Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Crossing the Street in India

It sounds funny to say, but the thing I'll remember longest about my two weeks in India is learning to cross the street. When I first arrived, I didn't dare. Not only do they drive on the wrong side of the street, but they also drive on the right side of the street, the middle of the street, and on various surfaces that would not be considered streets here in New Jersey.

The protocol for pedestrians and motorists to coexist was not apparent to me. Pedestrians seemed to cross the street with minimal regard for traffic; the cars unaccountably seemed to miss them at high speed. After a few days of watching this dance, I screwed up my courage and crossed in the wake of some elderly women in saris. By the weekend, I was crossing on my own; the key seemed to be steadiness- a sudden move could fool a three wheeled "auto" or motorcycle carrying a family of six into your path. Motorized vehicles in India always have to be on the lookout for the vegetable cart, cow, goat, dog or camel that might need to share the roadway.

I learned a lot about other things, too. Last Wednesday, I gave a lecture for the Bangalore chapter of the Society for Information Science. My talk was titled "Why Libraries Exist: Transitioning from Print to eBooks." I've been working on this talk for a while (based partly on this post); but this was the first time I've given it publicly; I'll be giving versions of the talk twice in February.

There were lots of questions and much discussion. There are so many differences between conditions in the US and in India regarding ebooks. Not only are adoption rates very different, but there are potential ebook applications in India that had never occurred to me.

For example, while e-reader adoption is negligible in India, it may well be that textbook distribution via e-readers may happen sooner in India than in the west. In India, textbooks are a government-run enterprise. Government agencies produce, print and distribute textbooks throughout the country; owing to the country's huge population, the number of textbooks printed is quite large. Getting the right textbooks to remote locations can be a real logistics challenge. If e-readers could be made cheaply enough, there would be many advantages and potential cost-savings in their use for textbook distribution. Compared to laptops and desktop computers, e-readers pose smaller demands on electrical infrastructure; the demand for mobile phones even in rural areas has already spurred the introduction of portable chargers (hand-powered and solar-powered).

Public libraries in India are under-utilized compared to their counterparts in the west. One of the people attending my talk was Dr. M. S. Sridhar; he asked some very penetrating questions about the effects of ebooks on readership. He asked the audience to raise their hands if they were a member of a public library. Only a few hands went up. He later sent me a copy of a column he had written for the Deccan Herald (61 (24) 24 January 2008, DH Education, p II.)
During last four decades, the percentage of American population having public library cards has increased almost three fold from about 25 to 72. On the contrary, in a progressive state like Karnataka, after 40 years of enacting a comprehensive Public Libraries Act and establishing 5000 libraries, we have not been able to reach more than 2% of the population. A poor market penetration of public libraries over half a century of National Library Movement!
If my thesis about the economic forces behind "why libraries exist" is really true, then book sharing mechanisms ought to arise in any free-market society. If so, then why is there so little utilization of public libraries in India? Is it the lack of a "reading habit"? Given  the stories I heard about even poor domestic workers making great sacrifices to send their children to expensive schools that teach English; I have my doubts about this. Perhaps it's due to a widespread availability of inexpensive books; I didn't see that in the bookstores I visited. My guess is that informal book sharing  mediated by family, clan, school and work relationships are filling the economic niche left by public libraries that fail to connect with their communities.

Having survived numerous street crossings and a 26-hour ocean and continent-crossing journey to get back home, I have a better appreciation of the many ways that societies will negotiate the print-to-digital book chasm.


  1. Public library penetration in France is about 17%, again despite massive investments. Especially in new buildings in the 80s and 90s.
    One hypothesis of why this is the case centers around the positioning of libraries. There's a tendency here for the library to emphatically not be about what the public wants, but about what a market-free culture should look like. It's about values first and filling a need second.
    Which is a position much harder to maintain in a digital environment, I think.

  2. Eric read this on Teleread first, then came here. great story, well told. danny in Taiwan