Luring readers

February 15, 2019

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A DISCUSSION on libraries always leads to the chicken-and-egg debate. We have few libraries because there are no readers. Or people do not read books as there are no libraries. In Karachi, both are in inadequate numbers.

Belonging to a literary family, the newly appointed commissioner of Karachi, Iftikhar Ali Shallwani, has rightly decided not to get trapped in this debate. He has proceeded to address the issue of the state of libraries by setting up a Council of Karachi Libraries comprising 12 members. These councillors have been tasked with the “restoration, revival and revamping” of the public libraries of the city and upgrading them. For this, the members will visit every library and prepare a report on its working. Hopefully, they will also make suggestions on how libraries can promote the book culture in our society.

The above notification issued last month and the revival of the Sunday book bazaar at the Frere Hall Gardens give rise to hope that changes are in the offing in the library sector in Karachi.

I paid a flying visit to some public libraries to get an idea of how these storehouses of knowledge are faring. The commissioner had told me that there are about 40 libraries in Karachi in all state of functionality, nine of them as good as extinct. He aims to set up a model library in every town of Karachi with prominent signboards.

We need librarians who love the readers as much as they love books.

My library tour was an interesting experience. There were some libraries which manifested the professional commitment of those managing them. Others smacked of the indifference and apathy of their guardians. Some, for instance the Model Library in Korangi, was benefiting from the touch of technology — half of its 25,000 books have been entered on the computer. But a big chunk of the 50,000 books in the Frere Hall library collection lies gathering dust as it awaits the preservation work promised by some businessmen. The Korangi Model Library and the Frere Hall library boast a valuable stock of archival material which attracts the stray scholar doing research on a remote subject. There are others with no readers. Another was crowded.

When I talked to visitors the picture became clearer. Most young men and women were students using the space in the libraries to study from their own books. Another section of the users were newspaper readers. Mercifully, newspapers were there in abundance but the absence of Sindhi papers by and large was disappointing.

Shallwani had remarked in his email, “A society with people without any reading habits and without books in hand is a sign of decayed and idle minds very often called a devil’s workshop!” Correctly said, but the drive to promote the reading habit will have to come from the librarians themselves.

Arifa Tariq, the director of the Korangi zone, whom I met is a bibliophile (an essential quality in a good librarian) and we need more like her to save and enhance the stocks that are so easily stolen in a library carelessly managed.

But we also need librarians who love the readers as much as they love books. A less bureaucratic, and more proactive, approach and motivation would transform these libraries as well as our non-reading public.

Take the timings. The libraries open at nine in the morning and close at 5pm or 6pm (varying from area to area). Most shocking is that they are closed on Saturday and Sunday when more readers can be expected. There is no membership. Some issue books against a reader’s CNIC that has to be deposited for security.

None of the librarians I met spoke of any literary, cultural or book-related activities that would draw crowds from the neighbourhood and gradually get people interested in books. Lack of funds was always cited as the reason for anything not done. We do not even have a library law to ensure feasible planning.

The Karachi libraries present a picture of quietude with hardly any signs of life as I have witnessed in libraries abroad. I still think of the Glasgow Women’s Library which I found so inspiring. Apart from books, it has set up a small display of items recovered from the suffragettes. It has a heavy programme that is announced in advance.

There was the city library in Stockholm that had special arrangements for children which included storytelling sessions and competitions. We need to do the same to generate public involvement in the library. Before undertaking any expansion of the network, it is good the commissioner has formed the committee to assess each library’s needs. The committee must also look into the strategic location of these institutions so that they are accessible to the people who need them. For instance, we have low-income neighbourhoods with fairly high literacy rates, such as Orangi and Korangi. Here libraries can be turned into tools of further education and learning if handled skilfully.

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Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2019