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Library Philosophy and Practice 2008

ISSN 1522-0222

Development of Public Libraries in India

Zahid Ashraf Wani
Department of Library and Information Science
University of Kashmir
Kashmir, India


Introduction: Growth and Genesis

Public libraries arose worldwide along with growth in education, literacy, and publications. Every country has its own public library history with influential leaders. Monarchs, wealthy people, and philanthropists have all made a contribution to society in the form of public library development.

India is no exception. Libraries were established in ancient India mainly by the patronage extended by emperors, major capitalists, and scholars. Indian emperors and kings were supported scholars and scholarship. There is evidence of well-developed libraries even in the sixth century A.D. The famous Nalanda University in Bihar had its own magnificent library with a massive collection of manuscripts covering the universe of knowledge. Admission to library was restricted to scholars. Other ancient universities, such as Taxila and Vikramashila, also had valuable libraries. Muslim influence in India during the 13th century A.D. marked the dawn of another era of learning and scholarship. The Mughal period gave a further stimulus to the growth of libraries. Mughal rulers attached considerable importance to libraries and appointed scholars as librarians. The Mughal emperors were patrons of art and literature. In the period of Emperor Babur, Humayun, and Akbar many new libraries were established and existing ones further developed. Mughal libraries featured magnificent buildings, rare manuscripts, and scholar librarians. The names of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur and Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab will be remembered with appreciation in the history of library services in India. The Maharaja of Tanjuar started the famous Saraswati Mahal Library in 17th century A.D. It remains a unique institution in its nature of collection and services (Sathikumar 1993, p. 18)

Libraries established by the kings and capitalists functioned like private institutions and the admission was limited. Service to the general public had to wait for the British (Sathikumar, 1993, p. 18-19). Unfortunately, the arrival of the British and resulting political disorder also brought chaos to the Indian way of life. This was a severe blow to the cultural heritage of India, which had arisen from the Indus valley civilization. When libraries began developing in India during the early nineteenth century, they were a western product.

In 1808, the Government of Bombay proposed to register libraries, which were to be given copies of books published from the "funds for the encouragement of literature" (Dutta, 1970, p. 100). According to the "Sinha Committee", this was the beginning of the first phase of public library development in India. During the first half of the 19th century, the three presidency towns of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras had public libraries (Jagdish, 1979, p. 19). These libraries were mostly financed by Europeans residing in these towns. Of these, the establishment of the public library at Calcutta in 1835 was the most significant. This was the library which later developed into the National Library of India. Almost simultaneous, subscription libraries were started in many Indian cities. These were, of course, not public libraries in the true sense of the term, and did not provide free books for all. Founded in imitation of their western counterparts, the use of these libraries was confined to small, affluent portion of society.

The first three decades of the 20th century can be looked on as the golden age of the Indian library system. On January 31, 1902, the Imperial Library Act was passed and Lord Curzon transformed the Calcutta Public Library into the Imperial Library in 1906.

Developments in Baroda were also notable. Espranza (1999, p. 12)) sums them up:

The development of public libraries in Baroda was unique. Baroda developed a network of public libraries to serve the entire Princely State. Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III of Baroda who traveled all over the world was deeply impressed by the role played by public libraries in the promotion of education in the United States and thought of extending such benefits to his own subjects. In 1910 he invited an American expert, William Alson Borden to organize the public library system for his state. The public library movement that flourished in Baroda was a glorious one. But that was not a general trend of that period because in no other part of India, a parallel development occurred.

Yet another development during the period was the organisation of a host of conferences such as:

  • The first conference of library workers and persons interested in the library movement was held at Beswada, Andhra in 1914.
  • The first All India Library Conference of Librarians was held in 1918 at Lahore.
  • The first All India Library Conference was held at Calcutta in 1933.
  • The first All India Public Library Conference was held at Madras in 1934.

With the existence of democratic governments in several provinces beginning in 1937, another phase of the library movement began. Between 1937 and 1942, a number of village libraries and travelling libraries sprang up in Assam, Bihar, Punjab, and Travancore. It was estimated that there were about 13,000 village libraries in India in 1942 (Verma & Agarwal, 1994, p. 6). Another remarkable development was the appointment of the 'Library Development Committee' by the Government of Bombay, with A.A.A. Fyzee as its chairman. The Committee ambitiously recommended a comprehensive library system to be implemented in three successive stages. Because of financial constraints, the government could only implement part of the recommendations.

