Where is the library law?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

There are days when in the flood of depressing news of wars, violence and killing, newspapers carry a cheery item that restores to some extent readers’ faith in the goodness of man. Last Friday was one such day when this paper reported a statement by the Nazim of Karachi, Naimatullah Khan, that the city would get eight new libraries.

Plots for the purpose have already been identified in different localities, we were told. But one will have to drum up all of one’s optimism to believe that these libraries, which are to be air-conditioned, are just round the corner. Moreover, if you are not an avid newspaper reader you may not remember that in early November 2004 an identical statement was issued by the city government’s office.

Things don’t move that fast in this country, especially if they concern the development of human resources like libraries, schools, colleges, universities and hospitals. Moreover, many of these turn out to be something quite different when they take final shape. Take the women’s library complex which is at present under construction on the University Road at the Nipa Chowrangi. This land was earmarked for a city library in 1991. An architectural design competition was also held and the best design selected – this process cost the government Rs100,000. But the city library never saw the light of day.

Mr Moinuddin Khan, a committed champion of libraries and book culture, who was a member of the committee which drew up the design for the city library, disclosed in a letter to this newspaper that an old student of the Karachi University had pledged Rs300 million for this institution. It was never availed of. Later Hakim Said, when he was governor of Sindh, had worked for this project but it also never materialized.

In 2004 some women councillors were handed over the land to build a women’s library on it. This project is said to be half complete. The biggest miracle is that for 13 years the plot lay vacant and was not grabbed by some developer to build a shopping plaza.

Hence one cannot be certain that the eight libraries Mr Naimutallah has promised will ultimately be built as institutions to house books or will be used for some other purposes. It is also not known what timeframe the Nazim has in mind. What is worrying about libraries not only in Karachi but all over the country is that there is a lot of loud talk about promoting the library culture and reading habits of the people but these pious intentions generally don’t get translated into action.

The problem is that along with the statements promising new libraries issued by the high-ups in every branch of government, newspapers are replete with stories of how neglected our public libraries are – buildings being in a woeful condition, book stocks gradually destroyed/ stolen, pathetic furniture, no practice of acquiring new stock and the biggest sin of all, library budget lying unused.

Our library system suffers from four basic problems all of which are rooted in lack of political will on the part of the authorities to set up libraries. First, there is no a sufficient number of libraries around which would make these institutions easily accessible for the general readers. Instead of grandiose projects in some of the big cities, we should have concentrated on creating a network of small mohalla libraries in every town and city.

It is also essential that every school, college and educational institution is equipped with a library for its own students. At present Pakistan is said to have 1430 libraries, some of which do not even merit to be called libraries.

The second flaw in our library system is that the existing libraries have not been maintained properly. As a result, their stocks are generally obsolete, if they are housed in old buildings the structures are often dilapidated and modern facilities are absent, The library sector in Pakistan gives the impression of being in stagnation rather than a vibrant area of public life.

The third major drawback is that the libraries in Pakistan are set up in an ad hoc fashion. There is no library policy which provides a blueprint for the creation and expansion of these facilities. That accounts for the vast disparity between the good and the bad.

While the good libraries are provided with the best facilities and emerge as model institutions, the neglected ones are in had shape – not cared for, not wanted. Like many other projects in our society – private schools versus public schools, government hospitals versus private clinics – these libraries promote class stratification, as the affluent get all the facilities while the poor are denied even their basic needs.

The final weakness in our library system is that in over five decades no library law has been formulated. Without a library law, no country can have an organized, well financed and properly planned library system. Conventionally a library law sets up an authority to manage this sector and makes it mandatory for various departments of the government to set aside a fixed proportion of their budget (preferably two per cent) for libraries.

A service structure for the librarians is also drawn up in order to give the librarian’s profession a respectable standing and dignity. Every library should have a library committee to regulate its working and to ensure judicious and honest use of its funds. It should be mandatory for every educational institution to have a library with a stock of five books per student.

A law drafted by Prof Anis Khurshid, the doyen of library and information science in Pakistan, took care of all these aspects. Unfortunately the law makers don’t share his commitment to knowledge, education and books. Although a PPP-P parliamentarian, Sherry Rehman, took up the issue a year ago and collected information on a draft library law, it still hasn’t been introduced in the National Assembly.

It speaks of a flawed approach if this law is dismissed as something trivial. Libraries are an integral part of education and the publishing industry. These institutions are also central to the reading habits of people. A country that has no library system of any significance is a country where book culture is missing. What we need is a library movement so that books and reading habit are popularized in the country.