One woman is transforming libraries to make lifelong readers out of Indian children

Catch ’em young
Catch ’em young
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Dalbir Kaur Madan is on a mission to make lifelong readers out of children.

In 2011, she set up the One Up library and bookstore in Amritsar, in the north Indian state of Punjab, with that view. “I also realised that there were limited public spaces for children. The only options were the shopping malls,” she told Quartz.

What began as a physical space gradually evolved into a larger project to breathe new life into school libraries. Madan began consulting with schools in the city and signed up for numerous courses in pedagogy and learning methodologies in New York.

While there are several new initiatives that are trying to engage children and offer them alternatives to smartphones and gadgets, Madan’s consultation projects with schools is unique. A school’s library can often be a static space, and no new books may be added to the shelves for years. When Madan works with a school, she helps it design reading programmes and an ever-expanding, comprehensive list of books.

After a successful run in Amristar, she moved to New Delhi and set up the One Up children’s library in the affluent neighbourhood of Vasant Vihar in 2017. Through this space, Madan helps children as young as 7 months to build a relationship with books.

She has also helped institute one of the first awards that recognises school librarians. Quartz spoke to Madan about her journey from a bookstore owner to a champion of the library. Edited excerpts:

Reader friendly.
Reader friendly.


What led you to set up a library and bookstore in Amritsar?

I was not born into a family of readers and I picked up reading because of a friend. But my children always grew up around books and our conversations, even today, often start with, “So what book are you reading right now?” I thought if my family reads this way, I’m sure everyone else does too. With that in mind, I set up the library expecting it to be an immediate success.

But I realised that people don’t really read or encourage others to read. A lot of people want to read but they don’t know how to pick up that habit. It was hard to sell the concept of a library when I first set up One Up. This is also because people don’t see the value in books and simply look at them as some sort of bargaining commodities.

How did you get involved with school libraries?

After I set up the library in 2011, I realised there was something broken within the system, and that I needed to go back to the schools. When I started visiting schools in Amritsar, Jalandhar, Chandigarh, Mumbai and Delhi, I realised libraries had not changed from the time I had left school. They still remained centres of issuing and returning books, though some tried to be slightly progressive and do a few things here and there.

At the end of the day, a school’s library was as good as the person it was blessed with. Principals and librarians would sometimes display great ambition, but I felt the library spaces weren’t empowered to think differently.

This led me to speak to school heads and to work with them to develop reading programmes as part of the curriculum. I wanted to help schools and parents change the way they nurtured their readers. When children come to a school at 3 years, they are curious, they are readers and they want to read. But how do we ensure that when those children step out of the school at 18 years, they continue to be readers?

How is your library different from a traditional library?

Research suggests that if a parent reads out aloud to their children for 15 minutes every day, up to the age of 3, a child can develop a subconscious vocabulary of 157,000 words. A research in the US says that there can be up to a 30-million word gap between kids born into a family that reads or where parents read aloud to the child, and those who don’t.

So ours is a library where facilitators read out to children. We encourage the parents of our members to accompany them and read out to the toddlers themselves. As the children grow older, they not only develop a thirst for reading but also the stamina to stay focused. What I try to emphasise through One Up is the fact that reading—like any other activity or hobby—needs practice and focus.

I also try to keep parents engaged so that reading truly becomes a habit for a child. For instance, we have fun competitions where we tell parents to send us photos of their children reading on vacation. We host activities like “drop everything and read”, and encourage children to write book reviews so they are thinking critically.

One could argue that One Up is a space for the affluent alone.

That may well be true, but I am hoping I can help raise privileged children to become responsible adults. Our books offer a window into all kinds of realities that privileged Indian children are shielded from.

Besides this, One Up has also helped set up the Bandana Sen community library in a South Delhi slum area. I have taken children from One Up to visit this space and even that I feel was a learning experience for them.

What is the motivation behind setting up an award for librarians?

I feel the role of a librarian is often diminished to that of an administrator. They are not even eligible for national awards for teachers. I instituted this award with the help of an independent jury and consultants in the memory of my friend and mentor, Bandana Sen. She was a librarian at the American Embassy School in New Delhi and was a huge guiding force for One Up to become what it is today. After her death, it seemed like an appropriate tribute to her to institute the Bandana Sen Library Awards for librarians, whose job often goes unnoticed and who can have a huge impact in shaping a child’s mind.