We lived in a government colony in Delhi. A library van used to visit every week. Come Friday, without a doubt, the van would be at the end of our street. We would queue up, return our book, get into the van, choose another book, have it stamped and come out. A lot of strategic planning was involved. Like ‘You take this book, I’ll take that one. You finish by Tuesday and we will exchange.’ Or hiding a book you wanted (next-most after the book you took) behind a pile of other books in an obscure stack, in the hope that it would remain hidden till the next week when the van returned.
These vans were run by the Delhi Public Library system. I marvel today at this amazing service. I am not aware of any such today, that too run by any government system.
A second mainstay of our reading was our school library. We had a library period every week, and it was compulsory to borrow a book. Occasional book report requirements were put in to ensure we did read them, though for at least half the class, this wasn’t necessary. As I recall, the borrowable collection was mainly fiction. (For some reason, our school was paranoid about our bringing ‘non-authorized’ books into the premises. There would be random surprise checks and any such book would be confiscated! Considering how innocent we were and how little access we had to unsavoury reading material, this seems rather excessively zealous. But those were different times!)
And last but not the least, the neighbourhood ‘lending library’. This we were allowed to visit only during the long breaks (summer and winter holidays). And were given a limited budget, which usually stretched to one book and one comic a day. Going to the library also involved a daily outing and a walk of 20 minutes either way. But while this was good exercise for the body, regrettably, it was not great exercise for the mind, as we raced through upwards of 50 M&Bs and 50 Archie comics during a typical summer break—with an occasional Alistair Maclean, Nevil Shute or latest bestseller thrown in. But well, it helped improved our reading speed (because we used to try to finish a book overnight and swap, and try to finish another one a friend had borrowed before it was time to walk to the library).
As we grew older and more independently mobile, it was of course the BCL and the USIS. These were usually fortnightly outings in small groups from college.
How many children or adults are members of libraries today? I know a lot of people read. But it seems everyone just buys each and every book they want to read. But the excitement of reading is also partly in looking for and stumbling upon books in a library; it is yearning to lay your hands on a book, and conniving and strategizing—from reserving it in a library to striking complex deals with friends.
I don’t want to buy every book I want to read. I have no space. I don’t want to spend that much. And I do want to stumble upon books. Not in a bookshop setting, where books are not arranged as I like them, but in a library-like situation.
As of the last few years, ‘Just Books’ has been my library. I have to admit, since I am a ‘deliver to’ member, I don’t have the pleasure of browsing. But I do browse through their huge online catalogue and put books on the waitlist. There is a little thrill in not knowing which two books will land up at my door in a particular week, out of the 50-60 on the waitlist. It is a low-risk option—I put likely looking books on the list, and if I don’t like it, I just abandon it after the first 30-40 pages. And my shelves are not heaving with the addition of more and more books.
If you don’t know about Just Books, do check it outback (www.justbooks.in). It is a network of about 700 neigbourhood libraries, with a holding over about a million books, in English and most Indian languages. And it has an option of home delivery of books.