After Independence

After independence, the growth of libraries in general has been remarkable, although not as remarkable as that of academic and special libraries. At the time of independence, India was facing a host of challenges. Those in the rural population, 88 percent of the total, were nearly all illiterate. Transportation was poor and mass media merely nominal. Nevertheless, the public library scene in India improved considerably during the post independence period, though it is still lacking on several fronts. Verma & Agrawal (1994, p. 8) argue that to compare our public libraries with those of the developed nations on equal footing, we have to go a long way.

The 1951 census, the first conducted after independence, found 2,843 local governments in the urban and rural areas in India, of which 320 were rural district boards. Only about one third of local governments maintained public libraries, about 950. In addition, there were about 1,500 subscription libraries. So-called public libraries primarily were reading rooms with a few hundred books for reading on the premises.

The Delhi public library deserves special mention. It was founded in 1951 as the first UNESCO Public Library Pilot Project under the joint auspices of UNESCO and Government of India. The purpose of the library was to adapt "modern techniques to Indian conditions" and to serve as a model public library for Asia (Verma & Agarwal, 1994, p. 8). The establishment of Delhi Public Library, the involvement of union government in the public library movement, and the enactment of public library legislation in some states are the main factors which contributed to the improvement of public libraries after independence. Although the government of India allotted funds for public library development in its five-year plans, this funding was not connected to effective planning.

Advisory Committee for Libraries

The Government of India appointed a committee in 1957 to report on the status of public library development in the country. It is also called the Sinha Committee, after its chair, the late Dr. A.P. Sinha, who was at that time Director of Public Instruction in Bihar.

The Sinha Committee's charge included:

  • Determining present reading needs, how they are met, and what part existing library systems play in meeting the needs;
  • Determining reading tastes, what agencies provide suitable literature, and how reading taste can be improved;
  • Recommending future library structure in India ;
  • Recommending areas of cooperation between libraries and education systems;
  • Considering the training of librarians and the conditions of their service;
  • Recommending the administrative and financial measures necessary to support public libraries in India (Ministry of Education, India, 1961, p. 126).

The committee submitted its report to Dr. K.L. Shrimali, who was Minister for Education, on the 12th of November, 1958. The Committee described the situation as dismal and called libraries in most cases, "a stagnant pool of books," because new books were not added regularly. The committee at the same time observed that wherever large collections did exist, they were not fully used because of rigid rules. Library users were not trusted and were required to deposit large sums of money as a kind of insurance, which lower income people could not afford. According to the report, as of March 1954 there were 32,000 libraries in India, with a little more than 7,100,000 books and a total circulation of about 37,700,000. The report observed that genuine public library service was rarity, and that public library service throughout the country was unsatisfactory. The committee recommended creating state library networks based on uniform library legislation.

The chief recommendations of the report were:

  • Library service should be made free to every citizen of India ;
  • The hierarchy of public library service in the country should begin with National Library, and proceed to State Central Library, District Library, Block Library, and Panchayat Library;
  • An independent Director of Social Education and Libraries should be set up in every state, with a fulltime senior class-1 officer of the rank of Deputy Director of Education to plan, organize, and administer library services;
  • An All India Library Advisory Council should be constituted as a central agency to review and assess the work done at the state level;
  • Library Associations should actively assist the development of libraries in the country;
  • University libraries should cooperate with public library systems by allowing selected public readers to use their collection;
  • State governments should accept responsibility for public library services in their states;
  • Librarians and social education workers should cooperate to promote literacy;
  • A library cess (tax or fee) of six paisa for each rupee of property tax should be levied with the permission of local bodies.
  • The Government of India should match the amount collected in the states. State governments should also give matching grants to local bodies over the succeeding 25 years, their contribution should be raised to three times the cess collected.
  • State and national governments should enact comprehensive state library laws incorporating the right of every citizen to have free access to libraries. The Government of India should provide necessary financial assistance to the state governments for this purpose. (Ministry of Education, India, 1961, p. 126)

Raja Ram Mohan Roy Library Foundation

Another positive step taken by the Central Government was the establishment of the Raja Ram Mohan Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF) at Calcutta on May 22, 1972, as a part of the bicentenary celebrations of the birth of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a social reformer of the early 19th century. Its objectives are library development in general and rural library development in particular. It provides financial assistance to public libraries in the form of matching grants. It assists State Central Libraries and District Central Libraries, which has helped many states and Union Territories develop rural public library services.

