By Zubeida Mustafa
AT the Children’s Literature Festival in Quetta last month, the provincial education secretary had promised to make provisions for a library in every government school in Balochistan.
If this actually materialises, the province will certainly have something to boast about. A school without a library is like a body without a soul. Can you expect students to love reading if they are not immersed in a world of books that a library creates?
Every country needs a sound library network as the backbone of its publishing industry. The state of health of these two institutions determines the mental and intellectual level of a nation. Libraries promote the reading culture in a society and the relationship between the readers and the book industry is symbiotic.
The larger the number of readers, the easier it is for the publisher to keep prices of books low. The lower the prices the bigger is the readership. In this process, libraries occupy a central position because they are — or should be — the biggest buyers of books. The publishing sector depends on them.
I write this because Pakistan is notorious for its neglect of this valuable institution. For years devoted advocates of library science — Karachi University’s Dr Anis Khurshid comes to mind at once — struggled to have a library law enacted but failed. The last attempt I heard of was an initiative by some members of the Library Association in Islamabad who got Senator S.M. Zafar to draft a library law with the idea of introducing it in the Senate in 2010. Nothing came out of it.
Seen against this backdrop, my visit to the Library and Information Science Department of the Karachi University was a pleasant exercise. It was chairperson Malahat Kaleem’s brainwave to expose her students to people to enable them to share their experiences with books.
Three guests were interviewed in a lively session. With such enriching activities to stimulate their thoughts, one hopes that these librarians-to-be would be different from many of their predecessors who lacked the motivation to get their clients interested in books.
Librarians are certainly moving ahead, but the environment in which libraries flourish is not. The book culture has stagnated and there are estimated to be only 1,150 public libraries in this country of 180 million. One may well ask of what good will libraries be if they have no readers. Librarians will be a frustrated lot.
This is the question I posed to Moinuddin Khan, the former librarian of the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, where I first met him in the 1960s. He later became the librarian of the Sindh University, the Aga Khan University and ended his career with a stint at the Karachi Grammar School.
“True, it is the duty of parents to develop the reading habit in children early in life. But when they fail, the librarian must step in,” Moinuddin Khan tells me. The school is the first milestone in a child’s life after his home. It should assume responsibilities that have been neglected by parents.
In this context, the ‘teacher-librarian’, as Moinuddin Khan terms him/her, can play a key role. But to play that role the librarian must be a reader him/herself. And this is what Malahat exhorted her students to be. Gone are the days when a librarian’s sole duty was to rubber-stamp dates and classification numbers on books and arrange them on the shelves.
Even when the librarian’s role expanded to the field of information science and his/her elevated status was recognised, the ultimate had not been achieved. There were committed librarians like Moinuddin Khan who felt it was their job to get the child interested in books and reading.
Malahat Kaleem has the same dream and has tried to translate this dream into reality by introducing courses on the school library, children’s library and book reading in her department. For that a librarian must have substantial knowledge of books and should have the teaching instinct. Moin Sahib suggests that the librarian should be trained to be a salesman to give him the skills for selling the idea of reading books.
I wonder if the book can compete with the television and computer for a child’s attention. Many feel that the reading habit has suffered because of the new inventions that are more attractive for children.
Moinuddin Khan doesn’t agree. Children who become addicted to books early in life continue to read, the television notwithstanding. Pakistan has never had a reading culture to write home about. Moinuddin Khan feels an interest in books can still be created in children by a librarian who has the knack for drawing a child out by talking to her about her areas of interest and guiding her subtly towards books on those subjects. She is bound to show some interest in the printed word on a subject close to her heart.
Reading is an interactive activity and cannot be done in isolation. Readers love to discuss with others the books they read. That is why booksellers and librarians who read and are knowledgeable about their wares are popular with book lovers.
Karachi’s bibliophiles still fondly remember Sohrab Rustomji of Midtown Bookshop and Shams Quraeshi of Mackwin who made reading a pleasurable exercise. Their knowledge of diverse subjects was tremendous and they did their best to entice readers to the bestsellers of the day.