Libraries go out of fashion

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

APRIL 23 was the World Book and Copyright Day. We have to be grateful to DawnNews for taking up the subject of books in its programme `

Bolna zaroori hai`.

The media doesn`t find books an exciting topic to discuss. Books don`t carry the same attraction as cross-border weddings of sport celebrities. Some television channels were kind enough to carry reports in their news bulletins on how Book and Copyright Day was observed.

As always happens when there is a discussion on books, the concern most voiced is about the reading habits of people. As one caller to the above-mentioned talk show put it, the competition is really for time. It is widely felt — and the issue came up in this programme too — that books face a threat from television and the Internet.

But is this really so? The main question is does a book have to be printed on paper and bound between two covers to be called a book? The Oxford Dictionary defines a book as “a written work published in printed or electronic form”.

An audio book can also qualify as a book. And what about e-book reading devices — Amazon`s Kindle, Sony`s PRS-700 and Barnes & Noble`s Nook — which download books directly from the bookshop (as many as 400 can be stored in one device) and enable the reader to read on screen? This invention — a modern-age marvel — is so compact that it can conveniently be carried in a handbag. Imagine lugging 400 books with you wherever you go.

E-books have another advantage. They save paper — and trees. There are also the MP3s which store not just music but also audio books. It is a matter of accepting the new mediums and using them to promote the concept of books.

After all a newspaper, say Dawn, is a newspaper whether it is on newsprint or on a website. The edition that was printed 50 years ago and is now archived on microfilm does not cease to be a newspaper because of the change of medium. When Ghalib wrote his poetry he used pen and paper to record his verses. Were the Urdu poet to be around today, he would probably have used a computer with the Urdu software. And he would still be regarded as one of our top-ranking bards, the change of medium notwithstanding.

We should therefore not worry about the competition from new technology. What is certainly more important is the need to sustain and develop the public`s interest in the written word, which alone has the potential of being immortalised so that posterity can access it in the quest for knowledge of our times.

The key issue then is whether people are reading books, be they in any form. Malahat Kalim, chairperson of the library and information science at the University of Karachi, and chairperson of the Pakistan Library Association (PLA), is firmly of the opinion that people do read books and today there are many more younger readers than before.

In support of this she points to the rising sales of books which, according to her, is confirmed by the success of Karachi`s annual international book fair while more books are going into their second printing. According to her the Karachi University library spends Rs35m every year on the purchase of books and journals. This would not have been possible if the demand had not existed. At the book fair in November, visitors surrounded PLA`s stall seeking information on libraries all over Pakistan and asking for advice on setting up school libraries.

Libraries, however, present a mixed scene. Some are chock-a-block with readers but others wear a deserted look. The immediate need is for a library movement to popularise these institutions. This is still missing. The Library Act, lying somewhere in the Senate after it was adopted by a standing committee, could certainly help in this regard. It provides for an infrastructure for public libraries and spells its goal to be to “encourage the positive use of leisure and providing useful reading material for change and relaxation”.

The idea should be to surround people with books so that they are attracted to them and cannot help taking notice of them. It may be recalled that the PPP in its 1970 manifesto spoke of establishing 50,000 box libraries in the rural areas. Each box was to contain 100 or so books designed to meet the needs of the readers in the countryside. As has been the fate of many such innovative schemes, this project was never launched.

In the absence of a library movement, the momentum that is needed to create public interest in libraries is not there. So little is the interest in books that government publications show the number of barber shops in the country, but not the number of libraries.

As a result book reading and library services have remained individual activities. Malahat Kalim calls for a concerted campaign spearheaded by librarians` professional bodies and the media to create public interest in libraries. She reminds us that a library should not necessarily be perceived only as a room lined with shelves stocked with books. It should also provide reading material on the computer.The concept of the role of a library has changed and its function now extends to providing information which is now accessible on the Internet. For all this one doesn`t need huge structures to house libraries. Small reading rooms with computers can serve the purpose equally well.

The local government that in the days of yore formed the backbone of the library system in the country is now missing and the infrastructure that existed has been destroyed. Malahat Kalim rightly asks why school buildings that lie vacant after school hours are not used to set up reading rooms and Internet cafes. All the libraries I have visited abroad are versatile institutions with facilities of all kinds to provide information.