In an age when the dependence on the extensive use of digital knowledge resources is going up, the charming public libraries in the lanes and by lanes in the hill town of Shimla in Himachal are still being frequented by youngsters, especially students who are preparing for competitive exams.
The bustling state library next to the state Legislative Assembly at Kennedy Chowk, a prominent landmark is proof that public libraries are still in vogue. Each day, scores of youngsters jostle for space at the library—named after B R Ambedkar—and most pack up only late in the evening, after being reminded several times about the closing time of 8 PM. These youngsters are mostly college students and those who are preparing for central and state competitive exams.
“We are finding it tough to accommodate the rush, which is increasing every year. The students pour in hours before the library opens at 7 AM. Since we let people in on a first come first served basis, those arriving late find it difficult to get a place to sit. They either wait for the others to leave or students, with mutual understanding, share space,” says Gopal Thakur, the in-charge of the state library.
The number of youngsters turning up every day—many braving Shimla’s inclement weather; rains and freezing cold (in the winters)—exceeds the library's seating capacity of 640 persons. Yet, there is an effort to accommodate everyone as few of these job aspirants come covering long distances, even before the local transport buses start plying. They walk down to the library.
Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar Library is the brainchild of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who, during his last tenure, realised the need to create such a space and resource for hundreds of youths who can’t afford to pay the exorbitant fee of private coaching centres or whose parents are unable to send them to cities like Chandigarh and Delhi for coaching.
At the library, they are required to pay only nominal security to get a membership and they can use the library space, where they are also provided with additional facilities like drinking water and a subsidised pantry facility for tea/coffee and breakfast. Lunch is served at Rs 30.
Shruti Thakur, who is preparing for the next Himachal Pradesh Administrative Services exams and police recruitment, says: “The place is highly convenient for the students because of its location and facilities. The atmosphere inside is very peaceful. Even if we sit here for 12-13 hours at a stretch, we don’t get bored or exhausted.”
Anchal Chauhan, another student, says: “The library is a boon for students who can’t focus at home or those who need to take tips from fellow students who are also preparing for competitive exams. Those from economically weaker families are the biggest beneficiaries.”
Two other public libraries—one at HP University’s evening College near Shimla’s Scandal Point and one Children State Library at the Ridge, opposite Christ Church—cater to another 300 youngsters between them. The numbers go up when competitive examinations draw closer.
“Many who don’t get space inside the two-storey building of the Children State Library make use of the staircase and corridors,” says Paramjeet Kaur, an attendant at the library that has existed since the British era. A few years back, the library was staring at a shutdown owing to the want of staff and funds.
The State Government Secretariat Library at the first floor of the Armsdale Complex has also been thrown open to youngsters preparing for competitive exams.
Chief librarian Jaideep Negi says that sometimes he feels helpless when he is not able to accommodate everyone. He even devised a two-shift system to meet the increased demand. But now, whoever reaches the library first gets to use the facilities.
Ankit Sharma, an IAS aspirant, feels lucky that he has been accommodated despite a long list of students asking for space. “The library staff is highly courteous and helpful. Yet, I feel the state government can create more space in the Phase-II complex, which has just been made functional in the secretariat complex,” he suggests.
Negi informs that some of the youngsters, who have been coming to the library regularly, have cracked competitive exams and are now working. Students frequenting such spaces have proven that public libraries are not dying. It’s heartwarming to know that in this digital era, people are still reading books, he says.
“Our digitisation process is very much in place, yet we are enabling the youths to use the library space and simply focus on their futures. This is a new era in career making, an era of growth of innovative knowledge,” says Negi.
Vijayshree Mehta, a Ph.D. scholar of Journalism and Mass Communication at APG Shimla University, says: “The government should devise a new policy to open more public libraries for youngsters preparing for competitive exams. One such facility started by former Deputy Commissioner Rakesh Kanwar at the old DC office complex in Solan has become a great model for the entire state."