PAKISTANI society is full of contradictions. While the book reading and purchasing habit has begun to pick up as has been confirmed by many in the book trade, libraries still lag behind.

The few that exist are now chock-a-block. The reading room in the Rangoonwala Hall in Karachi is open 24/7. Yet the law of supply and demand does not seem to be at work in the expansion of libraries for adults.

Why this discrepancy? Why is there not enough interest in setting up libraries when the demand for books is growing? Identical factors seem to be at work which militates against the spread of education.

The government which should take the initiative and play the key role in setting up public libraries has been shying away from this responsibility because it feels it derives no political dividends from a policy aimed at making citizens educated. The private sector works for profit and there is not much money to be earned in the library 'business'.

If you look at the break-up of the 8,092 libraries — the number calculated by Dr Raees Ahmad Samdani in his PhD thesis — and if you believe the Pakistan Economic Survey which gives the number of colleges at 3,292, you will find that only one in four colleges has a library.

The record in schools is even worse — 481 libraries in 223,000 institutions. This is shocking. At a time when interest in children's literature is growing, the government should have capitalised on this trend by establishing a network of libraries targeting young readers.

The absence of libraries in many schools and colleges is a poor reflection on the state of education in the country. With rote learning from notes being the norm and no attention being paid to encouraging the child to search for knowledge there is no room for a library.

But there is a whiff of fresh air in the atmosphere of stagnation that marks the library scene today. Enterprising NGOs, some of which have been working for decades but in their own areas, are attempting to revive public interest in these institutions of learning. Recently, the Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS) — set up in 1978 in Lahore — launched a campaign to “combat the menace of terrorism” by promoting the reading habit in young people.

Mrs Basarat Kazim, the chairperson of the society, is of the opinion that books can promote peace and tolerance. An integral part of ALBBS's campaign is the promotion of libraries, which should have a lasting impact on the culture of book reading. Alif Laila certainly has the credentials to spearhead a campaign of this nature.

Since its inception in 1978, the society has come up with innovative ideas to provide access to books to children, especially the under-privileged ones. The first library (exclusively for children under eight) was established in a double decker bus donated by the Punjab Road Transport Corporation.

It was followed by the reference library in Lahore with a stock of 5,000 books for girls and boys.

The mobile library called Dastango came next. It visits a number of schools — 20 in Sheikhupura — to make books accessible to children. Apart from its own libraries Alif Laila has set up libraries funded by other organisations in Muzaffarabad and in schools in 59 districts of Punjab as well as resource centres-cum-libraries in Bagh, Abbottabad and Mansehra.

One hopes the Pakistan Library Association and the All Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association will join this campaign. They should consider setting up small libraries and reading rooms in all neighbourhoods in different towns and cities to instil the reading habit in the young. It is an investment that will bring them good returns in a few years.

The local government in Karachi has tried to involve the corporate sector in the beautification of the city. Why doesn't it earmark land for libraries and invite companies to build them as a part of their social responsibility. And what happened to the city library?

What would be a better time than this for parliament to expedite its work on the Public Libraries Act under consideration by the Senate's standing committee on libraries headed by Mr S.M. Zafar?

If this law is given shape and then adopted by each province, it would establish a public library system all over the country to provide free library services to the people. Besides every local authority will be obliged to set aside two per cent of its budget for libraries while the provincial government will have to provide matching grants to boost the finances allocated to libraries.

When conditions are right for a move, delay can be tragic. Children are emerging as the new readers of today. We must capture their interest and if need be a beginning can be made with children's libraries as Alif Laila did 30 years ago, sustaining them with related projects of hobby clubs and publishing for children. In due course these children will become the critical mass of the adult readership of tomorrow in Pakistan, something about which many of us have dreamt of for ages.

At Stockholm's public library that I visited in the 1980s I was fascinated by a play area in the main hall near the entrance. I was told that parents who come to the library accompanied by their children find it convenient to leave their wards there to amuse themselves with the toys and puzzles available. Since they are regular visitors, the toddlers move on to the adjacent children's section of the library when they grow up and reach the reading age. Needless to say by the time they are adults they are avid readers.

In Pakistan, let us hope that the children, the new champions of the book culture, will emerge as the leaders of the library movement. And all success to the Alif Laila Book Bus Society in its noble mission. Wasn't it William Wordsworth who so rightly described the child as the father to the man?

zubeidam2@gmail.com

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