Neglected public libraries a worrying sign of society’s ills

Karachi: “In a public library you’ll find Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Akbar Allahbadi, Marx, Manto and Rabindranath Tagore next to one another. All of their wisdom has been preserved and is waiting to be discovered,” said Khawaja Mustafa, President, Pakistan Library Association (PLA), Sindh chapter, and Head Librarian, Faculty of Health Sciences Library, Aga Khan University.
Mr Mustafa was addressing a seminar entitled “Public Libraries in Sindh: Importance, Current Status and Challenges” at the Aga Khan University on Saturday which was attended by leading figures from Sindh’s public libraries, representatives from NGOs and Sindh government officials. The seminar was jointly organised by the Aga Khan University and the Goethe Institut.
During the seminar, speakers emphasised the important role played by public libraries in providing the common man with access to knowledge. They commented that outside of public libraries, there was no space that gave citizens the opportunity to acquire knowledge without any barriers of class, religion or qualifications. In a society that is becoming increasingly fragmented on the basis of ethnicity and religion, public libraries are one of the few remaining places where one can engage with differing beliefs, senior librarians stated.
Commenting on the steps needed to improve the state of public libraries, Riaz Ali Khaskheli, Secretary, PLA, Sindh chapter, said: “Our public libraries have been abandoned. We need support to develop a healthy reading culture for our children, youth, women, adults and the elderly.

“Libraries act as the memory bank for our culture and history. These precious ideas need to be honoured and preserved as they are part of our identity as a civilisation. The municipal corporations and provincial government should pay attention to improving these libraries,” he added.

During the event, speakers added that there are over a 100 public libraries in Karachi alone but most of them are in a poor state. They also warned that the declining state of public libraries pointed to worrying social trends.
Ayesha Choudhary, Secretary, Defence Central Library, said: “Libraries and information centers in Pakistan need to be on the frontline to contribute meaningfully in combating extremism and promoting awareness of the importance of peace. By using libraries as a platform for exploring the causes and effects of extremism, we can bring about positive change in societal thinking and attitudes.
“Besides academic libraries in educational institutions, community libraries and public libraries are a rare commodity in Sindh. Libraries currently lack the funds to purchase books and are poorly maintained. As a result people find no attraction in coming to libraries in our province. This is especially true in rural parts of the province.”
At the seminar, the AKU’s Khawaja Mustafa unveiled the Sindh Public Libraries Association’s set of proposals to the government to support the province’s public libraries prepared by the PLA Public Libraries Committee, which is chaired by Mr Bashir Ahmed Abro, Director, Liaquat Memorial Library.
The Pakistan Library Association called on the Sindh government to establish a Sindh Library Foundation with an annual budget of Rupees one billion to fund and promote public libraries in Sindh. They stated that the Punjab government was taking a number of steps to further the development of public libraries and encouraged the Sindh government to learn from the progress made by Punjab.

The Pakistan Library Association also urged the Sindh government to pass legislation making it mandatory for municipal institutions to allocate two per cent of their annual budgets for libraries in their respective localities.

Commenting on the present state of libraries in Sindh, participants at the seminar mentioned that many public libraries don’t even have a washroom; others don’t have an area for refreshments. This means that patrons cannot stay at the library for a lengthy period of time and have to leave before they complete their research. More funds are also needed to improve the accessibility of information.
Ahmed Ali Shah, Reference Librarian at the Aga Khan University, said: “The best libraries make information easy to access. It is important for libraries to digitise their collections and thereby preserve rare books. By doing this we pass on the gift of reading to future generations.”
Many of the province’s libraries have precious manuscripts that were published before the advent of the digital age. Outside of these libraries it is difficult to access these works and the poor state of libraries means that this knowledge is at a risk of being lost, according to speakers at the seminar. Speakers also stated that problems in accessing materials and the poor state of facilities at libraries caused great inconvenience to scholars.
The seminar was attended by officials from USAID, Goethe Institut and Pakistan Library Association.


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