A page out of Hippocampus’ book

A page out of Hippocampus’ book

Enough and more has been said about children not reading much these days. In the little leisure time they get – just about an hour a day – television, videogames or play time get priority.

Realising this, Umesh Malhotra partnered with his wife, Vimala, to start Hippocampus – a library dedicated to children – in Bengaluru in 2003. Malhotra, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, previously worked in the information technology industry and the venture capital segment for over 12 years. However, for Malhotra, the goal was not only to inculcate the reading habit among urban kids, but also to extend this to underprivileged children. And to achieve this, he is collaborating with different organisations across the country as a consultant/advisor to help establish libraries.

Being the role model

Through its libraries – two in Bengaluru and one in Chennai – Hippocampus currently reaches out to 60,000 children annually. One centre in Bengaluru, and the one in Chennai are Hippocampus’ own centres, while the third in Bengaluru was set up in association with Shankara Mutt.

Says Malhotra, “I only wanted to establish Hippocampus as a role model for others to recreate this concept. There are six to seven libraries that have come up in Bengaluru based on the Hippocampus concept.” He adds that the library is not keen on replicating itself through franchisees or other centres.

“I only wanted to establish Hippocampus as a role model for others to recreate this concept. There are six to seven libraries that have come up in Bengaluru based on the Hippocampus concept.”

One of the initial challenges after setting up the library was to get children to come in. “If the children get interested, then they themselves will make time to pick up a book and read,” he says. And choice of material is not a worry as the libraries house 12,000-13,000 titles across different categories, giving children a wide variety to choose from. In addition to books, a series of activities such as story reading sessions, craft making, yoga sessions are planned to catch the attention of the young and restless. To complement its offline presence, there also exists an online ordering facility with door delivery that makes borrowing easy.

The best titles

“When we started, we mainly imported titles – close to 3000 to 4000. Luckily, the Indian government encourages the import of books and so, the prices are comparable to international standards,” explains Malhotra. Today, almost 80-90 per cent of the titles are available in India, and the market has expanded with many publishers and sellers recognising this segment.

Indian content is lacking, but a lot is being done to improve the scenario. “Currently, most Indian titles focus on folk tales and mythologies. That might be what parents want their children to read. In fact, even Enid Blyton is an author that parents push their children to read. But, children today are exposed to more and so want variety,” he points out, while commenting on the changing tastes.

Readying version 2.0

If the existing model is a benchmark, an inspiration for other libraries to imitate, Hippocampus is ready to move to the next level. It is working with Max Muller Bhavan on developing a series of programmes that will highlight what a library for children should be like. This is being planned at a national level, to create a movement to encourage reading.

Hippocampus is already working with regular schools to help them run their libraries. The intention is to take the reading habit to schools and create an impact across the board. “The aim is to get the system right,” says Malhotra.

Reaching out to the underprivileged

Malhotra says that the library, the face of Hippocampus that everyone knows of, is just one aspect. The other core activity of Hippocampus is the Trust it has – Hippocampus Reading Foundation – to promote libraries for poor children by supporting and mentoring through its ‘Grow by Reading’ programme.

Currently, it mentors a group from North India – Room-to-Read – which is running a pilot in 250 schools for poor children. If this succeeds, then it will be scaled up to cover more schools. Hippocampus is also talking with the Government of Karnataka to implement the same concept in the state. If this comes through, it will touch the lives of close to seven million children – as against the current three to four million.

Hippocampus plans to raise funds to establish village libraries in the latter half of this year, to take books and reading for children into rural India. “Our urban model does not need external funding. But, for the rural model, we need to raise funds,” explains Malhotra.

The libraries generate enough revenues to be self-sustainable. The Trust gets a consultancy fee in most cases, and has been an advisor to an organisation in Cambodia. “We measure our growth by the number of children we reach out to rather than revenue figures,” says Malhotra.

Growth means different things to different people. For Malhotra, the goal is to see what everyone only talks about – encourage children to read more. But, instead of focusing only on a revenue model, he has gone beyond that to create a social model where reading becomes a national habit right from childhood. If improving literacy rates is one of the nation’s goals, Malhotra’s dream is to help India get there by making reading a pleasure.