Category Archives: Library

A century of bookselling

Focal point for scholars: (l to r) Dr Noman Naqvi, Prof Patrick Laude, Habib Abbasi, Noman Baig-- Pix courtesy Patrick Laude

By Zubeida Mustafa

NOT many readers would have visited Juna Market, the commercial hub of Karachi where hardware and spices compete with halwa puri to find buyers.

In the ocean of commodities catering to hedonistic pleasures stands a lone modest-looking bookshop that seeks to nourish the mind. It has been doing that for 102 years, an anomaly among its worldly surroundings.

More fascinating than the Abbasi Kutubkhana is the man who sits behind the counter, Habib Husain Abbasi, whose maternal grandfather founded this shop in 1910.

When he died in 1941, his son-in-law Abdul Rasool, who had been his apprentice for over two decades, took charge. His son, the present owner, took over in 1988 when his father passed away suddenly. He had just started writing his memoirs. Habib’s training was his 28-year apprenticeship with his father. He, however, managed to find time to carry on his studies at the Sindh Madressah and the S.M. College from where he graduated.

He is a bookseller in the true meaning the word. In his book Sketches of Some Booksellers of the Times of Dr Samuel Johnson, E. Marston writes of one of the ilk: “He was not a bookseller, but a gentleman who dealt in books.”

It clearly emerges from the sketches of the 10 or so individuals belonging to the 17th-18th century British book trade that being in the company of books and reading them avidly left a stamp on the men of the trade. Erudition, scholarship and eloquence became second nature to them. Intellectual discourse about men of learning was their favourite pastime.

If you read about Sultan Khan, the key figure in The Bookseller of Kabul by award-winning journalist Asne Seierstad, you will find similar attributes in him. In Seierstad’s words, the bookseller of Kabul felt let down by his country, time and again. After spending hours listening to his stories, she felt that “he was himself a living piece of Afghan cultural history, a living book on two feet”.

Habib Abbasi fits these descriptions aptly. Bookselling is a phenomenon which allows books to subsume the seller so totally that he becomes a part of them. Habib doesn’t see his work as a commercial activity. For him his vocation is an act of promoting education and knowledge — khidmat-i-khalq (service to humanity) he calls it.

Abbasi Kutubkhana: (from l to r) Habib Abbasi and Patrick Laude -- Pix courtesy Patrick Laude

By the time he was old enough to be browsing among the books his father stocked his shelves with so lovingly, the bookshop had already acquired a name. It became a focal point for scholars, publishers and other booksellers in the quest of knowledge. They came from as far-off places as Iran, Afghanistan and all over India. They still do — the latest visitor being Patrick Laude, professor of theology from Georgetown University and currently based in Doha.

Habib grew up in the company of books and scholars. He recalls the great names from the literary world who would visit the kutubkhana and fraternise with his father such as Allama Abdul Aziz Memon, the vice chancellor of Damascus university, Sindh’s Shamsul Ulema Dr Daudpota, lawyer Khalid Ishaq, well-known writer Pir Hisamuddin Rashidi, Sindh’s renowned scholars Mirza Kalich Beg and Pir Aga Jan Sirhindi, historian Rais Ahmed Jafri and many others. He is a living encyclopaedia on these legendary men of learning.

When I visited his shop on a public holiday — on a working day it is a challenge even for a pedestrian to negotiate his way through the entangled traffic — there was a constant flow of friends and visitors who knew that the Abbasi Kutubkhana was the place to go to for rest and recreation of the intellectual kind. Hence I found myself in pleasant company.

A bookshop is known by the books it keeps. There were no volumes of flashy pulp fiction adorning its shelves. There was a wealth of scholarship crowding the place from encyclopaedias of all variety in Urdu, Arabic and Persian to dictionaries of different languages. Fiction is of the classical variety such as Tilism-i-Hoshruba and Alif Laila which have resurfaced in popular interest.

