Bakul: Harnessing everyday energies

Sujit Mahapatra

The Bakul Foundation is a testament to what ordinary people can do if they want to. The foundation was set up to help people realise their power and role in bringing about a change in society. Bakul has and continues to harness the energies of students, retired persons, homemakers, and working people towards the social development of the community. So Bakul is basically a movement for volunteerism. The advantage of focusing on volunteerism is that the work is done with enthusiasm and passion and more meaningful intervention happens.

bakul

The Bakul Foundation is trying to demonstrate that if everyone comes together with their little contributions, not only can we bring about a change in the lives of others, but we can enjoy tremendous benefits as well. In the Bakul Model, every participant is both benefactor and the beneficiary.

One of the foundation’s first initiatives was to bring together a thousand people to set up a children’s library in Orissa because there were no good children’s libraries in the state. Moreover, we realised that there were quite a few initiatives on teaching children from disadvantaged groups but what all of them lacked was books and thereby avenues for learning by oneself. We felt that a good children’s library would be a common resource that could be exploited by all these initiatives.

The Bakul Foundation wants to give children from both the disadvantaged and the not so disadvantaged backgrounds access to the same opportunities to build their capabilities. We, therefore, hope that through a common library and the opportunities for self-development it offers, we can work towards breaking the distinctions schools create.

We started with an online campaign that began in April 2006 to mobilise a thousand individuals to donate books to set up the library. The Bakul Children’s Library in Bhubaneswar has been set up and is running entirely with small individual contributions without any funding and any user surcharge. It, nevertheless, can boast of the best collection in the State with over 8000 books, including some very interesting and engaging educational resources for children.

The name for the foundation and the library itself comes from the Bakul tree found in abundance in Eastern India. Many educational initiatives, like the Bakula Vana by Gopabandhu Das and others, started in the shade of Bakul trees, and thereby it is a symbol for what can happen with minimal resources.

The author is Founder-Secretary, Bakul Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected].

Books give wing to the imagination: Sujit Mahapatra

Chintan Girish Modi

How do you envisage the role of libraries in the lives of children?
A library is a must in the life of a child, be it a library at home or school or in the community. Books give wings to the imagination of a child and develop creativity, apart from developing linguistic skills and providing knowledge. It is important, therefore, that children develop a love for books and have unrestricted access to books to satisfy their curiosity.

How do you feel about the way school libraries function?
Most schools in the country unfortunately do not have libraries. Therefore, wherever they exist and in whatever shape, I would say, it’s just great that they exist and children are able to access books.

However, most school libraries do not attempt to make books accessible to children for fear that they may damage the books. Books are locked up in cupboards. The librarian gives children the books they must read. This is a wrong approach. Books must be kept in open stacks and children should be given the freedom to leaf through them. Even if they cannot read, they should have the freedom to just pick up the books, look at the illustrations, etc. They must fall in love with books. Libraries and librarians should ensure that this happens.

Unfortunately, most school librarians work in a mechanical manner; they catalogue books and maintain records of issue and return of books. Librarians should be in love with books themselves so that children too can respond in the same way. They should not be merely people trained in the science of maintaining libraries.

There are schools where children can access only reference material supplementing the syllabus. Story books are seen as a waste of time. What do you think of this?
In our schools, children are never encouraged to imagine and to think, which is essential if they are to “think out of the box”. Many educators acknowledgethe importance of reading in developing imagination and there is merit in reading fantasies because they enlarge the possibilities of what the mind can believe.

I believe that the best education happens when one does not realise that one is learning. When one is reading a story book, language develops and one gets to know about many cultures; it helps us in being sensitive individuals. There is much geography, history, politics, science that one can learn from story books.

How do you place Bakul within this context?
Bakul is an experiment to ensure that there is everything desirable in a library and that it fulfills all the required roles as I have mentioned in response to the other questions.

At the same time, Bakul is a public library that is free to access. So, we are also trying to break the distinctions that schools create. We can proudly say that we have the best collection in any library for children in the State. As it is free, not only children from private and public schools but those from slums and orphanages also exploit the resources of the library. We want to offer the same opportunities to children from disadvantaged sections so that they have the resources at their disposal if they have their interest to build their capabilities and exploit the opportunities available to them.

Bakul also believes that a library, particularly a public library should work on socially and environmentally sensitive education, which can happen through film screenings, discussions and tours.

Do you think it is difficult to get children to read, with the television and the computer battling for attention?
In a way, yes. TV and cinema have taken the place of popular fiction. That is precisely why libraries need to reinvent themselves. Libraries have to be “cool” places where children want to go, even hang out. In fact, it is because of these challenges that libraries cannot see their roles as merely providing access to books. They have to create an interest in reading among the children.

They must be attractive and not boring places. The books stocked too must be attractive with beautiful illustrations that can entice a child. Most importantly, there must be numerous activities that will stimulate the creativity and imagination of children. The children must find something new in the library at short intervals, and there should be many events in which they can participate and contribute to the development of the library. At Bakul, for instance, we once had a community storybook activity. A huge book with blank pages was mounted on a stand. One child began a story and left after a paragraph. Later on, other children came and developed that story further. Children loved this activity. A few weeks later, for younger kids, we got them to add words to make a story giving a little twist to the same idea.

I also think TV and computers can be used as aids in our cause for furthering reading habits. We have slideshows of some of our stories, which we scanned along with the illustrations for children to read from the computer. Similarly, we have audio-visual versions of many stories, which motivate children to read the actual book later. We also screen films based on popular stories and novels to get children interested in the stories with the same effect.

Do you think librarians are sometimes quite rigid about which-books-for-what-age, and end up blocking a child’s curiosity?
Yes. First of all, in many schools, librarians do not allow children to leaf through books and choose for themselves what they want to read. This is not the kind of access that children should have. At Bakul we are exploring a system called Reading Buddy, a concept that has been tried out in UK. What happens here is that an older kid gets to act as the Reading Buddy to a younger kid. So, if the younger kid cannot read some books but likes the feel of it from the illustrations or look of it, the Reading Buddy reads out the book to the younger kid.

Children of a particular age also have different reading capabilities based on their individual histories of reading. So, a child of a particular age may be in a position to read and may want to read books that are being read by older children and that child should not be refused that opportunity.

Moreover, the best thing about a library can be the experience of serendipity, which can only happen if the children have unrestricted access to books. If the library can foster the child’s curiosity, and thereby imagination and the spirit of research, which follows, the library has succeeded in its mission. Therefore, I hold the position that it is mandatory for libraries to be accessible to children and librarians should not be rigid.

Chintan is an M.Phil student at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Reply