Public Libraries: From Perfect Theory to Imperfect Reality

Fiza Mahajan


This article talks about Public Libraries in the context of the key aspects of public goods, namely, non-excludability and non-rivalry, and how not being limited to this definition, it can also be associated with the characteristics of common property resource (non-excludable but rivalrous) and club goods (non-rivalrous but excludable). This article talks about traditional public libraries as well as the challenges that it faces with the coming up of digital media and the need for public library even in these changing scenarios by incorporating the digital medium of information in traditional libraries. It finally talks about the actual scenario of the Indian Public Libraries based on the case study of District Library Gurdaspur.

Key Words: Public library, Excludability, Rivalrous, Inclusion, Equity


A library is a place for the ones who desire to acquire knowledge. A place where people can study quietly and have access to various books that are available there and issue them to read. Public Library thus, by definition is a place universally accessible to the general public which is funded from public revenue sources, taxes or donations. Public libraries serve a crucial role in the free accessibility of information to every individual who seeks it, whether poor or rich, whether belonging to the upper caste or lower caste. Public library is an open-access institution that circulates temporal informational value by lending books free of cost, making it non-excludable, and helps in bridging the gap of knowledge and information between haves and have-nots.

However, the books available in the libraries are limited and can be issued to a limited number of individuals for a specific amount of time. The libraries being non-excludable, in the sense that once a person has membership, (which in most cases is free of cost or generally a small amount), and since the number of books limited in the public library making it a scarce resource and thus, rival in respect to the people who have the access to that book. Hence, public library instead of pure public good, can be considered as a common property resource that is non-excludable but rival. But there is one more dimension to public libraries in the current scenario that arises because of the advent of digital media that is continuously shifting the reader base to e-books, e-journals and other online sources and thus, contributing to the decline of the value of public library and its obsolescence.

This essay talks about traditional public libraries as well as the challenges it faces with the coming up of digital media and the need for public libraries even in these changing scenarios. It finally talks about how digital medium of information can be incorporated in these traditional libraries.

Public Library as Common Pool Resource

So having established that the indigenous libraries are non-excludable but rival, we can define them as a common pool resource. It has a local or regional scale of operation. The establishment/ non-establishment of public libraries can deeply impact the quality of education and knowledge in a particular area and thus, the quality of human capital there. But with the coming up of digital media, the scale of operation has been expanded to the national and international level where anyone with internet connectivity can access online resources from any part of the world.

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Functioning of Public Libraries

Public libraries in their original form were established to cater to the specific goals of promoting social equity of knowledge and thereby, reducing the poverty of knowledge and education in society. The very feature of accessibility of public libraries implied the inclusion of all societal groups. It was a valuable place for the ones who did not have the means to afford the books and pay for the knowledge and education they wish to acquire. Moreover, the libraries provided social capital to the people, mainly in two forms, first, Bonding Social Capital, and second, Bridging or Linking Social Capital. Public libraries acted as a congregation of like-minded people who bonded over education keeping aside the communities they belonged to. This helped in bridging the gap that existed among people based on cultural and social class. Thus, it can be concluded that the public library served a very important role in providing equal opportunities for knowledge and was established based on the view that the poor lack the opportunity and not the capability that keeps them deprived, and hence indirectly, validates the viewpoint of the poverty trap.

Limitations of Public Library

However, according to a paper by Maitrayee Ghosh, namely ‘Public Libraries in the Internet age: Indian Scenario’, the condition of libraries in rural India is extremely miserable, located in small thatched huts with insufficient reading materials. The number of public libraries present is also insufficient making it impossible to access them in reality. Along with this, there are various administrative and maintenance problems. It is easy to say that these institutions promote equity and are inclusive in nature, however, the majority of the population in India is illiterate and unaware of the use of public libraries. It can be further argued that if people are unwilling to send their children to government schools given the incentives like mid-day meals and cash transfers in other specific cases, it is unlikely for the poor people to access this free educational resource.

Not going into the details of what exactly is the condition of public libraries in India and the way they are maintained as yet, theoretically, the purpose that these libraries are meant to serve is indispensable.

