The virtual library

The virtual library

Books take readers to an alternate world where realities change from page to page, story to story. Today, the art of reading has made a comeback as more people are rediscovering the joys of it. Libraries thrive on helping people live this joy as many find libraries a sensible alternative to accessing books, due to constrains of purchasing cost and storage space.

“More than 50% of books we buy are on member requests. Even if it is an obscure, unheard-of book, we buy it if a member asks. Which is why we are probably the only library in the country to stack books on Japanese gardening and tailoring quilts.”

Unfortunately, as one gets stuck in the mundanity of daily life, library visits often get forgotten. For those in smaller cities, another challenge that presents itself is the availability of certain titles. Gunjan Veda, CEO, IndiaReads explains, “While in larger cities, the time to reach a library or a book store is an impediment, in smaller towns – even in non-metro capital cities in the country, many books reach only after months of being launched.” This former Planning Commission employee, who worked with women and children across the country, realised there was a crying need for an online library that one can borrow books from anywhere in the country. Thus, was born Indiareads.com in December 2009 in New Delhi.

“Considering the growth in the literate population, the growing hunger for education and the growth in the publishing industry, it was obvious that there is an unmet demand. We did four weeks of ground level market research and confirmed this,” explains Kaber Vasuki, marketing manager of Chennai-based Iloveread.in.

Smart Library Network runs Thelibrary.in to cater to the National Capital Region (except Noida and Faridabad) for a similar purpose. “Lack of proper book reading facilities, distance of public library services, rising cost of books and a service oriented business option were some of the reasons that prompted me to start this online library venture,” says Shishir Miglani, its founder.

Books at the doorstep

One of the greatest advantages these libraries provide is that they deliver and pick up books from homes at no extra cost, making it convenient for the readers to visit the online library, sign up for a membership and select books from the catalogue available online. On placing an order, the libraries then set the motion of delivering the books in place. If a book is not available, these libraries purchase and stock them. “More than 50 per cent of books we buy are on member requests. Even if it is an obscure, unheard of book, we buy it if a member asks for it. Which is why we are probably the only library in the country to stock books on Japanese gardening and tailoring quilts,” says Vasuki.

As Miglani points out, that is the very essence of having a library – to make books accessible. And so if a book is not available on its network, efforts are taken to source it. Apart from bookstores, sourcing from other online bookstores has also made the process more convenient.

Veda adds that IndiaReads has counsellors who help the readers select a book based on their interests. “In addition to listening to our customers, we also provide consultation, especially to students, on good books they can read,” she adds. Importantly, the fact that no corner of the country is out of bounds despite delivery challenges has won its clients’ loyalty. The company has also started an online book store in 2010 and has both the library and bookstore operational on its site.

As a result, the team in many libraries is there not just to pick up and drop books but also to source the right books and make recommendations. “Employees with a passion for books are a must,” Veda explains – a lesson she learnt from experience. Having employed people from different backgrounds, she realises that finally only those who love books themselves can do justice to this job. In the case of Iloveread too, Vasuki says that many a time, its readers turn employees.

Stumbling blocks

The challenge for these enterprises is the logistics. “Distribution across a wide geographical area within NCR is in itself a huge task,” explains Miglani. While technology helps in keeping track, it requires resourcefulness to pick up and deliver on time. “It has been over 30 months since we went live. We have figured it out now,” says Vasuki. Basic things like preventive maintenance of bikes, factoring in the petrol price hike while creating membership plans, protecting against attrition and absenteeism are worked into its strategies. Currently, Iloveread caters to Chennai and Coimbatore, and plans to expand through franchises.

Indiareads has courier partners and relies on speed post for places where there is no courier service. “It is one of our greatest challenges and having local partners is our next plan,” says Veda. In New Delhi, the library already has its own delivery team and plans to extend this to Mumbai and Kolkata – places where it has a certain number of members. As the critical mass is achieved in different regions, delivery teams will also be established. “Right now, we even deliver to tea estates in remote locations. Smoothening out logistic challenges continues to be our greatest focus area,” she adds.

Gaining visibility

Referrals are a great way to get members and have worked in the past for these online libraries. The libraries are self-sufficient and have managed to grow and expand through internal accruals and private funding.

Being online, technology is a critical component to ensure efficient tracking and managing of inventory. “We have an in-house team of developers and servers to allow users 24×7 access to our website. We also promote authors on our website and make them accessible to our readers through our Facebook and onsite efforts,” explains Miglani. Book cafes and e-books are also on the anvil for this library.

As Vasuki explains, being a community library, spending time with customers on phone is one important way of networking and keeping customers happy. “We run a very popular Facebook page and a blog to connect with book lovers,” he adds. Iloveread also collaborates with Chennai Live 104.8 FM’s PaperBack radio show (the only radio book club in the country) that airs every Saturday, where the members are the guests of the show.

Hosting events like the Mad Librarian’s Tea Party and a book club on Saturdays (apart from PaperBack) brings readers together. “We have an initiative where we place books in auto rickshaws for people to read while they travel,” shares Vasuki.

Indiareads goes to campuses with books and, more importantly, involves authors for the students to interact with during its Literathon. Reputed institutions are targeted for this. Book events inviting authors and reviews on the site are other ways of getting the readers to interact. The library is already working with educational institutions to design their libraries. This year, the focus will expand to include corporate companies as well.

In the future

The online libraries collectively believe that they have only touched the tip of the iceberg. And each of them states that there is room for competition as it will create growth for the segment itself.

What will be critical is for these libraries to create new avenues in the same space and bring about a judicious mix of the online and brick-and-mortar elements. Using this as a mantra, online libraries can more than do their part to encourage the art of reading.