This is a story told in pictures of a free mobile library service. The place is Kiula, a village in the Deep South of Sri Lanka. Every Saturday afternoon, a three-wheeler (tuk-tuk) leaves our home with books. Nalaka, a young person living with us in the village, is its librarian.
An idea born to uplift the reading habit of the villagers of Kiula was the result of recollections of the bicycle book-man who came to our doorstep in our childhood and the need to expand horizons of the children, youth and adults of our adopted village.
We began the Kiula ‘Kiyawana Gunaya’ (good habit of reading) Mobile Library in mid June and now it is in its fourth month of operation. First week, we had 47 members for this free service, where books are taken to each villager’s doorstep each week. Its membership has grown to be over 260.
Our friends shared with us their own books, their children’s books and the rest came from our own collection and purchases. We also had the Kiula Funeral Aid Society contributing 150 books and villagers another 50. The total collection we now have numbers 635.
These consist of creative works, books on Buddhism (all villagers are Buddhists), adaptations and translations from world literature of all-time greats, motivational books, children’s readers and picture books.
We also have a few Tamil and language learner-aid books and a good collection of basic-English readers and some simple but important works. These books are carefully selected for the library and are aimed at cultivating the reading habit through ease of access to books, to assist develop life skills.
Every three months an evaluation is made of what each member had read and how each had benefited. Three simple questions are asked and a short essay is written. On the first such evaluation, 63 essays were received in two groups; ages nine-15 and 16 and over.
Ten essays in both groups were selected and all were given the same level of recognition. No first, second or third prizes. The awards consisted of fruit plants, packets of vegetable seeds, useful herbal medicines, a Sinhalese-English Dictionary and a pen.
Our chief guest and speaker on the occasion was the award winning bilingual author Daya Dissanayake who joined us, travelling all the way from Colombo. Also with us was the monk of the village temple, the Principal of the Kiula Junior School and members of the Kiula Sinha Mituru Samajaya, operators of the three-wheelers, taking turns each week.
Dissanayake interacted with the villagers and shared thoughts on the benefits of reading and gave away the awards. Several of those recognised with awards also read out their essays. Two special awards were made to the keenest elder member aged 70 and to the keenest young member aged seven.
The event saw the participation of over 130 villagers and it was a rewarding experience for all of us who participated with many lessons learnt.
Here are some tips on how you could develop your own service of a mobile library or encourage others to begin similar services in each village or areas in towns all over the island:
Keeping it small and manageable is the first and it must be perceived as a process and a service.
Divisive elements must not be engaged in its operation, and extensive consultations must be held with those who genuinely care for the wellbeing of the area or the village.
Exercise care and be very selective in the books that are circulated, avoiding having any that may cause controversy.
It costs very little money to operate but needs hoards of commitment of volunteer time each week, focus and goodwill of others.
In the process of building a better Sri Lanka, every drop counts and every effort no matter how small, will be significant.
(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at [email protected].)