New hope for the libraries

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AFTER a long period of despair there is light at the end of the tunnel in the library sector. A library support group has been set up by Saiban, an NGO, with the aim of strengthening school and community libraries in Karachi.

The group has already begun its work by collecting and distributing 816 books among five schools and one community library in Orangi. In one year it plans to reach out to 50 Orangi schools, which have already been earmarked. In the absence of a book reading culture in our society, one would consider it courageous on the part of Saiban to have undertaken this venture. Sceptics might find the move to be ambitious and expect it to run out of steam soon. But what gives rise to hope is the fact that the driving force behind the library support group is the untiring Tasneem Siddiqui, the non-bureaucratic bureaucrat who is the director-general of the Sindh Kachchi Abadi Authority and chairman of Saiban.

Working in his characteristic low-key style, he did not announce the formation of the group until it had actually started functioning. He refused to go in for high-profile projects — such as a city library about which many library enthusiasts are concerned and impatient, as they fear that the plot of land allotted for it on the University Road might be grabbed by some avaricious builder with the right connections. Above all, Tasneem Siddiqui is a man with a reputation of integrity and political commitment. He has the necessary administrative skill and the projects he has launched — Hyderabad’s Khuda ki Basti being the most notable — have continued to function successfully.

One hopes that this group will lay the ground for a much needed library movement in the city. This is important for three reasons. First it would create a book culture in our society which is the fundamental prerequisite for setting up and sustaining a library network.

Secondly, a vigorous library movement providing easy access to books would lend positive support to the education sector. A librarian who has rendered yeoman services to his profession and is also a member of the support group, Mr Moinuddin Khan, describes libraries as an extension of their school classes for the neo-literates. He also points out that libraries are a vehicle for life-long learning.

Thirdly, the success of the support group in its initial efforts would give it credibility and thus win public confidence. Thus alone can people be motivated to donate books to libraries where they would become accessible to many more readers. Conversely, greater public interest in books and libraries is important if the library movement is to gain momentum and strength.

And this is not such an impossible task for it is not so much the scarcity of material and financial resources that is the constraining factor. It is the absence of management and organizational skills and the commitment to work that has hampered the task of setting up more and more reading facilities.

The library support group is optimistic about receiving books and donations from the public. There are people — even though not as many as one would have wished — who buy books to read but have no place to store them. There is also a huge stack of textbooks which families with school-going children discard at the end of each school year. With the nucleus of a library movement in place, the people of Karachi could donate the books they no longer need so that others can read them.

The challenge is to identify and reach out to the rudimentary library infrastructure which already exists in the city and then strengthen it before the process of expansion begins. The support group has made a modest beginning with the Orangi Pilot Project’s education programme. Of the 750 or so schools in Orangi Town, 300 have library facilities of sorts and it seems rational to focus on them and develop them as the first priority. The community libraries can also be extended support.

Another institution which has joined hands in this worthy cause is the Liaquat Memorial Library. With its stock of over 100,000 books, newspapers and a large children’s library, Liaquat Memorial has remained largely under-utilized. It has the potential of developing into an institution round which the library movement could be centred. The support group is planning to raise resources for a bus to transport students from different schools in low income areas to the Liaquat Memorial Library to spend the afternoon in the company of books once a month. Thus, 25 or so school children could be introduced to a new experience in their life.

Although the support group is highly motivated, the success of a venture of this kind also depends on the degree of motivation of those running the libraries. Given the government’s neglect of the library sector and its failure to allocate sufficient funds for it – Sindh has earmarked only 0.04 per cent of its revenue budget for 2003-04 to libraries — librarians have also developed an apathy towards the institutions they are supposed to nurture. If the initiative taken by Saiban grows, the librarians should feel motivated enough to display greater dynamism and initiative in generating resources directly from the public. This is possible as has been demonstrated by others working in social sector institutions who have supplemented their budgets by mobilizing public donations.

The support group has done well to identify the schools whose librarians are the most motivated. As trailblazers they would inspire others to follow their example. Such projects offer the advantage of providing an opportunity to librarians to interact with fellow-professionals and learn new management techniques from resource persons. This becomes a learning experience for them which strengthen their motivation.

However, not much of a purpose would be served if the books are made accessible to library users without stimulating their interest in the printed word. Books are not meant simply to adorn shelves.

They are to be read and a good librarian should also be a good teacher with a mine of information who should try to keep the readers’ interest in books alive. People who have acquired a life-long love for reading invariably owe this to a librarian or a teacher who probably discussed books in classes and stimulated the students’ curiosity in them.

The support group did well to arrange a briefing for the librarians of the schools which received the first batch of books. In fact, by asking them to submit a monthly report on the working of their libraries, the group has set a pattern which should be followed by others too.

It is also important that a move is concurrently made to get the government to promulgate a library law. Dr Anis Khurshid, the doyen in the library sector, had at one time drafted a model library law that was designed to create a system to ensure the availability and continuity of public libraries and enable them to play the

role of mobilizing and motivating the people, while serving as centres for education, information, recreation, leisure-time activities and reference/research.

The law was to have two central provisions. One, it would create a central authority to administer the library system. Two, it would facilitate the financing of the library network by making it mandatory for local authorities to allocate at least two per cent of their budget for public libraries.

With the legislative assemblies in a limbo as the politicians argue about the LFO and the president’s uniform, it is too early to expect the legislatures to take up this issue. But one can at least call on the authorities — the federal, the provincial as well as the town governments — to enhance their library budgets. That is the least they can do to encourage public interest in libraries.