By Zubeida Mustafa
WITH only 42 libraries for a population of 16 million, Karachi can well be said to be starved of food for the mind. It is a different matter that not everyone is interested in nourishing the intellect. Boutiques and shops selling exquisitely designed fabrics and dresses outnumber bookshops. The libraries, though in inadequate numbers, have a vacant air.
Hence, it was a brilliant idea of the organisers of the 60th Children’s Literature Festival (CLF), held recently in the metropolis, to include a session on ‘Popularising Libraries’. It was sorely needed. The organisers claim that nearly 25,000 children attended the festival, which was initially launched nine years ago, with the idea of introducing books to children. And libraries are an integral part of creating a culture for books and reading. It would be interesting to know if any of the schools that were in attendance considered it worthwhile to introduce some of the ideas that were discussed in the hour-long session.
Many ideas that were generated there are doable, provided there is a will to address this issue. It is for schools to explore and implement the suggestions put forward. Thus, redesigning libraries to be reader-friendly will encourage the habit of reading for pleasure. At present, reading a book is widely seen as an activity that is akin to torture.
Creating a culture of reading is doable, provided there is a will.
The panel was unanimous that gone were the days when the library was a sombre and grim place lined with notices with the word ‘SILENCE’ inscribed on them. To demand a change is not something bizarre. I have actually visited libraries in the West that have swings and slides installed near the entrance to entice children when they accompany their mothers there. Inevitably, the little ones end up exploring the place. If there happens to be a storytelling session in progress on the spot, the child is hooked and will return there again and again.
In other words, the need is to bring our libraries to life.
According to a British Council representative, his library is providing space for various literary and book-related activities, and there is no ban on speech. Visitors can talk and relax.
Another need is to make books and libraries easily accessible to the young readers, especially in a city like Karachi, where mobility poses a challenge to all. The Oxford University Press Pakistan has already launched its mobile libraries. In places, they even use a rickshaw to reach books to spots where the lanes are too narrow for a van. Another way of making books accessible is by making it mandatory for all educational institutions to have a library.
Even schools with small premises that have little room for a library can device ingenious ways to make books available to their students. Closed shelves in the classrooms can be stocked with appropriate books for the students. The class teacher could act as the librarian as well.
But simply making books accessible is not the only answer. Students must be lured into visiting the library — and who can do it better than a librarian with the gift of the gab who is friendly and loves books her/himself? Nothing draws a person to a book more than a librarian or a teacher who has the qualities of a salesperson marketing their wares.
Ingenious examples of taking books to children are available in plenty.
With so many ideas being floated around — and many of them even being tried out — one wonders what is amiss that we still cannot get our children to befriend books? What surprises me is that, in discussions on libraries and books, our focus is generally and overwhelmingly on reading for knowledge, education and information.
Textbooks are universally regarded as something to read as a duty to pass exams. But I find other books also being similarly classified. The focus must be shifted. Whatever you read — be it a novel or a short story — inevitably gives you information. Once the element of coercion is eliminated and a child is reading for fun, non-fiction also begins to hold a charm of its own.
The commissioner of Karachi, a devotee of libraries, announced in a press conference held on the eve of the CLF that he would like to have a big public library in the city comparable to the library in San Francisco. A good idea, no doubt, but somewhat premature. Would it not be better to arrange book-related activities at the existing 42 libraries in Karachi? Some of the libraries I visited a few months ago were well-kept but were unfortunately lacking in readers. Some did not have a single reader. The commissioner could get the ball rolling by getting the existing libraries to draw a schedule to organise mini-CLFs every fortnight in one library or another in Karachi.
Children are easy to please and should be the first to be addressed. Those who take to books early in life never give them up.