Where are our libraries?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE time is not far off when many children in Pakistan may never have heard of or seen a library. This institution of learning is in real danger of becoming extinct. With politics generating the sound and fury that it does in this country, it is not surprising that non-political and seemingly mundane issues, such as the paucity of libraries, never receive the spotlight that they deserve.

But these issues are central to our very existence in the long-term. Thus the importance attached to libraries is inextricably linked to the priority given to education and the intellectual development of the people. Will our newly elected parliamentarians recognize this connection? Successive governments have failed to realize that our survival in this era of globalization depends on how we educate our children. Which means determining not just their level of knowledge but also their capacity to analyze independently and form opinions of their own. This in the long run shapes their social attitudes and behaviour as well as political thinking. One wonders if our leaders want the people to remain ill-informed in order to manipulate their votes.

It is reassuring to know that there are still some people around who feel concerned about libraries. This concern was expressed recently through unconventional channels. First, a letter from a gentleman called Ibn Hasan Khan Azeemi, the founder of the Farheen Educational Society in Orangi Town — a relatively obscure group — has proved to be thought-provoking.

The letter writer pointed out that in Pakistan we observe one ‘day’ or another all the year round — from children’s day, and women’s day to senior citizens’ day, so much so that Karachi Zoo even went to the extent of celebrating an elephant’s day. But never in the history of this country has a library day been observed. In his own humble way Mr Azeemi celebrates February 21 as library day in his effort to promote a library culture.

In his letter, he specially lamented the fact that Orangi Town, which has a higher rate of literacy — 85 per cent — than the rest of the country (48 per cent), does not have a single public library. This was confirmed by the editor of the Pakistan Library Bulletin in his editorial in the latest issue in which he points out that of Karachi’s 18 Towns, seven do not have a public library. Orangi Town is one of them.

Editor Sabzwari also laments the absence of a library network in the city. Way back in 1992, Mayor Farooq Sattar had earmarked a plot of land in Gulshan-i-Iqbal for a city library, he tells us. The building plans had also been approved. But the library has yet to see the light of day. Mercifully, the plot has not been swallowed up so far by developers for a commercial high-rise.

The little significance attached to libraries in our society is truly agonizing. Dr Anis Khurshid, whose name is practically synonymous with that of library science in Pakistan and whose untiring efforts to promote the cause of libraries are unparalleled, gives us to understand that in the last survey he had conducted in 1989, the total number of libraries in the country was a little over 6,000, which included over 4,300 Union Council libraries — actually box libraries — with a collection of 1,100,000 books.

That was 13 years ago. Given the state of our local bodies, one cannot be sure how many of these libraries have survived. Moreover, what these figures do not bring out clearly is that all these libraries are run on an ad hoc basis and that most of the 200,000 schools in the public sector have no libraries at all. In other words, we are educating our children in ‘bookless’ institutions.

Now compare this with India which is said to have 60,000 libraries, with the Raja Ram Mohan Roy Foundation having assisted more than half that number and library legislation being in force in 11 states. Small wonder then that we should have much reason to feel ashamed of.

The Federal Bureau of Statistics in Pakistan discreetly decides not to release any data on libraries. Interestingly, the Bureau’s Yearbook 2002 even lists the number of visitors to the major zoos in the country and the number of their inmates.

Obviously those figures are more impressive than what the Bureau would have collected had it tried to determine the number of visitors to public libraries and the number of books in their stock.

This lack of interest in books and the absence of a library culture manifest themselves in many ways in the country. In terms of economic productivity, our low literacy rate (which is closely linked with the absence of libraries) means that manpower cannot be sufficiently trained to handle modern technology and acquire the know-how needed to maximize production in every sphere of economic activity. This apathy towards books also explains the decadent aspects of our socio-cultural tradition and the generally regressive mental make-up of our people.

Just as our skewed education policy is dividing society between haves and have-nots of knowledge, the missing libraries are pushing the disadvantaged classes deeper and deeper into the abyss of deprivation and poverty by denying them access to reading material, knowledge and information. The rich have their computers and the Internet to surf the Web and dig out the information which they are looking for. They also have their elitist libraries where they can consult reference books. They can use their credit cards to order books from amazon.com. But where do the poor go for their information needs after they have managed to acquire some reading and writing skills? Or if they just want to read for pleasure — not a sin after all — from where do they get a book?

The tragedy of it all struck me when some students in a government school I visited to conduct a survey on the reading habits of children told me that they wanted to read story books but their parents could not afford to buy them books for leisure reading. Since the school had no library — the education department considers it a waste — there was no way they could lay their hands on reading material. This sort of strangulation of the natural curiosity of a child is a terrible blow our stereotyped education system is inflicting on society.

The fact is that there is no substitute for a library. It is this institution that we need to focus on to foster a culture of learning. If the 45,000 libraries the People’s Party government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had promised in its education policy of 1972 had actually materialized, what a different place Pakistan would have been today! Such libraries — even the box ones for the villages — would have had to be stocked with books giving a much needed boost to the publishing industry. A healthier and competitive publishing sector compared to what it is today would have promoted learning, research and scholarship. One can only make conjectures because those libraries remained a pipe-dream.

At least the first People’s Party government thought it important to talk about libraries. Today the government does not even do that. Its budget on these institutions is pathetic. The Sindh government spends 0.2 per cent of its measly education budget on its libraries and archives. The Punjab’s allocation is even less, at 0.1 per cent. It is doubtful if the local bodies would be spending even that much.

What we need is a library movement in the country. Dr Anis Khurshid 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.

This law was never considered to be important enough to be enacted. Today we have been left to lament the state of our libraries.

One only hopes that the day will not be far off when the importance of libraries and education sinks into the minds of our newly elected lawmakers.