From Tangible Resource to Intangible Resource

With the invention of the internet in the 1960s, and ultimately the availability of open access resources and digital media like research papers, articles, journals, and books online by the 1990s, challenges the very existence of public libraries. The online platform resources, handled both by private players and the government, are free of charges and copyright, having worldwide access by anyone without any discrimination. Open access to study material online made it convenient for the users and reduced their transportation expenses. It is also argued that digital media is better in the sense that it does not require the exorbitant maintenance expenses that are spent on public libraries. Moreover, it also solves the problem of the rivalrous nature of public libraries because of the tangible nature of books that are present there. Now, the access to knowledge is no longer rivalrous because of its intangible nature. Thus, there has been a shift from collection (of books) to connection (internet).

One of the biggest advantages of open-access resources that the world has seen is the immediate transfer of knowledge from one place of the world to another. This has resulted in reduced costs and time over the research and constant and fast adaptation to the changes happening around the world. Thus, it has enhanced the Learning/Experience Curve by making it steeper.

Limitations of the Online Available Resources

The open access to digital resources in India is still in its initial phase. Intellectual property issues hamper the growth of these resources. The major concerns revolve around copyright violations, plagiarism, and the perception of low-quality and fake resources.

Other than this, digital resources don’t solve the entire problem. Although the primary purpose of libraries to provide a learning space, store books, and lend it to the public seems to be obsolescent, its secondary purpose of social inclusion and providing equal opportunity to people belonging to lower strata and thereby, reducing social barriers are not taken into account by this new means of learning. In a country like India where people don’t have the proper provisioning of necessary items, expecting them to have an internet connection and above that expecting them to have a computer or laptop to access the online sources and further expecting them to have the skills to use them would be so unreasonable.

The new digital world of open-access resources is not useful for have-nots. This new system does not ensure to provide equal opportunities for all. Thus, while this new digital platform has resolved the problem of the rivalrous nature of public libraries, it has changed the non-excludable nature of the libraries to be excludable.

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Need for Public Libraries Even in the Present Context

From the discussion above, it is clear that the availability of online resources, no doubt, will improve the GDP of the economy due to the steep learning curve and easy accessibility of information, however, it will not be equitable, the way public libraries were. In the tangible form, public libraries were non-excludable but rivalrous. In the intangible form, the digital access of resources is non-rivalrous but excludable. Thus, there is no way to claim that digital access has a benefit over traditional libraries.

To improve the easy accessibility that is also inclusive in nature we need to combine the benefits of both the systems. This can be achieved by the introduction of electronic resources in public libraries. There should be free Wi-Fi internet access in the libraries so that anyone and everyone who wants to access the information is free to do so. The government should also organize talks, seminars, and training workshops through public libraries on information literacy that is required for the use of the digital platform. The books in their physical form should be maintained side by side for the readers who get satisfaction from reading through a physical form and for the ones who are not so tech-savvy. Public libraries will definitely be governed by the government for their free accessibility. But the resources and its quality through the digital platform can be handled by both the government and the private sector. Hence, incorporating both the tangible and intangible nature of the resource inside one institution.

From Theory to Practicality: Indian Scenario

The problem seems to have a very well-formulated and feasible solution to it without any flaws, in theory i.e., combining the benefits of the traditional and the digital library. However, the outcome is quite opposite when it comes to the practicality of the same and seeing the results on the ground. Even though the movement to establish public libraries in India started way back in the late 19th century which was then followed up by various policies and acts to encourage the setting of libraries and widen their reach, not much has been achieved to date. Just 20 states have introduced the State Public Library Act since independence and whether it is followed and implemented appropriately is still a question of concern given the state of the libraries and their reach to the general public. When it comes to any public good, public library in this case, there are three parametric A’s that need to be fulfilled. The 3 A’s being: Availability, Accessibility, and Affordability


In terms of the availability of public libraries in India, there is no opposing view as to the dearth of the same. Given the number of towns and cities and villages and the massive population that resides in India public libraries falls short and are insufficient to cater to the needs of the public in defying the boundaries of knowledge. No proper data is available regarding the number of libraries in India. Different organizations provide different statistics. According to Raja Ram Mohan Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF), there are a total of 46,746 libraries in India. An interesting fact as stated in an article published in BS there is one rural library for every 11,500 people and one urban library for over 80,000 people. (Source: BS: Jun 30, 2019)


The problem is not just limited to the number of libraries but extends to the abysmal quality of the services that are provided in the existing ones. Ranging from inadequate books to poor provision of internet connection and poor infrastructure, the state of public libraries in India is slightly topsy-turvy. 


