This 68-year-old from Chennai is on a mission to set up free libraries 


KR Mahendra Kumar in 2015 launched the Read & Return Free Library, an unmanned and unsupervised library that stays open for 24 hours. Now, there are 63 such libraries across India. 

Almost every city has a couple of libraries, collections of sources of information and other knowledge that are accessible and available to a defined community for borrowing or reference. But what if one there was a library that allowed you to take books for free?

KR Mahendra envisaged a world where every street would have a free library, making books accessible to everyone. With this thought in mind and keen to make a positive impact after retirement, Mahendra Kumar, 68, launched the Read & Return Free Library (RFL) at his home in Chennai.

The free library 

Although not a voracious reader, Mahendra Kumar, a former employee of the department of communications, decided to start the new chapter of his life with one main thing on his agenda: social good. This led to him opening an unconventional library in his neighborhood – there’s no membership fee, and anyone can walk in and leave with a book.

On April2, 2015, he started off with about 20 books in a cement shop in Thirumullaivoyal, Chennai. The beginning was humble; he shared a table with the shop owner.

Mahendra Kumar soon realised that the cement shop wasn’t the most ideal location, and bought a steel cupboard that he placed outside his house, in a little cul-de-sac. He also invited the local ward councillor to inaugurate the cupboard library – with 30 books then – later that month.

“The idea of RFL is to enhance accessibility of books. It’s a character building activity and I also think of it as making people more responsible. I’m not doing it for the purpose of educating people. I look at it merely as making books available to people, without the burden of the cost,” Mahendra Kumar says.

The RFL, in addition to being free and unmanned, doesn’t come with the compulsion of replacing one book taken by another book. There is no limit on the number of books one can take at a time or a time limit on the books’ return.

Spreading the word

Word about his idea and effort started spread around the city. Many people started donating books and some even decided to setup RFL units in their neighborhoods.

Mahendra Kumar’s former classmate, Capt R Venkataramanan, 68, inspired by the idea of the library, started a similar library in his neighborhood in T. Nagar in 2016.

The RFL movement spread across the city, and indoor RFLs started being setup in cooperative societies, old-age homes, gated communities, and apartment complexes. As far as the working hours of indoor RFLs are concerned, most function during the day.

“Suppose a person running an RFL is out of station for a few days, then one has to wait until s/he returns. Employing a person to look after the library may not be feasible as it is a non-profit voluntary service. In such cases, one can go to a nearby RFL either to avail or to return a book. With good rapport and understanding, this problem can be overcome in due course,” Mahendra Kumar says.

Though there are differences in the nature of functioning, either outdoor or indoor type, most aspects at all RFLs are the same.

Student’s corner

Mahendra Kumar also runs the RFL website, where anyone who wishes to open such a library can contact him or look up the guidelines to open an RFL. The website also has a section where students in need of academic books can post their requests. The Student’s Corner is dedicated to academic books that are listed city-wise. Donors reach out to the website with a list of books, which is put on the site and open to students. The idea is to help students across the country help get books free of cost.

He started off with a mere 20 books, but Mahendra Kumar has now collected over 10,000 books from well-wishers, friends and donors.

The books cover a wide range of topics, including philosophy, general knowledge, science and technology, religion, comics, and self-help. Both English and Tamil books are available.

Inspired by the idea, RFLs have opened up at 63 locations across the state of Tamil Nadu, and even in cities like Bhopal and Bengaluru. To facilitate easy donation of books, RFL Book Drop Points are provided at different places, where donors can place the books at these points across Chennai.

“This effort has solely been possible because of my wife’s support; she firmly believes that this is by far the best thing that I’ve done,” Mahendra Kumar ends.


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