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Shouldering A Responsibility

For a decade, Radhamani, a librarian at the Pratibha Public Library in the southern Indian province of Kerala, has been walking door to door to distribute books for just INR 5! The 63-year-old lady is popularly known as Walking Library. Interestingly, the concept of Walking Library is an old one, especially in Europe. As far as Travelling Libraries are concerned, one was created in 1904 by the People’s Free Library of Chester County, South Carolina, and served the rural areas there. Another early mobile library service was developed by Mary Lemist Titcomb (1857-1932).


It was seen that there were two wooden shelves, tied like a bag, on one’s back, and there was a bunch of books on those shelves. Those book sellers, or Walking Libraries, used to sell books at a very low price. This concept of selling books changed later, as the book-lovers started carrying books in a shelf, like a bag, on their shoulders while visiting somewhere on foot. They used to read books while taking rest during their journey. This habit helped them overcome their fatigue on their way to a different place. Many used to say that they often found mountains, seas or dense forests on their way while travelling a long distance. The constant change in environment, and the main content of the book had a different effect on the mind of the reader.

Once, John Hawkes and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were walking along a road in 1794, as their destination was the northern end of Wales. Their only other companion was a publication of verses penned by Thomas Churchyard (1523 – 1604). Eight years later, Coleridge was on his way to Cumberland, a historic county in northwest England that had an administrative function from the 12th Century until 1974. The English poet did not forget to carry shirts, a special cravat (forerunner neckband of the modern necktie), trousers, socks, papers, pen, and a night cap with him. A book of verses, written in German, was also with him. In 1818, John Keats had accompanied his close friend Charles Armitage Brown to the Lake District in North West England. However, Keats had two other companions, namely Dante‘s The Divine Comedy and The Works of John Milton.

In the 18th Century, larger boxes were made to carry more books. Those wooden boxes used to be designed like a miniature of one’s favourite book, and they were wrapped in leather in such a way that the box, itself, looked like a book. Currently, such a box is in the collection of the University of Leeds.

According to an article published in The Sacramento Union daily in 1885, Napoleon Bonaparte (August 15, 1769 – May 5, 1821) arranged for a travelling library to carry at least 60 books. Louis Barbier, who was in charge of the Louvre Library, reportedly helped Napoleon I take books along for a ride. Author Austin Kleon mentioned that Napoleon I had requested that each tiny book in the library should “contain from 500 to 600 pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs“. The books were wrapped in such a manner that there would be no difficulty in reading them, and they would not be damaged during the journey.

Later, traveling libraries were used for other purposes. From urban areas, books were taken by cars to rural schools. Everyone used to purchase books of their choice at low prices from those cars.

In 2012, participants of the Sideways Festival walked a total of 333km from the north to the south borders of Belgium, with books on their shoulders, to celebrate this age-old tradition of Walking Libraries.

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