The British Council Library (BCL) in Mumbai has been around for nearly six decades. It has been a haven for generations of students who, having acquired the reading habit, continued as members after moving on to families and careers. In recent years, however, the library has faced a familiar problem. Membership, which was 28,000 at its peak in the 1990s, had dropped to 3,600 by 2009. A chunk of those who remained were senior citizens whose prime objective may not have been reading, but finding something to do with their time.

All over the world, printed books are giving way to digital versions, such as e-books. A standard view is that the world is too much with us today, and that people have less time to read. Data at BCL Mumbai seemed to support this. But anecdotal evidence indicated a more unique challenge. Mumbai, a linear city — with water on three sides, it can grow in just one direction — had been expanding rapidly. “People didn’t have the time to spend two or three hours to get to the library and back,” says Abhishek Chandan, head of BCL’s mylibrary initiative.

Thus, the British Council decided that the product — printed books — was not the problem. The weakness was in another “P” in the marketing mix — “place,” or the distribution channel. “Thus was born mylibrary,” notes Chandan, who has been overseeing the effort since it began in January 2010. The premise is simple: If members find it too difficult to come to the library, you must take books to their doorsteps. The assumption is that a reader will always remain a reader. As a popular song suggests, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

The British Council closed its physical library and launched mylibrary, which started with 900 members. In one year, membership increased to 3,600. “We are on our way to doubling that number by January 2012,” according to Chandan. The numbers are nowhere near going back to the library’s earlier glory. But a beginning has been made and skeptics, who have had ample reason to doubt, have been partially silenced.

Members log on to the mylibrary website for access to an online catalog and choose the books they want to borrow. The materials are then dispatched through a courier. For an annual subscription fee of around US$35, members can borrow two books at a time, or up to 24 books a year. A Family Gold membership for US$100 offers five books at a time and no annual limit. There is no additional charge for the courier service, which operates somewhat like Netflix in the United States or the Anil Ambani-owned Bigflix in India.

As part of efforts to improve the user experience, “we are exploring possibilities of partnership with leading players in the online and digital space,” Chandan notes. “Google has emerged as one of the most valuable online ecosystems. They have done brilliant work in reinventing the space around books and are developing alliances with leading libraries across the globe. We are hopeful that such alliances will be beneficial to our customers in making information more accessible.” An online chat room to allow members to interact is also being set up.

Some still grieve for the experience of visiting a library, however. “I miss the touch and feel, walking down aisle after aisle of books,” says Roxanne A. Maben, a full-time mom and a mylibrary member who used the bricks-and-mortar library extensively. “Going to a physical space called the library and reading parts of a book, browsing through various books and choosing the right book is now completely lost,” adds Menaka Warrier, who teaches English to Chinese students at the Bhavan’s Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Studies in Mumbai. Warrier migrated her BCL membership to mylibrary, but discontinued it after a couple of months.

The library is also grappling with some operational issues. There is no certainty that members will get their first choice book; each is expected to maintain a list of at least 20 books (in order of priority) so there is always something to send. The courier must arrive while someone is at home to receive the materials. “One never knows at what time the courier will come, so on those two days one can’t plan for anything else,” according to mylibrary member Parvathi Krishnan, a homemaker who formerly worked for Canara Bank.

Then there is a problem peculiar to Mumbai. The state government imposes octroi — a form of local tax — on the movement of goods. Books were originally included, but an exemption was later granted. “We could then extend our services to the satellite cities of Navi Mumbai and Thane,” Chandan notes. “We now reach out to a larger and new audience in new territories that were previously out of bounds for the conventional library.”

Despite the loss of a physical location, mylibrary has been a good fit for Maben. “Nariman Point [where the physical library was situated] is a 90-minute journey from my residence and I found it impossible to be a member,” she says. “Ever since they’ve started the mylibrary service, I’ve been enjoying a steady supply of books without the trauma of that long journey. It’s just delightful.” Member Subodh Pande, however, notes that fewer books are available online than were available at the physical library. His ideal would be to have the old BCL plus a courier service. And Warrier calls mylibrary, “a terrible system with many loopholes.”

Reaching Younger Readers

But mylibrary delivers something more for the British Council. “Our objective has always been to work with a younger audience, future leaders,” says Sam Harvey, director, West India, British Council. “This objective was not being met.” When the library was shut down, younger members accounted for about one third of the active users. “With the mylibrary service, about 45% of our members are in the 20 to 35 age group, mainly working professionals and students. Mylibrary is helping us reestablish our engagement with young audiences.”

