In a lurch?

August 18, 2019

With the Sports Department likely to take over the administration of Punjab’s e-libraries, the future of the project appears to be murky

In a lurch?

The future of e-libraries looks uncertain as the Punjab Youth Affairs, Sports, Archaelogy and Tourism Department (PYASATD) is poised to take over the administration of e-libraries at the end of this year. While the two had established e-libraries in 20 districts of Punjab with the objective to revive and facilitate a culture of reading amongst the youth, administration had been the responsibility of the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB).

The districts where theses libraries were established included Okara, Toba Tek Singh, Rawalpindi, DG Khan, Faisalabad, Gujrat, Multan, Rahim Yar Khan, Attock, Narowal, Sahiwal, Muzaffargarh, Sargodha, Bhakkar, Gujranwala, Bahawalpur, Vehari, Mianwali, Lahore and Sheikhupura.

In tandem with the initiative, a central digital library was established at the PITB data centre in Lahore to provide online access to more than 50,000 full text e-books, e-journals, e-theses, online reference collections, Nobel laureate collections, documentaries, and simulated videos as well as local and international resources.

Each e-library provides free Wi-Fi access, an EM (electromagnetic) security system to prevent theft, around 3,000 printed book, and laptops, tablets and multimedia for use within the library premises.  The libraries also have an auditorium with a 50-person capacity for community activities and seminars.

Faiza Saleem, a student of Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi says, "Before the establishment of this library we used to sit in the park for group-study during vacations or close to exam days. We were not only facing problems due to the lack of facilities in the park but were also facing harassment from the visitors".

After this e-library was made in Nawaz Sharif Park, due to its proximity with Arid Agriculture University, students were given a comfortable place with good resources to study and research, she adds.

After only a year, the project has started facing financial problems which have affected the services and facilities provided.

A few months ago, due to non-payment of electricity bills the power supply of several libraries was cut off by suppliers. This severely impacted the operation of these libraries for several days. As a coping mechanism, the administration have now been advised to use air conditioners only for few hours a day to reduce electricity bills. The administration are also facing other issues in running the libraries smoothly - there is a lack of support staff like security guard, assistants and office boys.

"Handing over e-libraries to the Sports Department is like appointing an engineer as medical superintendent of a hospital. Without expertise in medical science, how can a person run the hospital administration?"asks Sher Afzal Malik, a librarian at the Rawalpindi e-library.

According to the e-library Rawalpindi officials, there are more than 5000 members of the library while more than 150 persons visit the library regularly and the majority of these visitors are students.

Officials say that due to lack of other space, the auditorium is also being used as study room when required. They say that additional chairs have been made available in rooms for ladies.

There are five permanent employees to look after each library: one librarian, two assistant librarians, and two-coordinators. The libraries are open from 9am to 8pm.

The provincial government’s decision to hand over the project to Punjab Sports Board at the end of this year has generated criticism.

"Handing over e-libraries to the Sports Department is like appointing an engineer as medical superintendent of a hospital. Without expertise in medical science, how can a person run the hospital administration?"asks Sher Afzal Malik, a librarian at the Rawalpindi e-library.

He insists that sports and library sciences are two vastly different subjects. "There is an Archives and Libraries Department in the Punjab, if the PITB is interested in handing over these libraries to any department, then the Archives and Libraries Department is the only suitable option", he suggests.

Muhammad Hamayun, the librarian at Municipal Library, Rawalpindi, agrees that library science is a specialization. "Provision of land or funds is not enough  reason to hand over the libraries to Sports Department, land used is basically property of the Government of the Punjab and the funds used were public money," he says.

He believes that handing over the project to Sports Department would amount to shutting down the project.

Aqsa Ghani, the E-libraries Punjab program manager, begs to differ.

"E-libraries are a project of Sports Department", she says.

"The role of the PITB was to help in the establishment and administration of this project, which is now complete. The PITB will hand over this project to Punjab Sports Board in December 2019", she says.

She concedes that these libraries are facing problems due to lack of financial resources; in the previous financial year Rs 89 million was allocated for e-libraries while this year the budget has been reduced to Rs 55 million. Moreover, in the last three months, not a single penny has been released for e-libraries.

The Sports Department will have to settle liabilities of about Rs 30 million relating to the project as it takes over in December 2019, she maintains.

Ghani says that the PITB has also proposed a membership fee and a fee for auditorium booking, and there are plans to establish a cafeteria in the library for the members. The upper portion of these libraries can be used as Youth Centres, where young sportspersons can be trained, she adds. In her view, this will help libraries in revenue generation which will ease administration troubles.

In response to a question regarding the expertise available at Sports Department to run these libraries Ghani says that it is a policy matter and the decision is taken by the provincial government. She says she has no other comment on it.

E-library officials say that the recruitment of all staff was made on merit after conducting written test and interview - almost all the staff members are at least a graduate or a master’s degree holder.

They also say that during the recruitment process they were not informed about the project duration. Even now, they rely on media reportage on the future of the e-libraries and are awaiting official intimation .

"These recruitments were made for the project only and this is clearly mentioned on the contract of the employees, that’s why they are paid higher than what the regular government pay scale is. After handing over this project, the sports board will decide about the future of these employees - whether they will make new recruitment or regularise these employees," says Ghani.

Tahir Yousaf, the Archives and Libraries Department Punjab secretary says that establishing e-libraries in parks, stadiums or grounds was a good idea since the purpose was to engage the youth in reading and research.

"Provision of land is always a big problem for such projects. Since the Sports Department has provided the land, it is their project - this is why the government has decided to hand it over to the department.

"Archives and Libraries Department (ALD) is a separate department having its own way of conducting its business. The ALD has expertise in library management. If the government decides to hand the project over to the ALD, we are ready to take this responsibility but only if a complete record of assets and liabilities is shared", he maintains.

District Sports Officer Tauheed Abbasi says that the Sports Department is already facing problems due to a shortage of personnel and resources. He says e-libraries will be an extra burden on the department.

He adds that the management of libraries, especially e-libraries, is a technical job and requires expertise in both library sciences and information technology, which the sports department does not have.

Department of Information Management at University of Punjab Chairperson, Prof Dr Khalid Mehmood, notes that the establishment of e-libraries is a good idea to revive a culture of reading and research in the country. "Sports Department does not have any experience in running libraries. The ALD would be the relevant department to take control of this project instead. The Government should consider those who can run these libraries better", he says.

"I am unaware about the issue, however, I assure the public that all decision will be made on merit and in best public interest", says MPA Seemabia Tahir, a spokesperson for the Government of the Punjab.

In a lurch?