Main Objectives of RRRLF

The main objectives of RRRLF are:

  • Promotion of the library movement in India;
  • The adoption of a national library policy by the central and state governments;
  • Development of a National Library System by integrating the services of National Libraries, State Central Libraries, District Libraries, and other types of libraries through an interlibrary lending system;
  • Propagation and adoption of library legislation in the country;
  • Provision of financial and technical assistance to libraries;
  • Provision of financial assistance to voluntary organizations and library associations for the promotion of library development;
  • Periodic publication of reports on library development;
  • To act as a clearing house for ideas and information on library development in India and abroad;
  • To advise the Government of India library development;
  • Promotion of research in problems of library development (Baraua 1994, p. 64)

The primary objective of RRRLF is the promotion of the library movement. The rest are subsidiary objectives. RRRLF is the first government-sponsored body specifically created for this purpose. The foundation also has a programme of assistance to libraries for workshops, conferences, and exhibits. The foundation has taken the major initiative for the formulation of a national policy on library and information systems by the Government of India. The current programmes of assistance are:

  • Collection building;
  • Rural libraries and mobile library service for rural areas;
  • Seminars, workshops, conferences, training courses, and exhibits;
  • Facilities and equipment for storage and display of materials;
  • Public library buildings;
  • Television and VCR equipment for educational purposes;
  • Assistance to voluntary organisations providing public library services;
  • Assistance to children's libraries or children;s sections of general public libraries (Baraua 1994, p. 65-66)

During the last three decades, the foundation has assisted more than 500 libraries, including many in rural areas (Kumbar, 2005)

National Policy on Library & Information System (NAPLIS)

In 1985, a committee was set up under the chairmanship of Prof. D.P. Chattopadhyay to formulate a National Policy on Library & Information System (NAPLIS) (Chatoopadhyay, 1998). The Committee submitted its report in May 1986. Following that, another committee looked at implications of the report and created an action plan for its implementation (Bhatacharjee 1999, p. 19-20). The Empowerment Committee submitted its report in April 1988 and an Implementation Cell was formed to implement its recommendations within a period of six months (p. 20). Yet another Working Group, under the Joint Secretary to the Government of India in the Department of Culture, was constituted to examine its recommendations for implementation. The Working Group submitted its report in July 1993 and suggested implementing only 29 of 60 recommendations made by the NAPLIS.

The following are some of the recommendations of NAPLIS related to public libraries:

  • Proposals for maintenance and development of public libraries should preferably come from State Legislative Enactment. The Central Government may revise the Model Public Library Bill. Funds for library development should come from each state, either from general revenue or from local taxation. Central Government agencies may provide funds under Plan Expenditure.
  • Efforts should emphasize rural public libraries. A village or a cluster of villages with an adequate population should have a community library/rural community centre, which will also serve as an information centre. Resources from various agencies engaged in the public health, adult education, State and central government, etc., should be used to build up and maintain this centre.
  • The central government increase its assistance to state governments in the development of public libraries. The RRRLF, as the national agency for coordinating and assisting the development of public libraries, should be suitably strengthened in order to do this.
  • Standards and guidelines for library service should be created.
  • There should be a system of national libraries consisting of National Library, Calcutta (Now Kolkatta) as the National Library of India, National Depository libraries in Delhi, Bombay (Now Mumbai), Madras (now Chennai), National Subject Libraries, and others. These national libraries should form part of one integrated system.
  • A National Commission on Libraries and Information System or National Commission on Informatics and Documentation may be constituted by an Act of Parliament to serve under the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The Commission will have representation from appropriate central and state agencies and could provide guidance and coordinate library development programmes in all sectors. This body will have the primary responsibility for the implementation of NAPLIS programmes.
  • National Depository libraries; Connemara Public library, Chennai; Central Library (Asiatic Society), Bombay; and Delhi Public Library, Delhi should concentrate on development of collections and preservation of Indian culture produced in the languages of their regions, supplementing and complementing the efforts of the Indian National Library.
  • The Indian National Bibliography should have a comprehensive coverage of the national output of documents and should be updated regularly. This responsibility should be vested in the National Library.
  • Government should create a national awareness of the need to preserve the nation's cultural heritage. National libraries should be responsible, with preservation facilities created there. Links between libraries, archives, and museums should be established for the purpose of national preservation.
  • The Ministry of Rural Development has a plan for one community centre in every Panchayat Centre. The Department of Culture and the Ministry of Rural Development have agreed to provide library services at each of these Rural Community Centres.
  • An important link should be established between community centre library and primary schools. If the schools do not have libraries of their own, the community centre library should provide children with adequate services.
  • A community centre library should have an important role in adult education programmes.
  • A district library should provide facilities and recreation for the disabled and low-income people, e.g., literature in Braille.
  • Libraries should be built in areas of tribal concentration and in minority communities to help in developing and sustaining their distinctive cultures.
  • Libraries should be equipped with relevant resources, such as publications covering Open University and vocational educational courses, for their role in support of distance education.
  • All public libraries within a state should form a part of a network extending from village library through community centre library, district library, and state network, and should be linked to the national information grid (Sahib, 2003).

