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INVISIBLE REACH: LIBRARY SERVICES DURING COVID-19

Working in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown in April-May 2020, Masters in Integrated Product Design student Bibek Sah decided to research remote library services as part of the MIPD course Building Research.
ANUSandhan caught up with Bibek to learn more about the expertise he gained through his research.

As a product designer, why did you choose to research library services?
I believe design must have a purpose. Does it help in our daily lives? Does it address the problems of our surroundings?

I like using libraries. While using the Learning Commons at Anant National University, where the library is still in development, I found many aspects of the library where the user’s experience could be improved. For instance, I realized that almost all books have titles written along their spine and that they are placed upright. In this situation, the letters appear perpendicular to the normal viewing direction. This makes it tougher for a user to read. They have to tilt their heads. The design could be used to improve the outer readability and physical arrangement of books. I believed these issues could be addressed through re-design of the book cover and innovation in the shelf design.

Then, the pandemic hit. That further made learning difficult. We had to be in our homes away from educational infrastructure as a result of the physical distancing. . The education sector was thus facing a big challenge. With the encouragement from my research faculty, I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to work on a paper on library services, in the absence of physical facilities.

According to the librarians you interviewed, how has COVID-19 changed usage patterns for library resources?
I realized, after interviewing librarians as part of my research project, that the usage of library services is seeing a drastic change from offline to online. This transition is aggravated by the COVID-19 situation. Libraries are already providing more than 80% of the resources online, whether they are in the text, audio or video formats.

According to one of the librarians I interviewed, the portable nature of smartphones will eventually allow anyone to have library access anytime they wish.

You make an important point connecting library services in the COVID era to the needs of remote and disadvantaged users. Can you explain it?
The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all equal in many ways. However, students living in urban areas have facilities like good transport and network connectivity. These students are at an advantage over students living in towns and villages who may not be able to afford technological gadgets or are deprived of the proper infrastructure that supports online library services. In such cases, problems still persist. Can the government construct additional telecom network sites in remote areas? Can companies design low-cost laptops just for learning? Affordability is generally the deciding factor. If the poor can buy the product or solution, all can access it.

You found some interesting facts about the public library system in India. Could you share some of your findings?
The public library system has been playing a vital role in the tangible aspects of library services. It provides over 40,000 public libraries in India and over 20 mobile library services plying to all corners of the country. During the COVID situation, the Raja Rammohan Roy Library Foundation came up with a lot of schemes to support the development of public libraries catering to remote areas and mobile library services.

How easy or difficult was it for you to conduct your research during the period of the COVID-19 lockdown? How did you overcome the challenges you faced?
The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic came with an army of difficulties. It did not allow me to do my ethnographic study, conduct user interviews or access proper library facilities due to the physical distancing efforts proposed by the government. However, with the help of my faculty, I was able to interview experts online during my research.

You end your research paper on a very interesting note. You say: From the study, we have found that the role of the library as a portal of knowledge has been substituted to a great extent by online learning resources.
A related question still remains unanswered at this moment. Silence and peaceful ambience in surroundings full of noise and distractions, friendly and comfortable study spaces, collaborative spaces for work that needs a physical presence – these are advantages exclusively offered by the physical library, How can these privileges be substituted during lockdowns? (Sah 2020: 12)

Do you think design has a role in addressing the issue you highlight?
Online services serve as an add-on to offline services. They are not really a substitute. They provide great utilitarian support by facilitating learning from anywhere. However, online learning lacks the basic experiential and practical interface made possible by the physical space. This learning infrastructure is the sole purpose of educational institutions in the first place.

Filling heads with books with little activity will not make much difference. This is the real problem with online library services or online learning that needs to be addressed.

Design is generally taken to mean how something looks, overshadowing its functional aspects. Design can be used to address the problem I have highlighted. The needs I point out are physical in nature. The design must concern itself with the functional and tangible benefits in order to come up with a solution.

About Bibek Sah

Bibek Sah is earning his M.Des. degree at AnantU, Ahmedabad. After completing his B. Tech. in Electronics & Communication Engineering from Sikkim Manipal Institute of Technology (Sikkim) in 2015, Bibek worked at Ericsson India Global Services for two years.

In the near future, Bibek hopes to design products with a blend of art and science that match the blend of form and function in nature. Bibek loves music and poetry and likes to play soccer in his free time.

Bibek’s paper can be cited as follows:

Sah, Bibek, 2020. Invisible Reach: Library Services in India during the COVID-19 Lockdown. Working Paper, MIPD Programme, Anant National University, Ahmedabad.