are reading, answer their questions, prompt them to think if they have an insight, make them feel heard, and most of all, to not discourage them from asking questions. It is not just about lending books but engaging with them through activities centered around books such as book discussions, book talk, read aloud, and so on.

The library educators at PRAYOG are from Gopalganj itself and they carry all the enthusiasm and rigour to connect and engage with children. Each one of them tells a story of their journey from just being a newbie selected in an interview for this position to becoming a whole different person who now sees the world of books and children deeply and differently!

When it comes to catering to the choice of children, I value the role of library educators even more. Because there are times when choice can leave one feeling confused and undecided. The other day I saw Binit (one of our library educators) recommending Amma ki Saree to a boy. It was a well-thought recommendation that came after seeing the child deeply engrossing in making a Kavandi (quilt) as a part of post-activity based on read aloud of Aamu ki Kavandi. It is a book that introduces the children to the story of Siddi community, who mainly engage in quilt making. This is what I mean when I say that this library is a place where a child feels seen and heard.

Paying attention to how and what the children read, and what draws their attention, what kept them engaged during the session is something the library educators observe minutely. They take a deep interest in knowing their children! When such a book recommendation comes, it comes from a place of love and the relationship that has taken time to build.

What do we try to achieve

The people at PRAYOG believe in ensuring access among children to a wide variety of carefully selected books that would add value to them. Of the many aspects of a vibrant children’s library, book collection is a major aspect. We have a rich collection of books from diverse genres and themes such as caste, gender, culture, geography and so on. One can question that if we are ultimately selecting the books, where is the real freedom and choice that we are talking about? But that is something I would love to talk about in another blog …

Have you seen or experienced a community library where you live? Where is it? Please share about it in the comments below.

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