A little over a decade ago, if anyone had told Vimala and Umesh Malhotra that their mission in life would be to set up libraries for children, they would probably have laughed. But then, they wouldn’t have accounted for boredom.
The Malhotras were a typical IT couple and had just moved back to Bangalore in 1999 with their four-year-old son Tarutr, after nearly eight years at Infosys in California. But little Tarutr was bored. What he and his mother missed the most was a good library. Vimala says, “We used to go to the library for my son, and it had so many activities; back in India, the lack of a good library where children could have their space, where no one tells them to keep quiet, and it is their hangout zone was lacking.”
That got her thinking about setting up a library.
Meanwhile, Umesh Malhotra had started an IT company of his own, called Bangalore Labs, along with four other promoters. But he too was soon weary of it and sold his stake in 2002. After he quit, there were many job offers but this time he wanted to make sure he was heading in the right direction.
“I waited nine months. I thought, let me think through what I want to do in life. My wife wanted to start a library and I said okay, I think I can be the project manager, and that began in March, 2003.”
Their brainchild was called Hippocampus, named after the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. It was set up in Koramangala, Bangalore.
Hippocampus is not just a library. It is, as Vimala imagined it, a kids’ hangout zone. Children can sit in corners reading a book; they can sign up for various activities like painting, aero modelling, carpentry or sign up for a science club. In fact, it is these activities that engage the child’s interest that has made the library a success.
Seven years later, the numbers vouch for that — membership grows at 60 children every month with a membership base of 3,000 children.
Umesh Malhotra wanted to do more. “We created a great space for urban kids, but what is happening in the slums of Bangalore?” he says.
He started meeting government schools and development sector workers to understand why they did not have or even think of having a library. “In many ways I started advocating it.”
While they all acknowledged the need for a library, they grappled with how to get children to read. Children do not read anymore, they said, but Malhotra knew better.
His initial response though, was to give money to people to help buy books and run libraries in the slums. Big mistake!
“The two or three people we had given money to, their libraries never worked because they were always giving us excuses, ‘you know children are not interested; I can’t find someone
to run a library’, and I thought, come on, I just spent Rs. 40,000 on a library and you are giving me these excuses,” says Malhotra.
He knew he could not do this on his own, and he knew the model had to be tested. What worked for a city library may not work for a government school library. For one, reading abilities were different and an English books-based library may not work. So he partnered with the Akshara Foundation, which was internally discussing the same issue: The need for libraries in government schools.
In their trial-and-error testing period between 2004 and 2006, they built 52 libraries around Bangalore. And in the process, found a model that could work for government schools.
This model has three arms: Hippocampus, the parent library, runs for profit; Hippocampus Reading Foundation (HRF) focusses on government schools in cities and the rural areas; and a Book Council sorts through content from various publishers and drafts catalogues for urban poor, and rural children.
HRF sets up libraries by partnering with local NGOs, who finance and maintain these libraries. A government school teacher runs the library; children pay a membership fee of Rs. 10 per month. However, in most cases the partner NGO funds the librarian’s fee as well. “The initial cost of setting up a library is Rs. 10,000 and then per year, the cost for getting new books is approximately Rs. 3,000,” says Maitreyee Kumar, founder, Dream School Foundation, which has set up 10 libraries in partnership with HRF.
For Hippocampus, the Malhotras had gone through a list of 20,000 titles to choose 3,000 which they ordered from the US. But for HRF, they needed to localise the content. That’s where the Book Council came in. Vimala, along with her colleague, Arvinda Anantharaman had the task of organising a catalogue of books for government school children.
“For a language like English you have a library list of anywhere upwards of 20,000 titles across different genres. We would be lucky if we even had 800 Kannada story books to choose from. Right now, we only have 300 Kannada books available through various publishers,” says Vimala. So far, they have hand-picked 150 books per library across six levels.
Each level has approximately 10 to 12 books. Even so, four books in every set of 12 tend to go out of publishing at some point. This is something they constantly have to work on for the HRF programme.
The books are matched to the children’s reading levels which are graded under a colour coding system called GROW BY Reading (GBR). The acronym GROW BY stands for green, red, orange, white, blue, and yellow — green is the lowest level and yellow the highest. GBR also creates activities around the books that take the children beyond the content in the book. For example, they make animal masks based on a book they read on animals or discuss issues raised in the books.
In the urban poor areas, these libraries are already making a difference. Children’s reading levels are up between 30 and 70 percent. The partnership with Akshara Foundation has now ended, but the Foundation has set up 1,410 libraries across Karnataka based on what it learned through the initial exercise together. HRF, on its part has added 150-odd libraries to the initial 52. Its catalogue is now available for books in five languages (Kannada, Tamil, Urdu, English and Hindi). It is also trying to enlist corporates like Cisco and ArcelorMittal as sponsors.