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.

Then nothing happened for 13 years. Mercifully, the land was kept protected from the land grabbers and the avaricious builders and developers who pry around the city in quest of unbuilt plots of land. In January 2004, when Niamatullah Khan was the city nazim, it was announced that a library would be built on that land from the women’s councillors’ fund. It was, therefore, converted into a women’s library. The construction work started.

Now without much ado, it has been announced in December 2005 that the under-construction library complex has been dropped and a hospital will be built there instead. The nazim of Gulshan Town, Mr Wasay Jaleel, feels that the plot is too big for a library and a 100-bed trauma centre is more urgently needed. He has reassured people that he has plans to set up a modern library in every union council in Gulshan. Can one question the wisdom of this move? The nazim, we must presume, would know best what the city needs. Given the violence that has gripped Karachi since the 1980s, his priority is understandably to save lives. But is it not possible to save lives as well as encourage people to read books?

If Mr Jaleel does find the time, resources and commitment to set up a network of small libraries in the 13 councils in Gulshan Town it will be a red letter day for library and book lovers. But given our leaders’ past preferences it is not easy to feel excited and optimistic about this project which is at present no more than a pipedream. The move to drop the library project is to say the least most disheartening especially when we know it is something so achievable. Tasneem Siddiqi, the chairperson of Saiban, an NGO working for shelter and social development, would testify to that. His library support group has helped 60 school libraries in Orangi within a span of three years.

A follow-up survey found that a number of schools which were provided books could not develop a vigorous library culture in their institutions.

They felt they didn’t have the space for a library. Their need for classrooms was greater. But 20 of the schools were making excellent use of the books that had been donated while the performance of 15 others was average and would improve with some support.

Saiban has also supported some community libraries in Karachi. Neighbourhood libraries that are user-friendly are always appreciated by people who like to read. Their accessibility, especially if they are well-stocked, makes them indispensable. But that is not the only kind of library big cities like Karachi need so badly.

The importance of a city library can never be over-emphasised and anyone who has managed a library knows very well that as long as there are books, space is what a library needs most. Even in this age of electronics technology and digitalisation one cannot do without books and the printed word. And for that three acres or even more can never be too much.

If the city government is serious about focusing on the mohalla library, do we still need a city library? And why? The fact is that the mohalla library and a city library are both needed because they serve different purposes. Small libraries/reading rooms can attract random readers to spend a few leisurely hours browsing through books, magazines and newspapers to obtain information and provide nourishment to their minds. At present, Karachi has 82 libraries/reading rooms but most of them are in a rundown condition. If the various town nazims would at least take up the responsibility of making these libraries functional and centres of intellectual activities, they would render a useful service to the people of Karachi.

The city library that will by its very nature have to be a large place is designed to house a collection of books that are rare, academic and specialised. This would be a spot where researchers and scholars could assemble in their quest for information and learning.

It is a pity that the institutions that could have served as a focal point of knowledge have failed to emerge as such. Take the case of the Liaquat Memorial Library. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Sindh government’s department of culture and has a stock of 159,428 books, mostly in English. This is not a substantial holding and it does not issue books. Yet 500-600 people visit it every day.

The Liaquat Memorial Library could fill a vacuum if it is revamped and reorganised on modern lines. It has quite a lot of space and has the potential to be developed into a lending library. The Sindh government appointed a five-member advisory committee in December 2005 to improve the management of the library and arrange for the better upkeep of its books/records. It was also assigned the task of obtaining funds and procuring donations of books to start a lending section. Its first meeting was held in January. The committee suggested that the status of the library be changed from that of an attached department of the Sindh government to an autonomous institution with a governing board. Regrettably, the committee has not met again though it was to meet once a month and the change in status has yet to be effected.

There is also the proposal advanced by Liaquat Merchant, a member of the Jinnah Society, to convert the Flag Staff House into a library. If done properly and in such a way as to instil credibility in the public, an appeal could be made to people with private collections to donate their books there — posthumously if they prefer.

The Quaid-i-Azam Library in Lahore has already shown the way and has been receiving books from private collectors.

The need of the hour is to stimulate public interest in libraries. We need to make a concerted effort to launch a library movement. A beginning can be made at the school level. It could be made obligatory for every school to have a library and a compulsory library period. When children, who learn to read for pleasure from childhood and perceive the library as an enjoyable place, become adults they make reading and libraries a part of their lives in normal course.

The promotion of libraries calls for a lot of social commitment. Surprising though it may seem, the fact is that this barren sector has produced some stalwarts who have championed the cause of libraries. But to strengthen their hands there is need to underpin their efforts with a library law as all educated countries in the world have.

Sherry Rehman, the PPP MNA, has worked on a draft law which is lying before the Sindh Assembly. If adopted it would provide for the constitution of an infrastructure in the form of a directorate of public libraries, a provincial library council and local library authorities.

It would set up a provincial central library and local central libraries. Above all, it would make it obligatory for every local authority to allocate two per cent of its budget for providing a free library service to its citizens. All this it is hoped will give rise to the badly needed library movement that this country sadly lacks.