How does Habib see the future prospects of the book industry in Pakistan? He is reticent and as a matter of principle keeps a low profile. He says he lacks the four key qualities for successful bookselling, namely Qaroon ka khazana (wealth), umr-i-Nooh (long life), sabr-i-Ayub (patience) and Ibn-i-Sina ka ilm (knowledge). He, however, suggests that big literary institutions and publishers — the Iqbal Academy, OUP, Institute of Islamic Culture, he names a few — should start a new tradition of working jointly in the field of book publishing. He feels that they have the resources, the know-how, manpower and networking capacity to produce researched books as agents of learning and scholarship. He feels that thus alone can they counter the challenges posed by piracy and junk publishing that have proliferated in the market. He also stresses the need to broaden our translation base which he feels is not sufficiently developed in Pakistan.

His suggestion reminds me of the two booksellers’ clubs that Marston writes about in his book cited above. One was the Friends of Literature comprising a group of London booksellers who met once a month to discuss literary affairs and also take business decisions on joint publications. The jointly published works were then divided among the booksellers to sell. Paradise Lost, Robinson Crusoe and Goldsmith’s Essays were some outstanding products of this club. There is no denying that we need more researched publications.

Source: Dawn

Progress of library science

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

TOMORROW is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Library and Information Science Department of the University of Karachi. It was on August 10, 1956, that the department launched its post-graduate diploma programme – the first degree level course for librarians in Pakistan.

A programme in librarianship had been started in Lahore by Asa Don Dickenson, a student of the famous Melvil Dewey in 1915, but it was a certificate course. In 1957, the diploma programme was converted into a degree and a Master’s course. Nearly 3,143 students have graduated from the department in the last 50 years. Its faculty has grown from seven members – many of them part time – under the founding chairman Abdul Moid to nine full time staff members today.
Continue reading Progress of library science

Creating a library culture

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE news from the library front in Karachi will not cheer the bibliophiles. The plan for a library, that had been promised way back in 1991 by mayor Farooq Sattar who had earmarked for it a three-acre plot of land in Gulshan-i-Iqbal near the Nipa Chowrangi, has now been dropped.

A hospital is to be built there instead. Fifteen years ago, a lot of fanfare had attended the launching of this scheme that was to be designated a city library. Architects were invited to submit designs for this institution and three entries were selected for prizes worth Rs 100,000. The building plan was approved.
Continue reading Creating a library culture

ARTICLES: Ancient treasure of knowledge

By Zubeida Mustafa

London has a new landmark. The British Library. Opened to the public five years ago, it has emerged as a major crowd-puller in the British metropolis. That is not at all surprising for it combines on its premises the beauty of its architecture, the aesthetic delicacy of its decor and the wealth of its collected treasures to attract even the most ‘unliterary’ of people. You don’t have to be a bibliophile or a scholar looking for reference material to visit the library, though 431,000 of its visitors last year were readers who had come to consult its books. But nearly as many came just to have a look around and marvel at what they saw.
Continue reading ARTICLES: Ancient treasure of knowledge

Not in silence

 

 

Rabab Naqvi
Rabab Naqvi

By Zubeida Mustafa

SHE lives by herself in a beautiful house surrounded by tall trees in Baie d’Urfe on the outskirts of Montreal. Twice robbershave broken into her home.But that has not made Rabab Naqvi any less determined than she is today. Life for a singlewoman can be difficult even in the more liberated and tolerant Canadian society. A few years ago she had a fall and fracturedher leg and she had to fend for herself, depending on some good friends for support. Yet she plans on staying permanently in Canada after she retires. “I might consider visiting the subcontinent, basing myself in Lucknow where my sisters live to study and research the issues close to my heart. But I would never like to give up my links with my friends and professional colleagues in Canada,” she says after a pause. Continue reading Not in silence

They went unwept, unsung

By Zubeida Mustafa

When a bookshop goes out of business and winds up, does one write an obituary? Not in our society. In the last few months three bookstalls of long standing have been closed down in Karachi. They went unwept and unsung. The last to fold up was Happy Bookstall on Inverarity Road (opposite Zainab Market) which had been catering to the needs of discerning readers for over 35 years.

