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Liaquat National Library: A prison of books

April 16, 2015


This is the largest library in Karachi and nobody is allowed to browse through it. —Creative commons
This is the largest library in Karachi and nobody is allowed to browse through it. —Creative commons

Where do you go to find an old book in Karachi?

The question was thrown at me by a friend who had already scoured the shops of Urdu Bazaar, the web of book stalls near Hassan Square and all the popular book stores in the various malls of the city.

He said he even visited the lesser-known Sunday book bazaar that takes place at Regal Chowk every week. The quest was for Chaach Nama, the oldest written account of Sindh, penned by the kinsmen of Mohammad Bin Qasim.

It was ironic that the book was nowhere to be found in the very city it was chronicled.

I suggested a few, small-yet-resourceful book shops in the inner-city, but with no positive results, we thought about trying the city's biggest library as our last hope.

Despite living in Karachi all my life, I had never visited the Liaquat National Memorial Library before, so I was looking forward to the trip.

Even before we entered the building, we saw a number of kids with their bags and notebooks chatting outside the compound, giving the building a sense of habitation.

The Liaquat National Memorial Library. —Photo courtesy of the Government of Sindh website.
The Liaquat National Memorial Library. —Photo courtesy of the Government of Sindh website.

As soon as we stepped in the main hallway, we saw an information desk, obviously unoccupied. We waited a few minutes for someone to show up, but when nobody did, we started looking around ourselves.

Right in front of the desk was a hall blanketed by a haphazard collection of straw mats and rugs; the space, it seemed, was used both for prayers and for quick afternoon naps as we could clearly see a number of students dozing off there.

Behind the information desk was another large hall filled with lots of desks and interestingly, entirely occupied with students. The sight looked promising; who says kids don't study nowadays?

Also read: Frere Hall library in a state of disrepair

We turned around and entered another room that contained around a dozen large standing desks, a few newspapers from the day and a couple of people reading through them. Adjacent to this room was a wide corridor towards our right, but a quick stroll through it only took us to a set of offices belonging to the administration staff.

The Liaquat National Memorial Library. —Photo courtesy of the Government of Sindh website.
The Liaquat National Memorial Library. —Photo courtesy of the Government of Sindh website.

We traced our steps back to the information desk, which was still empty.

Oddly, this emptiness resonated through the entire building and it took me a few more minutes to realise that absolutely no books were to be seen anywhere around us. All the rooms we toured were just filled with desks, people, and well, more desks.

Just as I was pondering over this, a man walked towards the information desk. He wasn't the librarian but he knew enough to be made one and tried his best to help out.

Our first question was obviously "where are all the books" and I was devastated when he explained that all 150,000 or so books were locked away on the second floor of the building with no public access.

The largest library in the city and nobody is allowed to browse through it.

If somebody needs a book, they are to write it down on a piece of paper and give it to the librarian along with their NIC and the librarian will go get it for them.

I wasn't expecting the place to be a replica of Barnes and Noble, still, I could never have imagined that there exists a library in this world where the books would be locked away under the false pretenses of theft and damage. What in the world, one may ask, is then the purpose of a library?

Also read: Lack of funds impedes Ghalib Library's progress

A closer look revealed the answer: the library in question at least, exists solely for the purpose of letting students prepare for the CSS exam. Almost all the desks were occupied by students fiercely reading through CSS past papers or attempting practice questions.

The library administration did a good job by including study halls in the building but can somebody explain to them that a library is much more than that.

The Liaquat National Memorial Library. —Photo courtesy of the Government of Sindh website.
The Liaquat National Memorial Library. —Photo courtesy of the Government of Sindh website.

Isn't a library supposed to entice people to read? Isn't the whole idea of a library to host a collection of books that can be browsed and read by people?

I don't disagree with the assumption that given our continuous moral degradation as a society, there will definitely be some cases of theft and vandalism, but that hardly justifies caging up this ocean of knowledge and preventing people from reading!

That too when some of these books are not available anywhere else.

The only room with books open to the public is the Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Reading Room, which is filled with books on Mohtarma and her royal clan.

As we were talking to that guy, the librarian finally decided to show up and instructed us to write down the details of the books we wanted. As we searched our pockets, we realised we didn't have any writing instrument on us as we didn't anticipate a need for it.

Luckily, or unluckily, depending on one's perspective, a girl, probably in her late teens was also standing at the desk with her parents, hoping to request some CSS books. As I saw a pen in her hand, my national appetite for borrowing surged and I made the mistake of asking her to lend me the pen for a few seconds.

Despite the uber-polite attitude and all too obvious courtesy in my request, her father quickly realised the universal truth that each and every man in the universe is after his daughter and his destiny is being the saviour of his female prodigy, and quite harshly asked me what I was doing in the library without a pen.

As I later understood, he couldn't fathom anybody coming to the library without a pen, because like thousands of other people who frequent that building, he couldn't make a distinction between a library and a study hall, and thus concluded that our only reason to ask for a pen was to find an excuse to talk to his daughter.

However, one cannot really blame the public if that's what they have seen growing up. In a city where libraries are scarce in the first place and the ones that do exist are devoid of any ambiance that may cultivate reading interest, public perception is bound to be distorted.

Also read: Number of library visitors falls amid dying reading habit

Unlike some of us, who have been lucky enough to browse shelves filled with literature, history and dozens of other subjects, most of the people of our city have never experienced the feeling of excitement one gets when there are so many excellent books around you that you have a hard time choosing.

The responsibility lies , almost completely, with the administrators of such libraries who are either completely unaware of the roles library can play, or are bureaucratically pressured to take steps that lead to preventing people from fully enjoying this treasure.

Similar to other positive initiatives being taken by the people of the city, we also need a strong campaign that liberates these so-called libraries not only from the papyrus jail they have turned into, but also from their ghostly interiors and political footprints.