The first five-year plan for educational development included a proposal for "Improvement of Library Service." This proposal envisioned a network of libraries throughout the country, coordinated by National Central Library at New Delhi (Planning Commission of India, (a), 1952)

During the first five-year plan, nine state governments, i.e. Assam, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Punjab, PEPSU, Rajasthan, Savarashtra, Bhopal, and Vindhya Pradesh, decided to set up State Central Libraries (Sharma, 1965).


At this time, the government allocated funds to set up a national network of libraries in its 320 districts. As a result, most states established State Central Libraries and District Libraries as the main distributing centres (Planning Commission India, 1956, p. 522)


During this period, the system of central government assistance to the states was changed, and funding for libraries was kept to a minimum. It was up to the individual states to take initiative and develop their public libraries. The programme to assist state governments in establishing state central libraries, district central libraries, and block development libraries was abandoned. The decision was a major setback to the development of public libraries. During this period four national libraries were established at Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras.

A Working Group on libraries was appointed by the Planning Commission in 1964 to take a stock of library development. The working group submitted its report on 7th September 1965 with following recommendations:

  • The central and state governments should share responsibility for providing adequate public library service. New government agencies in the central government under the Minister of Education, a directorate of libraries and a state library advisory council in each state should be set up to execute the programmes effectively.
  • State central libraries should be established in four states: Madhya Pradesh, Mysore, Nagaland, and Orissa.
  • States which do not possess adequate functional buildings for their state central libraries should be provided with library buildings.
  • The state central library must have a children's section.
  • There should be 335 District Libraries for the 327 districts in the country, i.e., in large and populous districts, two district libraries may be provided.
  • New buildings should be constructed for the existing 100 district libraries.
  • Block libraries are the chief feeding centre for the rural reading public, and therefore, 2,500 new block libraries, covering 75% of blocks in the country should be constructed.
  • A sum of 10 million rupees shall be provided for distribution of grant in aid to such libraries of urban and rural areas which depend on subscription and donations.
  • Three public libraries on model of Delhi Public Library should be set up
  • The Institute of Library Science established by the Ministry of Education at Delhi University in 1958-59, and then closed in 1962, should be reopened. Such institutes should be established at the state levels also to train graduate and undergraduate librarians to meet future requirements.
  • A sum of Rs.10,000 shall be allocated as financial assistance to all national level and state level library associations to create library consciousness in the country by organizing seminars, conducting surveys, and producing library literature.
  • A programme of book production should be undertaken.
  • A draft of the Library Act should be produced (Panda, 1993, p. 35-36)

This plan proposed a substantial sum for the social education programme. A much lower sum was allocated (Thomas 1997, p. 30). Of this, only a very small amount was available for the development of libraries in the country.


This plan included measures to strengthen the buildings, collections, and staff of the central and state libraries, as well as strengthening the district, block, and village libraries. During this period, attempts were made to develop a district-level library system, so that district library could act as a leader for the smaller libraries in the district. The adult education programme was the hallmark of this plan. The programme was to be supported by a network of libraries at the village and block levels and various community centres. Thus steps were taken to strengthen not only the village and block libraries, but also the central, state libraries and the district libraries (Thomas 1997, p. 30)


This plan emphasized establishing a network of rural public libraries to sustain literacy and disseminate information to rural areas. It discussed the necessity of integrating school and college libraries with the system of public libraries. During this period, 26 states or union territories out of 31 (in 1982) had established state central libraries and 291 district libraries (Thomas 1997, p. 31).


During this period, the Commission's objective was to address the needs of 90 million people in the Adult Education Programme. The network of libraries was to play a role in the development of literature for neo-literates. Library systems were to be strengthened, with specific attention given to improvement of facilities at national level institutions.