London Book Company, which suffered its first blow two years ago when it closed its Tariq Road branch, is another casualty. In Ramazan, its branch in the neighbourhood of Uzma Arcade in Clifton also departed from the scene. Continue reading They went unwept, unsung

Liaquat National Library Periodicals in need of preservation

By Zubeida Mustafa

AFTER what one hears of the poor reading habits of Pakistanis and their lack of interest in books, one would expect a library to be a deserted place. But a casual visit to the Liaquat Memorial Library on Stadium Road should be enough to convince anyone that there are quite a few people in the city who do like to read. It can, however, be presumed that people read only if they can get books, newspapers and magazines conveniently and free of cost. Continue reading Liaquat National Library Periodicals in need of preservation

A new stirring in rural Sind

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE villages of Sind are experiencing a new awakening. The people — both men and women — in rural areas of the province are developing a keen awareness of their deprivation and backwardness. Gone are the centuries old fatalism, complacency and submissiveness of yore. The people now want a change and more significantly they are prepared to work for it on a selfhelp basis. Continue reading A new stirring in rural Sind

The author’s coin

By Zubeida Mustafa

A FACT which is not so widely known about Sweden is that it has the highest ratio of book titles published per thousand of the population in a year — nearly one title per thousand people. (West Germany, which is also a prolific publisher, produces one title per 1,500 people).

Although the Swedes are complaining that people no longer read as many books as before, the sales of books have been rising. You just have to visit a library in any Swedish city (there are 2,200 local public libraries all over the country) or a bookshop to see how popular books still are, especially with children.

How do writers fare in a society where 80 million copies of books are sold every year? What is quite clear is that Swedish writers are conscious of their rights and responsibilities and are prepared to struggle for them. Thus, in 1972 the Writers’ Union protested against low payments to writers and its members withdrew all their books from public libraries.

It was their awareness of being isolated from society which led a group of three Swedish Writers to set up the Writers’ Centre in Stockholm in 1967. Within a week, 200 writers — including the leading ones — had responded. Today the Forfattarcentrum (Swedish for Writers’ Centre) has a membership of 800, including two Turks, two Kurds and some Latin Americans. Any person who has written a book that has been published can become a member.

The aim of the centre when it was established was to help writers break out of their social isolation and bring them closer to society Today the centre is very active in providing its members contacts with the public which, on the one hand help them understand people and their problems, and on the other help create an awareness and appreciation in people of writers and their works.

Gun Qvarzell, a staff member at the centre, who is in charge of the programmes, told me about the activities the centre arranges. A poet might be invited to a school to recite his verses and explain his poetry to the children. A university might arrange a workshop in which some writers could be invited to participate. A writer might be a guest at a cultural week. Concerted campaigns by the Writers’ Centre have been instrumental in getting literary circles and libraries set up in hospitals, sanitoria and prisons.

Every day the centre receives at least four or five requests from various institutions for help in arranging a workshop or group discussion with a writer’s participation. Once a couple even telephoned asking the centre to arrange for a poem to be composed on the first birthday of their child. Their request was fulfilled!

The centre undertakes all kinds of projects which promote a happy relationship between the writers and the public. For instance, after office hours the centre’s telephone is fixed on taped poetry recitals by the poets themselves. Anyone can ring up to listen to these.

Gun Qvarzell feels that the centre has achieved its goal in that writers are today closer to society. Writers and poets have had the opportunity to explain their work to people who are ordinarily not in touch with them. This has created public interest in literature and sustained a dialogue between writers and the readers. But Gun is unhappy about what she calls barriers created by bureaucracy between writers and the public.

The Writers’ Centre, which now has four branches, has in its sixteen years of existence done much to improve the lot of the writers too. Thus, it has tried to give new writers a boost by introducing them to the public through its programme of contacts with schools, hospitals, libraries, bookshops, prisons and other institutions.