Now the mylibrary experiment is being extended. “We are in the process of assessing demand for the mylibrary service in other markets,” Harvey notes. “We have seen interest from Gujarat and upcountry Maharashtra. The backbone of this service is the supply chain and logistics infrastructure. We are exploring options with logistics partners and will develop alliances to ensure that we offer the best service standards seamlessly across territories at an affordable cost. In the West, online libraries such as Netflix manage logistics via the postal network, which is not possible in India. Depending on the size of the market, we will carefully consider a hub-and-spoke model to service new markets, thereby ensuring that costs are managed efficiently. If all things go well, you may see a rollout in a new market in the third quarter” of this fiscal year.

Tata Consultancy Services, which worked on the software end of mylibrary, is watching the initiative’s progress. “Fundamentally, this was a transformation of the operating model for the library, from brick and mortar … to a digital presence that goes out to meet the customer,” says J. Rajagopal, TCS executive vice president and global head. “While there will always be a section of society that will want a physical presence, others will want the convenience of an online library.” TCS sees the possibility of working with other libraries in the future, building on this project’s lessons.

Not a Universal Solution

One of the early realizations — for British Council more than TCS — is that mylibrary won’t work everywhere. The first foray after establishing the initiative in Mumbai was in Uganda. But the experiment is being called off there. According to Hugh Moffatt, director of the British Council in Uganda, the model used in Africa was slightly different than what was implemented in India. For one thing, it was targeted at organizations. “We had 900 members, mainly from around 30 organizations in Uganda,” he says. “The organization pays for membership.” The service is being shut down “because we have not been able to price it appropriately for it to cover its costs,” Moffatt adds.

Harvey points out that certain circumstances might serve the model better than others. For example, the Ugandan capital, Kampala, is not a linear city. Even in India, mylibrary may not go everywhere. “Mumbai is unique,” Harvey says. “We were located in the extreme south, a location that was becoming increasingly difficult to reach, and irrelevant for a significant part of the population.” The business district had dispersed from south Mumbai and residential areas were moving further away. “In other places, we are located in the center of the city and continue to serve a large cross-section of the population. We haven’t experienced a drop in membership numbers. We think the mylibrary service along with a walk-in center will help us provide a flexible offering and expand our reach to a wider audience.”

Other librarians have a mixed reaction to the British Council’s efforts. According to Parvathi Venkateswaran, reference librarian (outreach) at the American Library in Mumbai, “the ideal situation would be to have a physical presence and a virtual. The British Council is finding ways to sustain the library. They have capitalized on their goodwill. There are many readers who do not have the time to visit the library, so for them I think it is a good service. More of the younger, jet-setting professionals would prefer to get this door-to-door service, but [there is] no chance to discuss the books with other readers or the librarian.”

The emergence of the Internet and digital media allows libraries to extend their reach, but the closure of bricks-and-mortar locations “deprives scholars of a common space for intellectual sociability — one that demarcates the life of the mind from the bustle of everyday life,” notes Debjani Ganguly, director of the Humanities Research Centre, College of Arts and Social Sciences, at the Australian National University in Canberra. “Obviously, given the state of the British economy, the virtualization of British Council libraries is of a pattern with hiking undergraduate tuition fees, slashing funding to humanities projects, and freezing pay hikes and subsidies in the public education system.”

Meenakshi Shivram, research guide and visiting faculty at the SNDT University in Mumbai, says, “This model is perhaps economically viable for the British Council, but it has simply not bothered to take into account the sentiments or the opinion of the reading community. From the reader’s point of view, I can see no advantage at all. There’s no point of a BCL if all it does is function like a Flipkart [an online bookstore] with the added pretension of having a social conscience.” Adds Barbara J. Ford, director and distinguished professor of the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs at the University of Illinois: “One advantage is the availability of services 24/7. A disadvantage is the lack of a physical place where those needing it can go for assistance.”

Value for Both Parties

According to Ford, the concept wouldn’t work in the United States. “Many public libraries have added online services to their physical libraries,” she says. “I am not aware of public libraries that have moved to an online-only model…. The physical space and in-person services that public libraries offer is still important to communities.”

But the BCL can’t be faulted for considering costs. “In Mumbai, the Asiatic Library [set up in 1808] had to organize a fashion show to generate funds to keep the library going,” Shivram of SNDT points out.

The BCL receives part of its funding in the form of grants from the British government. “As with other U.K. departments this [amount] has been reduced,” Harvey says. “Any funds we receive go back into our program to extend the impact of our work. Our focus is to provide a high-quality service that meets our customer needs. The cost of this service is obviously important not only for us and the U.K. government, but also for our customers. Our aim is to provide a service that is value for money for both parties.” Chandan adds that the most significant discounts created by the mylibrary program are for library members, who save on the cost of traveling to a physical library.

But Harvey and Chandan emphasize that mylibrary is still a work in progress. They believe the model is working, though it is not the magic recipe for every city and country. “The books market has been stable for the past 500 years,” Chandan says. “It is now changing rapidly. It’s an interesting place.”