Wednesday July 06, 2022

Re-imagining public libraries

November 16, 2019

Ten public libraries exist in Islamabad – a fact not known to many. They are mostly in a woeful condition with water supply issues, inadequate infrastructure and lack of modern amenities.

Ours being a poverty-ridden country with gaping holes in equity of access to knowledge and education, it becomes a vital mission to strengthen public libraries to provide citizens of all strata access to valuable sources of information to improve their lives.

Public libraries have the potential to be vibrant hubs of community activities – where people from all backgrounds and age-groups get together to read, learn, connect and grow. For this however they need to have attractive interiors, modern infrastructure, regular events and involvement of citizens as volunteers.

But in Pakistan, like in the rest of the world, reading habits are on the decline. The state has more urgent basic problems like healthcare and education to be worried about than ancillary services like libraries. Yet we have these functional library sites and a Department of Libraries that has a decent number of qualified librarians and staff. This staff spends most of its time managing dusty piles of books that few borrow or read, due to the inadequate book-lending infrastructure and outdated books.

Seeing this situation, a group of concerned citizens got together early last year for an initiative called 'The Library Project', to muster up enthusiasm in the people of Islamabad for using libraries and help improve service delivery by the authorities. We have held a number of events at some of the library sites and tried to bring about improvements through volunteering efforts.

Originally conceived in every sector in Islamabad’s master plan, a host of community libraries were constructed at the behest of the then CDA chairman Kamran Lashari in 2007, but most have failed to live up to their potential of serving the community. Currently there are public/community libraries in sectors H-9, F-9, I-8, G-8, G-7, F-11 and G-11 and I-10, all with buildings, staff, parking space and budget allocations for books, computers, furniture, electricity etc.

Many seniors/retirees, students and young professionals from lower income groups visit these libraries; they need a proper space to study and access to facilities like electronic catalogues, cafeteria on site, quality book collection, drinking water, toilets, research computers or properly functioning Wifi. Improving the facilities can give the youth a chance at upward social mobility.

So how do we achieve this? Government funding is scarce and ever dwindling, and the community has no faith in pouring volunteering efforts or funds into purely publicly-governed entities. We feel that Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) provide a good opportunity for well-meaning segments of the private sector to formally participate in financing, designing, construction and operation and maintenance of these libraries. The term 'private' here encompasses the corporate sector, local businesses, community members and foreign donors.

If private entities are given the chance to 'adopt' each library site, we could possibly re-imagine Islamabad’s libraries as 'learning centres' with good IT infrastructure and provisions to hold classes and events. Citizens could use the space for job-searching, co-working and training for professional certifications, whilst organisations could impart adult evening classes, vocational and skills training to help churn out a skilled workforce.

Also, city and municipal authorities could utilize libraries to launch local initiatives and host community events. Children should be able to do their homework in a peaceful environment and attend storytelling sessions. Seniors should be able to carry out hobbies and meet-ups, and teens could use it for university exam preparations etc. Interestingly, each library has enough acreage around it to have a community garden as well. The possibilities are exciting, provided we adapt the role of libraries to our societal requirements, and get the local community involved.

There are recent successful experiments in such PPPs in Islamabad; one of them being the Sukh Chayn Multipurpose Sports Grounds in Islamabad. This housing and real estate company negotiated a deal with the Directorate of Parks/CDA to temporarily lease a couple of previously dilapidated parks in Islamabad G-6 and F-8 sector. As a result, people from all strata of society use and enjoy these parks on a daily basis. This gives us hope that the public-private partnership model can reap benefits in other organisations like the public libraries.

Political will is currently behind us, in the form of Minister Shafqat Mehmood who oversees libraries via the National History and Literary Heritage Division, and has given us citizens a say in their revival. Let’s hope we can turn this unique opportunity into a success story for Islamabad libraries and for the rest of the country.

The writer is a communications professional and founder of The Library Project.