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KARACHI: To talk about the depleting state of libraries in Pakistan while a huge resource of knowledge and literature goes to waste, an informal discussion took place at the Alliance Francaise de Karachi on Thursday where the evolving nature of libraries was deconstructed and redefined.

The discussion was held as an extension of the Karachi Biennale Trust’s project of allowing students to set up a mini community library which is constantly transforming and travelling. The library, explained Varda Nisar, coordinator of the project, is a response to Madiha Aijaz’s work which was showcased at the Karachi Biennale 2017. This shows that art has the capacity to inspire change, initiate a dialogue and create a reaction and a vision that manifests itself practically.

Librarian Alia Sikander spoke about the effort it took to create an accessible library. “A library has to cater to the age group the readers are of so it is very important to include books that are relevant to them. Their interests, their age group and their level of comprehension, and other abilities are all taken into consideration when selecting the kind of books to include. The content of the books need to be perused and one must pre-select and curate the collection for the readers to be exposed to books worth reading.”

According to author, activist and teacher Aquila Ismail, such curating is easy for libraries that are dedicated to schools, colleges or specific institutions. It is tough, she explained, when it comes to public libraries. “Public libraries are necessarily funded by the state and it is supposed to be a democratic space available to everyone. However, the dilemma that arises in public libraries is that they are prone to censorship because the state that runs them has a certain policy, outlook and narrative and inadvertently this structure is forced on the reader. Therefore it selects books in public libraries according to the kind of state it is.”

Censorship, she explained, is unnecessary as people have access to just about everything with the widespread use of the internet. She, however, lamented that though there was much greater access to knowledge than ever before and a greater democratisation of information, there had definitely been a consequent decline in the wisdom required to utilise this information.

Afnan Khan added on to this argument by stating that though they have unlimited access, “Pakistanis are consuming the wrong knowledge”.

He also spoke about how the traditional perspective of libraries as repositories of information was changing. “Pakistan however, is far in this regard as libraries have now also become democratic spaces where people discuss ideas and share knowledge.”

Speakers also commented that libraries no longer give space only to the written word; they now house visual stimuli and resources including audio resources too, basically roping in technology and allowing it to integrate with libraries and redefine them. If public libraries in Pakistan evolve to accommodate other sources apart from conventional books, the public will be more attracted and will make better use of them, they believed.

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2018