At its new premises on the island of Skeppsholmen overlooking the Saltsjon (Baltic), the Writers’ Centre has four furnished rooms with a kitchenette. At a very reasonable rate of SEK 600 a month a member can rent a room to work there. It is quite common in Sweden for writers to go into seclusion, away from their family and friends for a few weeks to finish their writing.

At the centre I met Elsa Steffen (aged 83 years) who has written six books. She was working on her seventh and had rented a room for a month to finish her work. She was in bed (obviously working) when I knocked the door at 4.30 in the afternoon. That was something unusual but then that is precisely the idea of moving into a separate apartment from your family — you don’t have to bother about routines and schedules and can get along with your work. Gun Qvarzell, who also edits a quarterly magazine on children’s literature, told me that writers in Sweden have been protesting against the high taxes they have to pay on their incomes. Although few writers can earn a living from their writings, Swedish authors are relatively well off compared with their counterparts in many other countries, mainly because of their trade union type efforts.

Authors’ union

Swedish writers first organised themselves into a union called the Swedish Authors’ Association (Sveriges Forfattar-eforening) in 1893 on the initiative of Verner Von Heidenstam, who later won the Nobel Prize for his poetry. Thereafter the Swedish Union of Authors was set up. Through organised efforts the writers could improve their situation by persuading the government to take important measures.

Two of these I find quite interesting and with the exception of the Scandinavian region, I don’t know of any other country where the writers enjoy similar facilities. Under the terms of standard contract an author in Sweden is entitled to 16-2/3 per cent royalty on the retail price of his book. As soon as a manuscript has been accepted, the publisher must pay a guarantee equal to at least one-third of the royalty on the first edition. This advance is deducted from the payment that subsequently falls due. But it does not have to be repaid by the author, if his book does not sell.

Another fascinating feature of Sweden’s literary life is the Library Loan Compensation which was introduced in 1954. The concept underlying this scheme is that the government must compensate the author for books borrowed from public libraries. The government pays compensation at the rate of 37 ore (100 ore is equal to 1 SEK) per loan. Of this sum, 22 ore goes to the author whose book has been borrowed upto a miximum of 100,000 loans in the form of the “author’s coin”.

After the first stage, a writer, receives only 11 ore per borrowing. This sum progressively decreases with the number of loans. The part of the compensation not paid to the writer goes to the Swedish Author’s Fund. Administered by a board of 14 member (four appointed by the government and the remaining the nominees of the authors), the Fund seeks to create a system of security for writers. Thus 180 qualified authors, translators, and illustrators are guaranteed SEK 48,000 per year, irrespective of the number of loans of their books.

Younger writers are given longterm grants.^Awards, pensions and travel grants are given from the Fund. In 1983-84, the Library Loan Compensation amounted to SEK 40 million. Of this SEK 28 million was transferred to the Fund.

How much can a writer earn under this system? Gun Qvarzell disclosed that Sweden’s leading writer of children’s books, Astrid Lindgren, earned SEK 2 million jn 1983. That is a big amount even by Swedish standards but of course the taxes are heavy

Source: Dawn 6 June 1984

Why are our students not avid readers?

By Zubeida Mustafa

SOME students were once asked why they read books — that is books other than their course books. Their answers were quite varied: to kill time; to increase their knowledge; because they were asked to do so by their teacher; to fulfil their social needs; to develop their personalities. Very few said that they read for pleasure. When young people are not reading books voluntarily or because they derive a sense of satisfaction from it, it is not strange that they are not forming life-long reading habits.

Obviously when a person feels under a compulsion or pressure to read, he will abandon is books as soon as he no longer feels the need for them. While a number of young people are reading books as a duty, there are a number of others who are not reading at all, their prescribed texts excepted.

A National Book Council survey conducted in 1981 found that 20 per cent of the students questioned said that they did not like to read. Even those who read, devoted most of the Continue reading Why are our students not avid readers?