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No libraries, no books

April 24, 2008: Upon getting back to the US after two years in Pakistan, I spent a few exhilarating hours in the local library.

Libraries here are a pleasant relaxing space for learning, with easy access to all forms of knowledge, books, video, music, newspapers, magazines and the internet. You can read sitting at a table, on easy chairs or even lying down. You can sleep there too. There are even rooms to arrange meetings, talks or seminars in. And here we are talking of local public libraries only. University libraries are large, architecturally delightful and extremely pleasant spaces that operate very long hours and are designed for kids to virtually live there.

Most of all, there is no bureaucracy in any of these libraries. In public libraries, volunteers assist you with the minimum of rules. All you have to do is show them proof of address. It takes five seconds to get a library card and I can borrow about 20 books, videos and other items at a time. And these libraries are open late and over the weekends. They will facilitate your research and reading through inter-library loans. This means I can get any book through my library as it stands ready to borrow from other libraries to meet my needs.

Libraries have been the hallmark of growing and progressive civilisations. Even in Sumer libraries of clay tablet writing have been found. Classical Greece and its love for books and learning gave us civilisation. Even the Persian Empire had libraries in Persepolis when Alexander attacked. Roman emperors too set up libraries to be remembered all over the empire. Then there was the famous library of Alexandria which till the early middle ages held most of human knowledge.

'By the 9th Century completely public libraries started to appear in many Islamic cities. They were called "halls of knowledge" or dar al-'ilm. They were each endowed by Islamic sects with the purpose of representing their tenets as well as promoting the dissemination of secular knowledge. But, then, do not forget that fanaticism and conquest has always sought to close society. Their main weapon has been closing down places of worship and libraries.

In recent history, libraries have flourished in all progressive and well-managed countries. When we visit the British Museum we are stunned by the huge, airy reading room of the British Library in the heart of London. Their website proudly announces: "We hold over 13 million books, 920,000 journal and newspaper titles, 57 million patents, 3 million sound recordings, and so much more."

In 1800, the Americans established the Library of Congress by an act of Congress. "Today's Library of Congress is an unparalleled world resource. The collection of more than 130 million items includes more than 29 million catalogued books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 58 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world's largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings."

Civilised governments have built these repositories of knowledge as national monuments to show how important learning and knowledge is. These grand buildings and their large holdings will remain through history as testaments to these great civilisations many eons from now. Most serious countries have not only large national libraries but also large networks of local public libraries. Most communities in the US and Europe and many countries have libraries with adequate library resources. In England this network started in the 17th and 18th Centuries and is now extremely large, with every locality having a library nearby. In the US another act of Congress initiated the public library system in 1850.

In our history, we have built lovely official residences such as the President's House, governors' houses, the Prime Minister's House and many other buildings, but no libraries. We have built many polo grounds and golf courses, but no libraries. Lahore, an ancient city of culture, now has more polo grounds than libraries. Lahore even has more offices for the chief minister (four in all) than libraries. Of course, the Chief Minister needs office space more than our children need libraries.

A search for libraries on the internet reveals only university and organisational libraries in Pakistan. When you go to university and organisational libraries, you see what a sorry state these are in. They hardly have a collection and are operated like bureaucracies with severe entry limitations and on a short working day, mostly during office hours.

We have no public libraries, beyond what the British left us. The Quaid-e-Azam Library in the old Company Bagh in Lahore (now Bagh-e-Jinnah) is nothing but a bureaucratic enterprise with severe entry limitations and hardly a serious collection. It even does not boast a website in the year 2008.

Our national library did not even get space on the main Constitution Avenue. It is tucked away behind the prime minister's office as if we were ashamed of it. As its website puts it, it is in a plot of 500 by 100; a little over an acre is all the government could afford for a library. It took us 46 years to come up with the concept for a national library. Even today the National Library has 130,000 volumes, 555 manuscripts, 45 reels of microfilms, 48,000 microfiche cards, 845 magazines and 135 newspapers. What a testament of our great civilisation! I might add that this collection does not even compare to a reasonable sized public library in a civilised country.

In Pakistan I witnessed our bureaucracy and the Planning Commission in this game called "who can spend our development money the fastest on pet projects?" I saw many strange projects like megabuck universities contracted to unknown consortiums, bureaucracies setting up mango-pulp and football-making plants, textile cities, garments cities, and so many others. I asked and wondered why we cannot have projects for community libraries. Why can we not dedicate, say, about Rs50 million for a library n the top 20 cities of our country per year. That is only a billion a year. Not a large sum of money when you think of the vanity projects, VIP trips and the sums required to maintain our VIPs.

But then I was reminded of who demands books in Pakistan? When I go to my rich friends' houses, I see no books. A million-dollar household with a hundred-thousand-dollar sports car outside has no books. Rich people who spend thousands of dollars on a dinner do not even spend 100 dollars annually on books. None of our political manifestoes even mention libraries. So perhaps the government is right. There is no demand for libraries in our country.

Nadeem Ul Haque (The News)
The writer is a former vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.
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