An important development was the 1986 adoption of National Literacy Mission, which emphasised the education of women and the establishment of rural libraries. In addition, the RRRLF set up an Integrated Research Cell-cum-Computer Unit for promoting research in librarianship and database of public libraries in the country (Planning Commission India 1991, p. 258)

There were two annual plans for the years 1990-91 and 1991-92.


During this period it was proposed to reorganize the Central Reference Library into the National Bibliographical and Documentation Centre, which would also have a computer centre. The Delhi Public Library set up two new libraries in its service area. RRRLF created programmes to help state central libraries purchase reprographic equipment, to help libraries process rare books, and to give special assistance to networks of public libraries that were at least 100 years old (Planning Commission India, 1992).


During the 9th five year plan, the National Library, Kolkatta, undertook several major initiatives to upgrade and modernize its collection building programme, reader services, and conservation of library material. The major activities completed during the period were automation of the circulation system in the lending section, setting up of a local area network, improved reader services, and more efficient collection management. The conservation activities in the library got a major advance with the purchase of modern equipment to preserve rare books and other materials. The Central Reference Library, Kolkatta computerised various functions during the Ninth Plan. As a result, the publication of theIndian National Bibliography is now up to date, with records available online.

Funds were provided to the Delhi Public Library and Central Secretariat Library, Delhi, for acquisition of new material in different languages and media as well as for modernizing their infrastructure. The benefits of these efforts can be seen in improved reader services, networking, and resource sharing. The Central Secretariat Library organized a number of computer training programmes for resource sharing, standardization of cataloguing formats, and co-operative acquisition.

Funds for modernizing and computerization were also provided from central grants to the Connemara Library, Chennai, Thanjavur Maharaja Serovji Sarasvati Mahal Library, Thanjavur and the State Central Library, Mumbai. Besides these, the RRRLF provided assistance to public libraries across the country for collections and storage, construction, and seminars and workshops (Planning Commission India 1997).

Tenth Five-Year Plan (Action Plan)

The Planning Commission proposed further modernization of central and public libraries during the Tenth Plan. A national bibliographic database would be developed to encourage resource sharing, networking, and to improve reader services. The Commission resolved to strengthen public library infrastructure through the RRRLF. The Tenth Plan focused on upgrading existing libraries, including private collections, and widening the programme for bibliographic control and documentation. To make readers services more comprehensive and effective, the National Library is expected to act as the ultimate referral centre for various subjects. To keep pace with the latest developments in information technology in public libraries, the upgrading and networking of central and state libraries was also planned (Planning Commission India 2002)

Present Status

The current status of the public library system in India is hard to ascertain and describe, because a consolidated picture is not available. There are twenty-eight states and seven union territories in India. All have their own public library systems, structure, and pattern of financial assistance. Twelve of the states have enacted library legislation and rest are providing public library service without legislation. The states that have enacted library legislation are:

S. No. State Name Year
1. Tamil Nadu Tamil Nadu (formerly Madras ) Public Libraries Act. 1948
2. Andhra Pradesh Andhra Pradesh Public Libraries Act. 1960
3. Karnataka Karnataka Public Library Act 1965
4. Maharashtra Maharashtra Public Libraries Act 1967
5. West Bengal West Bengal Public Libraries Act 1979
6. Manipur Manipur Public Libraries Act 1988
7. Kerala Kerala Public Libraries Act 1989
8. Haryana Haryana Public Libraries Act 1989
9. Mizoram Mizoram Public Libraries Act 1993
10. Goa Goa Public Libraries Act 1993
11. Gujarat Gujarat Public Libraries Act 2002
12 Orissa Orissa Public Library Act 2002

Among the states enumerated, the provision of the respective Acts are more or less fully operative in the states listed under 1-5. In the rest of the states, although an Act has been passed, full operation is still pending. In the Acts of Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, provision for levying library cess has been made among other sources of finance, whereas there is no provision for collecting library cess in other states (Sharma, 1996).


Public libraries have always been the door to learning for a great majority of the populations that they serve. They are knowledge centres and contribute to lifelong learning. For India, there are bumps in the road that leads to the goal of having an institution to serve the masses, which is even more imperative in the present information society, in a nation where 40 percent of the population is living below the poverty line. A massive investment in public libraries is needed to make them true information resource centres for the layman


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