“Can you help us set up a library?” was the request from Chirag School in the Kumaon Himalayas at Uttarakhand. “On a clear day, you can see the entire Nanda Devi range, as well as Trishul and Panchachuli from around the corner,” the letter added. What was I waiting for? An assignment dear to my heart and a chance of a sight of the Himalayas. I didn’t waste a moment and so July 1st saw me heading out north. To Delhi first, then an overnight train to Kathgodam and then a taxi ride to Sitla, near Mukteshwar. My spirits rose with the ascent and I found myself breathing in the air as I had never breathed before. I had not seen such a blue expanse of sky for so long and a feeling of great serenity came over me as I gazed at the lush green trees . I knew I would be happy and at peace here.
After a day, I began the interaction with the school. There are almost 60 children from ages 3 to 9. They speak Kumaoni and Hindi and very little or no English. The school itself is set in a valley with a magnificent panorama all around. Every now and then when the sky looked dramatic, I would stop short to gaze and wonder, probably much to the amusement of the kids and teachers. My target was to immerse the children in English with the help of stories, poems, songs, games and activities and finally plays. As an add-on, I was to spend an hour in English activities with the teachers too.
But what of the library, you ask. I am getting to it! The school already had a wonderful collection of books, magazines and AV material thanks to the wisdom and planning of Rajiv, the Guruji! So my first task was to alert him that a record of all the books they have was an urgent necessity. With the help of a couple of volunteers, the accession began and was almost complete by the end of July. This record enables users to borrow and return with the help of the accession number. It also categorises the material into different broad topics with a sub-topic added. Material can be accessed through key words. If books go missing, re-ordering is easy with the help of the information in the accession register.
Secondly, a physical space was located in a corner of the English language room and the library was formally housed there. A large sign, displays of books and magazines, posters and pictures made by the children, low seating for reading, a pick-a-book box, and colour-coded labelling for books and shelves, ensured a welcoming and user-friendly atmosphere.
Thirdly, an important aspect of a library, namely care for books and right handling was taken up through talking, showing and some dramatics. Book marks were made by the oldest children as a follow-up activity. Each book mark had a sentence written by the child about reading or about books. These were placed in a convenient holder for general use in the library.
Fourthly, the whole concept of browsing and borrowing was introduced through a game of selling books like in a shop, choosing what is wanted , buying it and finally going home with it. They were told that in a library, the same thing happened except that they could, at no cost, borrow and return the books.
They were now ready for borrowing, and again thanks to the free hand I was given by Rajiv, I started the Devdars, the oldest group, on borrowing. But first they had to understand the importance of registering their borrowing and returning. They also had to realise that it was a system based on trust. So they each made themselves a borrower’s card with their name on it, columns for date of borrowing, title of book and date of return. With this in place they were off and running! Every day books were going home and coming back. I waited a bit for this to get set and then would just ask what the story was about or what their favourite part in the story was, to make sure the book was being looked at!
Next we had some mini- book talks. Without fixing it beforehand, I just asked three or four children to come up and speak a little about one of the books they had borrowed and why they liked it or not. This was an introduction to a book talk and by now they must have done a few more. This activity grows in depth and sophistication as the children get older and as the librarian/ teacher also learns to ask key questions.
One fun activity we had was a treasure hunt. Each child was given a written clue leading him/her to a book they had seen on display or had borrowed. The children found their books in a flat 2 minutes! So next time the clues should be harder. But the follow-up activity was challenging. Related to the theme of the book was a thinking question. They had to respond to this with three or four sentences of creative writing.
The library project we took up was the creation of a book written by the students. Each student drew a chit with a teacher’s name on it. They then jointly wrote down some questions they would like to ask the teachers. They were to go off and do the interviews individually, get back and write their own page for the teacher with a drawing on the back of the page. This worked very well with only one or two students needing extra help. The book was put together with an illustrated cover and a title chosen by them, a back cover with blurbs from readers and a copyright date and the publisher’s name on the inside cover. This book was released at the play day on August 1st by Madhavan da and is now a part of the library collection. The younger two classes were also preparing an Alphabet book with each child being assigned one letter of the alphabet. On their page they had to write the capital and the small letter, think on their own and write a minimum of five words starting with their letter and illustrate each word. By now this book too should have been released perhaps on August 15th! These two younger groups were also assigned a weekly library period when they could sit in the library, browse and read there quietly. I was told by the teachers that this went well.
We also instituted a library rota with two children each day being in charge of changing displays and generally making the library look inviting. This too took off well.
With the teachers, we had some poetry talks and later story talks. These consisted of their taking home a poem or story to read and coming back to present it to the rest, followed by a general question and discussion session. This went very well and I saw each teacher growing in confidence.
Finally, with the teachers, we made a book buying trip to Nainital. Before going, we went through the main features of selection. At the bookstore, teachers spent 45 minutes individually selecting books for the library which were of interest to them personally. Then we all gathered and tried to make a more careful selection of the ones put aside. Some things became clear. We eliminated too many of or by the same author. Also books which were too specialised. Similarly books with bad binding or very small print were taken out. Teachers were helped to discern good publishing and translation works. The exercise was very enjoyable and energizing.