Friday, August 3, 2012

Library: The Netflix of Libraries in Gurgaon and Delhi

In trying to search for the condition of those few existent public libraries in India----online data for which is pityingly absent---I came across a Private library project, currently operating in the National Capital Region (Delhi and surroundings)--Gurgaon, Faridabad included. It is called Library at Home. It is noteworthy for a couple of reasons:


a. When public provision of a good is negligible, private entities enter the field to supply to the demand for that good. With Indian authorship---in English language and Indian languages--- soaring like crazy (one just has to look at the long list of authors catalogued in the company's web-site-----heard of Aatish Taseer or Kunal Basu or Priti Narain or Varsha Das?)----it is amply clear that not only are Indians writing, but surely they are wanting to read too. That Library at Home has identified the existence of a possible market for loaned books, when culture of paid-borrowing of books technically does not exist in India, is itself creditworthy and then to invest money into it, doubly so.


b. I give even more credit to this company for the business model that it has adapted. The company's web-site does not explicitly say so, but upon learning about the process of loaning books, I can see that it is a beautiful adaptation of a well-proven process here in the USA---the Netflix model----of loaning DVDs of movies via snail-mail. This is a model that marries technology with existing postal infrastructure. Thus, users create online accounts, browse the well-maintained catalogue of books, and pay and order books online. The books are then delivered to, and upon ready for return picked up from, the doorstep of the user/reader, presumably by a courier or some registered mail. 


By allowing online browsing of catalogues, the company obviously circumvents the renting and maintaining of some valuable real-estate in the NCR region, but creating an uninterrupted flow of books to the reader, in India, can itself be a challenge. For instance, pilferage of books in transit is a big possibility unless the method adopted for posting books is an insured private courier who every time ensures that the book is certainly handed to someone inside the door of the address it was sent to. Second, Indian rains can be merciless when they come, and again, if the books are not deposited safely under a roof, possibility of damage to books can foil the experience for both the expectant reader, as well as the funding company. 


Anyhow, these are issues, which the company must surely have thought about, and priced themselves accordingly. So, while, it is true that I do not need to lose sleep over them, I point these out only because upon acknowledgment of challenges, one can further appreciate the entrepreneurship.


c. Again, I am possibly biased towards books, and therefore, I think that anyone who provides books, especially, in a cost-effective way, is worthy of applause all the time.


Having heaped all these accolades on this sole torch bearer, I come back to the point that India's growing young minds need many, many more sources of books----and at far lower prices. The Public Libraries, without doubt will have to step up, in number and quality. Even the private solution that I have raved about above, is only a very small part of the quantum that we need.  


To start with, in enterprises such as Library at Home there is a basic requirement of internet literacy and access for users. This itself cuts off the huge number of readers who are computer illiterate but are literate all the same. Second, howsoever big or small, there is a fee structure in the Library at Home shop.....as opposed to the gratis that public libraries provide. No matter what, there are always more important destination for money in the pocket, for a large number of potential readers--either to necessities, or to the ever growing number of flashier gizmos and apparel and eating out. Thus, only those who have surplus money, or have a super dedicated zeal for books, will end up subscribing to this system. This again rules out access for a whole lot of those people who could perhaps be allowed access to books as well as to their life-styles. Last but not the least, the variety of books that are currently available through this service is big, but certainly not exhaustive by any means. Furthermore, such services may pander more to 'popular' choices of books as opposed to both 'popular' and literary and serious works. For readers to truly gain a perspective or stand on the shoulders of giants, private enterprises can seldom provide the entire breadth of the shoulders of the giants. Thus an even more pronounced need for the public venture.


Free books will not necessarily translate into more readership directly. But free books may inspire more people to read. To sum up here, I would love to hear from people who have used the Library at Home---about their experiences--grapes or gripes---all welcome.


[Library at home is at: http://www.libraryathome.in/index.php ]