“I HAVE always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” said Argentine poet and writer Jorge Luis Borges. In Pakistan too, there was a time not so long ago when a retreat into books was deemed to be the most pleasurable of pursuits. Access to quality reading material was considered a right, and public libraries hummed with activity. But then the pace of life picked up, priorities changed. Shiny malls, smooth-as-silk motorways took centre stage as symbols of ‘progress’. Libraries lost their lustre, much of their funding and faded away in the urban sprawl. Valuable books and manuscripts rotted away in storage.
So when one hears of a library, such as the Ghalib Library in Karachi, rising from the ashes so to speak, it is with the sense of rediscovering an old friend. A report in this paper recently detailed some of the many manuscripts in its possession, including carefully preserved letters by a number of luminaries who are part of this region’s history. Besides a collection of 40,000 books, the library also boasts a number of pre-partition periodicals. Dating back to 1971, the library was in dire condition until recently and in danger of being closed down. It owes its new lease of life to a number of benefactors who, quietly and without fanfare, gave of their time and resources to oversee its refurbishment. But the Ghalib Library is an exception. Stories are legion about historic libraries unable to undertake preservation work or even basic upkeep of their collections due to shortage of funds. Meanwhile, readers’ tastes have also changed, leaning more towards career-oriented material rather than works of classical or historical merit. The reading room, where it exists at all, is a very different place today.