Contrary to industry projections, paper book sales during the pandemic in Nepal have seen healthy growth after an initial setback. Stores were quick to adapt to new business models by taking to Instagram to advertise and deliver new books at a time when constrained by travel restrictions, many young people turned to reading.
And yet, for most readers across the country buying books regularly is not affordable. Which is why the role of community libraries remains important in fostering the reading culture among Nepalis.
All over the world, libraries used to be a trusted, local institution with access to information that has driven economic opportunity and community engagement while keeping a record of community history. This tradition is slowly eroding due to encroachment by the digital world.
The good news in Nepal is that smaller community libraries have emerged across Kathmandu to cater to growing demand during the pandemic lockdowns when most schools were closed for nearly a year. One of them is Books Inn that opened in 2021 but already has 200 enthusiastic members and more joining.
Founder Nasala Maharjan set it up after seeing firsthand the power of the library on young minds at a school where she is a teacher where she lent non-curricular books to her students.
“I saw that they kept coming back for more and both their writing and speaking had improved by a lot, so I wanted to give the same platform for students who didn’t have a library at school,” says Maharjan.
Read also: Publishing during the pandemic, Surina Narula
She adds: “I have always liked reading, and I saw an opportunity to bring the same joy to others. The fact that the library is doing better than I initially expected is a bonus.”
Indeed, after less than a year of coming into operation, Books Inn has become financially sustainable through membership fees alone. There is even money saved up to order and pay for new books, and other expenses. Most of the readers are young adults who are still in school and students enrolled in undergrad programs.
Local libraries like these are surprisingly bucking the worldwide trend towards digital, and appear to have got a boost during the pandemic lockdowns.
They have spurred a reading culture unlike in the past where libraries were used only for academia and rote learning, shifting society’s emphasis from only obtaining degrees to intellectual exploration and knowledge sharing.
With this, more parents are now aware of the importance of instilling a reading habit in their children. Sanu Ko Pustakalaya has seen significant interest from parents who want a reading space for children, and is working to expand its collection of books for younger readers.
Read also: Read and let read, Anil Chitrakar
“Parents are definitely becoming more aware, and want to reduce screen time among their children,” says Priyansha Silwal of Sanu Ko Pustakalaya.
Indeed, screen exposure of children and young adults can dissuade them from reading, but if a reading habit is instilled early and effectively, technology can serve as an extension to the passion for reading.
“We established the library in memory of my sister. Our family has a reading habit, so we thought it would be best to honor her memory through the library,” adds Silwal.
Read also: The power of reading aloud, Sanghamitra Subba
The Silwal family donated 600 books themselves, and after gathering donations from the public, the library now has over 2,500 books in its collection. Sanu Ko Pustakalaya had a soft opening three months ago, but largely through word of mouth it has already amassed 50 members, with new members joining every week.
“Students usually come by, bring their own books, or choose something from the collection and read. Sometimes a few office-goers will also stop by in the evenings,” says Silwal.
Public libraries on the other hand are on the decline. Government apathy and lack of support mean most of them are neglected and lack resources. Nepal National Library in Kathmandu was severely damaged in the 2015 earthquake, and is yet to be rebuilt.
The Ministry of Education with the Nepal National Library was all set to start construction on a new world-class library in Jamal on a 500 sq m plot in 2020. After spending close to Rs25 million, the government hastily recalled the project, and there were allegations of the government of K P Oli renting it out to a business conglomerate.
Kaiser Library in Thamel still does not allow readers to borrow books, the Wisdom Point in Baneswor remains closed, the Nepal Bharat Library does not allow the public to enter, and neither does the American Centre. Some public libraries like AWON, Kathmandu Valley Public Library, and Ratna Pustakalaya are open and have membership systems for the public to use.
Local libraries are filling the gap, but can only do so much to address the public demand for books to read unless the government revitalises existing libraries and builds new ones outside the capital.
Read also: Digitising archives, sharing knowledge, Nepali Times