From UC Berkeley to rural India, an anthropologist works to expand library access

March 4, 2024

Headshot of woman with long dark hair braided over one shoulder. Wearing black lace shirt under a floral sari. In her many years of fieldwork in rural central India, UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor Aarti Sethi pondered what could make a real difference in the lives of people there. She realized the answer was knowledge: a public library system, an asset scarcely available in the region, which would open doors to literacy and knowledge.

In India, there is no national public library system. Marginalized communities have little access to basic educational resources. Sethi's realization of this disparity led to her involvement in the Free Library Network, a collective effort pushing for a national public library system in India. Along with her longtime collaborator, Indrajit Labhane of the Free Library Network, Sethi helped open the first community library in a small village in rural Maharashtra, a state in western India.

The impact of this first library project was immediate and profound. Within two months, the library gained about 200 members, predominantly children, indicating a voracious appetite for reading and knowledge in the community. This initiative not only facilitated access to books, but also created a public space fostering learning and growth for first-generation readers.

"The joy of watching a child open a book for the first time in a library is indescribable," Sethi said. "A library is not just about reading; it's about opening doors to a world of possibilities that were previously inaccessible. I think what is so moving to me is to watch children travel with their imagination. A library says that you can be a child in a small village in central India and yet the whole world is open to you to think with, to travel in, to discover through books."

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