Dalbir Kaur Madan on turning reading into a community activity and creating libraries for the underprivileged, with help from children

Divya A

Dalbir Kaur Madan conducts a reading session at OneUp Library.

“You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child,” said American children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel, popularly known as Dr Seuss. It’s upon this cardinal principle of “reading aloud and turning it into a community activity” that Dalbir Kaur Madan set up a OneUp Library in Amritsar eight years ago. “My children were in school at the time and I realised that there was a need to inculcate reading habits in children by making reading a community activity,” says Madan, the library’s director.

“The children of today are growing up between malls, schools and hobby classes. When will they see the world?” says the 50-year-old, who holds a Masters degree in education, and later, studied professional reading and literacy from Harvard and Columbia universities. She adds, “Libraries provide a third environment to children — beyond schools and homes — to discover life through books.”

So, when Madan moved to Delhi along with her children in 2017, she brought OneUp along, which found a new home in Vasant Vihar. OneUp consists of a children’s library, a learning lab, a book studio and school programmes, offering a web of linguistic, social and cognitive experiences to toddlers and teenagers alike. Madan says she has no plan to expand OneUp (through franchise), but is now utilising her extra hours to curate school libraries across the country — working with Shri Ram School and Heritage School in Delhi, Cathedral and Oberoi in Mumbai and will soon be on board with Shiv Nadar School in Noida. She conducts workshops with teachers and librarians, advises libraries on steps they should take to innovate, and to initiate non-readers, but doesn’t charge anything. Each school which registers gets a customised feedback on how it can improve its library.

At OneUp, she also gets 200-plus young members to “give back to the community”. Two months ago, a children’s mela was held on the OneUp campus, where kids in small groups put up gaming stalls, invited their friends over and earned some money. From selling bookmarks to personalised cards, games and food, children raised Rs 1.82 lakh, along with OneUp’s contribution. It was used to set up a fully-stocked library for children of the nearby Rangpuri slum.

In December 2018, a similar initiative was carried out to create a library in Kusumpur Pahari slum nearby, in collaboration with NGOs, Youthreach India and Shanti Devi Charitable Trust. The library serves the need of nearly 500-750 children with more than 1,000 books. The teacher-librarians at the trust ensure regular read-aloud storytelling sessions for all age groups. “The OneUp readers visit the library once a month and children from Kusumpur library visit it every two months for exchange of ideas,” says Madan, adding that the slum children need to learn how the “privileged” can change the world. “You can only teach them through literature how to be responsible and responsive to those around you,” she says.