The library: a place of being and becoming

Usha Mukunda

A library by its very nomenclature is a repository, a collection of the essence of culture. This is how it is envisioned in its finest form. However I wish to look at the immense possibilities of a library space in bringing about a culture of freedom and enquiry. Space is not only a physical space but a space to grow, to inhale the ambience, and most crucially, to become inwardly aware. Rumi, the Persian poet expresses this so beautifully in this couplet.

“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

So what are these intangible markers of an exemplary library which can bring this about? As a school and children’s librarian for many years, I have seen how children and young people can bloom and become strong individuals when they grow, learn and mature in an environment that is exposing them to forms of culture, both traditional and contemporary, ancient and modern, true and untrue. Can the school library sow the seed of thinking differently, and actively nurture such minds? I feel it can be done. Let us look more specifically at the kind of space we wish to bring about which can keep this culture alive.

A social space
culture-in-the-library Young people, as we well know, love to socialize and mingle. In the present context they are heavily invested in such spaces in a cyber world. In the school library we can promote and actively enhance a live and interactive space. This is a free flowing space and can spring up in any situation or context. It is not a designated place meant for socializing! I am a firm believer in spontaneous combustion. Things and people meet whenever and wherever and when they do, things happen. Can the library be home to such happenings? Sometime ago, I was having a dialogue with 15-year-olds about using Google and other Internet sources for information. I saw that we might quickly get into opposing positions. So I asked them if they would speak alternately for and against Internet as a sole source of information. It sounded like fun to them to hear one another and they began. What emerged was a nuanced approach to the question where everyone spoke and everyone listened, including the adult. As an icing to this cake, I spotted an ex-student sitting nearby who had gone on to do his Phd in USA. I invited him in to contribute to the discussion and he opened up the Wikipedia world for them with pros and cons. I saw that the young people were invigorated by this unstructured session.

An inclusive space – a diverse place – a space of equality
Inclusion is the bedrock of the school library. This is so with the collection, the users, the teachers and the library staff. No book, film or human being is excluded without true cause. How does this become apparent to the students? One amazing session was taken by a teacher-librarian on banned books. He provided a list, procured as many as he could, and after reading some, the young adults began to talk about why they might have been barred from libraries.

With younger children, one picks up a more unusual book to open up this aspect of inclusion and equality. “The Unboy boy,” “Head Curry,” “The boy who asked questions,” “Why are you afraid to hold my hand?” and many others.

The author has been a school librarian for more than 30 years but age has not dimmed her passion for looking at the library as a radical space. She is currently a consultant for the Parag Initiative of Tata Trusts which has been working at bringing about active libraries all over India, holds online courses for library educators, and plays a key role in enriching children’s literature in India. She can be reached at

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