Are the public libraries in India truly non-excludable as mentioned above? Can anyone and everyone have equal opportunity to avail the services of libraries? Well, the applicability of the theory is not as straightforward as it seems. Most libraries in India have a membership fee, upon the payment of which the person becomes eligible to avail the ‘not so good’ services that the library has to offer. This aspect deviates us from the original conclusion that we arrived at initially, i.e., placing the public libraries in the category of open access resources with it being non-excludable but rivalrous. The aspect of membership fees puts public libraries in the category of ‘Club Goods’.

Legislation and Funding Problem

Despite all the considerations to improve the stature of public libraries in India since independence beginning with the mention of policies in the five-year plans to encourage setting up new libraries and enhancing the existing ones to setting up of Raja Ram Mohan Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF) and bringing the libraries under the Ministry of Culture, the libraries have not seen the desired results when it comes to their development. The fundamental cause for this problem lies in the poor implementation of these policies because of no central public library legislation in place to monitor the same. The management of public libraries is a state subject and is covered under the jurisdiction of the state and up till now only 20 states have introduced state library legislation out of 28 states and 8 Union Territories, the recent one being established in Telangana in 2015 (source: RRRLF).

The main source of the funding of libraries is the membership fees and the library cess that is charged in various states. So, the membership fee is the apple of discord that has been raised several times with no concrete conclusion being reached till now. To maintain the funding of the libraries the very motive of social inclusion, community engagement, equal opportunities, and non-excludability is being compromised.

Case Study: District Library of Gurdaspur

The case study of the District Library in Gurdaspur, Punjab gave a clearer picture of the state of libraries in India. Coming under the jurisdiction of the Punjab Government, the library remains in a dismal condition as of now, although the libraries in Punjab have been allotted funds for setting up e-libraries, and under this initiative, the library in Gurdaspur has been allotted a sum of ₹1 crore. Other than this, the single-story building is under construction on the first floor to make the library more spacious. Covering an area of mere 1905.75 square feet, there is not enough space for putting up books and no proper arrangement for the common people to sit there. There is no regularity in the provision of funds and supply of books to the library. Upon inquiry, it was found that mostly the books are supplied by RRRLF, Kolkata mainly in English and Hindi Language. Apart from this, State Central Library, Patiala was providing the books of Punjabi which have been reduced drastically recently and there is no regular supply of the same.

The library has subscribed to 6 newspapers in English, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu languages. (Source: Punjab Public Library System)

Upon further exploration, it was revealed that out of the 5 posts in the library, only two were filled, one for the restorer and one for the peon, and the 2 librarian posts and one sweeper post were vacant and the tasks were carried out by two persons employed but only with the salary of the post they were employed for. The library has a membership fee of ₹100 for a period of 5 years and has a total of 3,288 members as of February 2023. The membership fee prior to this was ₹500 with its validity for a lifetime. As told, the membership has increased since the fee has gone down from ₹500 to ₹100 confirming the impact of excludability stated above that the membership can have.  

Inquiring further, it came to light that the people who come to the library are generally preparing for competitive exams and must get their own internet connection for that, however, the setting of the e-library is under process.


Although it was a great sight to see people sitting and working in the library during the visit to the District Library Gurdaspur and the recent initiatives that are being taken to improve and develop it further, nobody really knows whether the funds allotted will be used efficiently and the time it will take to setup e-library. However, one can remain hopeful and optimistic about the positive changes that are coming in, although at a slow pace. But as said, Better Late than Never. There is still a lot that needs to be done in the realm of improvement of public libraries and setting up a national library legislation/ policy can pace up the journey towards it. The contention arising due to membership fee needs to be resolved as it is the primary source of funding for the libraries while arguable at the same time as it impedes the very motive of equity and non-excludability. The government can use library spaces to conduct seminars, training workshops and organize talks. This will not only create awareness but will help government raise funds altogether.