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Trams in the Eastern Indian city of Kolkata form the only operating tram network in the country and the oldest operating electric tram in Asia, running since 1902. The Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) has taken a step to attract tourists, as well as to exhibit the rich Cultural Heritage of Bengal. The first tramcar in the world to have a Library is now open in Kolkata, as it runs regularly between Esplanade and Shyambazar, one of the oldest tram routes in the metro city.

The concept of mobile library is not a new one. Efforts have been made to make the books available to readers, who do not have the means or opportunity to possess them. It is called Bookmobile or Library on Wheels! The purpose of the 19th Century the American School Library or the horse-drawn British Warrington Perambulating Library was the same. It has been applied in various ways in different places. In the past, people employed elephants in remote areas of Thailand, boats in Fjord region of Norway, camels in Kenya, and donkeys in Zimbabwe to carry books. In India, the Andhra Pradesh Library Association had launched the Boat Library way back in 1935! In 2018, the mobile library was launched by the Indian Railways on three trains: the Geetanjali Express, the Deccan Queen and the Panchvati Express.

Kolkata Tram Library

Meanwhile, the CTC is providing riders with books, magazines, books for competitive exam, e-books and free Wi-Fi connection on Trams. The Kolkata Tram Library covers at least 30 educational institutions in its route. The character of the books has changed a lot in the last few decades, as its very existence has become somewhat abstract! People get access to modern technology fast in big cities… and, the mobile library cannot be an exception to this.

Three years ago, a few trains were enriched with audio-books in a Beijing Subway. The move has allowed the commuters to easily listen to all these books with the help of mobile phones during their journey. In 2012, London’s Tube Rail had launched a seemingly funny project: ‘Books on the Underground’. Under the project, several books were kept scattered in the Tube Rail Network, allowing passengers to read books on a Tube Train seat as long as they liked. A couple of years later, the Chicago Subway took the same initiative in order to encourage book-lovers to enjoy their journey.

Tram Library, Kolkata, India

Now, the question arises is whether the reading habits of a few could change the expression of love for the books. Books can help a person realise the Social Changes in the contemporary world. The local small libraries in big cities are experiencing the existential crisis in different parts of the globe. There were nearly 1,000 mobile libraries in the US in 1995. In a report published in early 2018, the Pew Research Centre – a nonpartisan American think-tank based in Washington DC – stated that the number came down to 650! The mobile library is much required in rural areas, where there still lies a lack of libraries or adequate Internet access. Whereas, the main purpose of launching mobile library is to make the journey of commuters more enjoyable in big cities, like London, Chicago or Beijing. Amidst such a scenario, the Kolkata Tram Library has arranged a multi-purpose package.

The question lies as to how successful this Tram Library will be? It is difficult to judge the effectiveness of most of the mobile book services that have been launched on trains and subways in different countries. A very interesting study has been carried out on Haarlem, a small town 20km west of Amsterdam. The operational library there is slightly different, as it is not on the train, but at the railway station. The library had been opened at the station in this Dutch city of 1.5 million people in 2011 mainly for railway passengers. At the same time, a two-year survey was conducted to understand its effect. The library had a target of 1,090 members in the first year, and 1,634 in the second year. However, the number of members in the first year was 797 or 73% of the target. The study revealed that the concerned authorities failed to meet the target because of the location of the library. As the library is at the west side of a platform, 57% of those, who commute to and from the railway station, did not know about this library! Although the number of members was much less than the target, the number of borrowing books from the library was twice the target. Moreover, the average satisfaction rate for members of this Public Library is 8, while it is 7.9 on an average in the Netherlands.

Inside the Tram Library

Human lives have been more and more connected to the Internet every day. The COVID-19 Pandemic has increased our dependence on the Internet. Now, one would have to see whether the Tram Library of Kolkata could change the ongoing chemistry between books and human beings for the better…

Dedicated to my father D C Das (March 16, 1938 – January 15, 2017) who was an employee of the CTC.

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