A trusted space

Published July 8, 2024
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

AT a recent anti-corruption conference, I briefly chatted with a Bolivian gentleman who is both an activist fighting corruption and convener of a network of librarians. My first instinct was to dismiss his involvement with libraries as an interesting hobby. But shortly after our encounter, it clicked: public access to information is the bedrock of anti-corruption, so why wouldn’t the activist wear both hats?

I am not alone in forgetting the democratic underpinning of libraries. Due to their growing rarity, we tend to consider them ends unto themselves. They are sometimes treated like artefacts rather than civic spaces, the books inside reframed as relics from a literate past that must be preserved rather than sources of information that should be consumed, considered, challenged.

Often, our public discourse curtails libraries to their educative role — quiet places, typically on campuses, where students can use reference books or work without interruption. This is a critical function, but it misses the wood for the trees.

In a democratic context, libraries are places where citizens can access information that helps them make informed decisions about who to vote for, and that empowers them to hold those elected representatives to account. This conception assumes that libraries are public access, funded by the government in the spirit of making the democratic system work. And at its best, the concept does work: in a world of misinformation and polarisation, public libraries remain trusted places.

Libraries are curtailed to their educative role.

The world was reminded of their power in November 2023 when the Russians shelled the Kherson Regional Scientific Library in Ukraine. The library caught fire after the first rocket hit, and the Russians continued attacking it until it burned to the ground. The state-owned library boasted collections in 45 languages, many of which focused on the history and ethnography of southern Ukraine, including Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The library’s destruction was a political act, a strategic win in Russia’s occupation effort; if information about Ukraine’s history and society was unavailable, it was — literally and figuratively — up for grabs.

It is no wonder then that preserving and developing libraries is low on the priority list of the Pakistani state, which is more interested in suppressing inclusive politics and disempowering citizens. What hope can libraries have in a context where even social media musings are considered subversive and censored under any pretence? The information that public libraries offer, coupled with their ability to convene communities in real life, is a democratic force not to be taken lightly.

And so we have instead the proliferation of private libraries — those in the homes of the educated elite, in private clubs, private schools and universities, and those under the control of vested community groups. Despite their private nature, this latter category continues to play a key democratic role, engaging local communities, providing access to otherwise obscured information, sparking debate through events, and, increasingly, providing digital access to world reference materials. But these spaces are dwindling and increasingly threatened.

This was evident in this paper’s coverage of the Sayad Hashmi Reference Library, which is threatened by demolition as it falls on a proposed route for the Malir Expressway. Created and maintained through a communal effort, the library houses 16,000 books with a focus on Baloch literature and culture. Even as demolition day creeps closer, the authorities have yet to offer an alternative location for it. In a clear illustration of the political nature of libraries, its sponsors and supporters believe that this is due to its links to the Baloch community, with the razing of the library perceived as part of a broader effort to suppress that community’s voice and access to information.

The idea of the library as a political battleground is not new in Pakistan. Some may recall the Western press’s gushing coverage of a small library that popped up in Dara Adam Khel at the height of the TTP insurgency. A local graduate decided he did not want to join his father’s gun shop and set up a small community library next door in the hope that reading would provide both understanding of and sanctuary from the region’s collective trauma.

Such examples should not be one-offs. Given the mounting democratic challenges in our country, it is time for civil society to reprioritise the role of the library. And this may best be done by going back to basics and celebrating the joy of reading. 

Reading, after all, engenders empathy, which is the starting point for all engagement, understanding and notions of fairness. And those qualities are the real fuel of functioning democracies.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

X: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2024

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