Libraries as depositories of knowledge have been part of human history for thousands of years and it is difficult to locate any civilization that did not posses any knowledge archive. Yet for the past two decades, the role of libraries has come under intense scrutiny, due to challenges from technology, easy access to information, dwindling financial generosity and a surfeit of other issues. Libraries worldwide are facing the choice of either locating themselves for change or going the way of the dinosaur. The situation in Pakistan is no different, but the dynamics differ. A lot of that boils down to the narrative which has driven their way forward.
In Pakistan, perhaps the best examples of librariesare the ones based in Pakistani higher education institutes (HEIs), which have continued to evolve. These libraries have realized that the era for libraries as simple “depositories of information” has departed, as students and faculty no longer need a library simply for access. In an age where every user carries a global library on the device in his/her pocket, the new narrative is that of “co-creators of knowledge”; the library as a place that encourages participatory learning from a variety of sources.
Parents also need to play their proactive part by talking to their respective schools and local councilors, on the need for an ecosystem of learning through libraries. And finally, we need to have a shift in our narratives.
So when the Higher Education Commission boasts of a record number of journal publications by the universities, we need to be reminded that this academic achievement are built on the backbone of a robust library support structure. Libraries in HEIs provide an assorted array of services to engage a diverse audience such as access to global digital libraries, Makers labs, selective dissemination of information to researchers, lunch time workshops, hackathons, showcasing of art &craft galleries, etc to name a few.
Hafiz Abdul Rahman at the Junaid Ziaid library at COMSATS Institute of Information Technology elaborates that in a departure of earlier norms, librarians now actively pursue their potential users, try to understand their requirements as well as changing behavior and have a willingness to experiment. These librarians are in the process of reinventing themselves as brokers of knowledge and creation of meaning from the information. The scenario changes quite drastically for libraries in public domain, which presents a rather sorry state. The shambolic situation is especially true for municipal libraries, which used to be a treasure trove of information but now resemble crumbling ruins.
Again the problem arises with the adage with which these libraries are stuck, “the thirstygo to the well, the well doesn’t go to the thirsty”. If libraries in public domain are to have a future, this narrative needs to change and change fast. There are still some beacons both in public and private domain, who are leading the way like the National Library of Pakistan, Frere Hall, Army Central Library, Quaid-e-Azam Library, the British Council Library, to name a few as well as dozens of privately owned libraries. A common attribute of these libraries is their successful transformation into quality social spaces and creating a sense of community for a wide array of activities and learning.
The role of libraries has come under intense scrutiny, due to challenges from technology, easy access to information, dwindling financial generosity and a surfeit of other issues. Libraries worldwide are facing the choice of either locating themselves for change or going the way of the dinosaur.
But for a country of 200 million these success stories represent an exception rather than the norm. A lot more needs to be done if we need to set up a culture of reading and inquiry in our future generations. Another important piece of the puzzle is the libraries based in primary and secondary schools. These are the nurseries of future leaders and have the potential to support and complement the school’s curriculum. A good school library can directly impact student motivation and academic performance. Instead, libraries in schools are a dwindling stock due to a plethora of reasons. With schools pressed to complete their prescribed curriculum in time, lack of funds, abrupt shutting of schools for political/ security/ social gimmick events and a lack of academic zeal, all add up to a virtual absence of a library ecosystem in primary and secondary schools.
This has a domino effect leading to the higher education system and eventually the emerging leadership and governance structures. According to Abdul Rehman, due to tough competition, only the best and brightest make it to the higher education system. But even these crème de la crème of Pakistani youth have to be taught how to effectively use a library as they have never been to one, in the early years of their education. This directly impacts their studies in early years in universities as the creation and use of knowledge is a process which is only possible when there is a culture of reading and research.
This reminds me of my early schooling in an Indian school in the UAE, where we used to have two library periods every week. We had a well stocked library, accompanied by an audio visual collection.By the time I left the school in grade 6, I had read Greek mythology, Indian folklore, the Dickens library, the horror classics, etc and had developed a lifelong passion for reading. This is in stark contrast to opportunities for children today, who have a hard time completing their school work and who are clueless about the beautiful world that lurks in a library.
With schools pressed to complete their prescribed curriculum in time, lack of funds, abrupt shutting of schools for political/ security/ social gimmick events and a lack of academic zeal, all add up to a virtual absence of a library ecosystem in primary and secondary schools.
Again there are individual specks of brilliance either where parents can afford expensive schools or where personal efforts are involved. But for a majority of schools, a library at best has a symbolic presence and is deemed an extra-curricular activity and a luxury.
It is simplistic to leave it to the government to step up efforts to situate libraries as quality public spaces. While funds and human resource are a part of the solution, a more holistic approach will have to be taken if we wish for our upcoming generations to be well read and well rounded. Libraries in Pakistan can have a future, but they will have to adapt to a changing readership, position themselves for a changing world and center their energies on what users still want. According to Abdul Rehman, there is a serious disconnect between what users want and what libraries can offer. The users also need to put in their part, to voice what they want and desire.
The civil society can play a vibrant role in the revival of libraries. This will require raising voices on appropriate forums. Remember Sabeen Mahmood. Our libraries can be the public spaces to ponder on issues of governance, equality, climate change, gender empowerment, SDGs, etc. Parents also need to play their proactive part by talking to their respective schools and local councilors, on the need for an ecosystem of learning through libraries. And finally, we need to have a shift in our narratives.
Umar Sheraz is a Senior Research Officer at COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Centre for Policy Studies. He is social change researcher, cross-disciplinary collaborator, and foresight practitioner, operating at the intersection of academic and commercial practice. Over the last 12 years, Umar Sheraz has been involved in training, consultancy and report-writing roles with international and Pakistani universities, NGO’s, Think Tanks and other organizations. The views expressed in this article are authors own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.