In black and white: The house of books

Published: February 10, 2016
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PHOTO: HUMA CHOUDHARY

PHOTO: HUMA CHOUDHARY

ISLAMABAD: Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman is the name of a memoir which conveys almost everything about Pakistan’s chequered history and still bears relevance today.

But its addition to a collection of over 85,000 volumes of books and rare manuscripts, including the original copy of the 1973 Constitution, at the National Assembly (NA) Library on December 2, 2015 was a mere coincidence; it was a gift by former ambassador and renowned politician Syeda Abida Hussain.

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However, when the library spent Rs11,623 on Mogens Pelt’s Military Intervention and a Crisis of Democracy in Turkey: The Menderes Era and its Demise in November last year, among 170 other books, it was an informed decision.

Pakistan has remained under military rule for decades and selection of books on this subject suggests that parliamentarians are in pursuit of a recipe to end this practice once and for all. The last batch of books also included ISIS: The State of Terror by JM Berger and Jessica Stern.

Books Bonanza

When it comes to gauging the reading preferences of our parliamentary leaders and senators, one just needs to browse through the aisles of the NA Library located at Parliament House, Islamabad.

It was inaugurated on August 10, 1947, which also marks the first session of the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, at the Sindh Assembly building in Karachi. It was later shifted to Ayub Hall, Rawalpindi in 1962, then to the State Bank building, Islamabad in 1972, and finally to the Parliament House on May 30, 1986.

But when Bangladesh came into being, half the country, including the NA library, was lost. “We started this library from scratch [after the fall of Dhaka],” chief librarian Haji Hattar tells The Express Tribune. “We were left with nothing except the Gazette of Pakistan and started a new journey in 1972.”

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Hattar, who was appointed in 1985, like most passionate librarians, has committed the entire collection to memory. Walking past a bookshelf, he noticed that volume II of the chronologically compiled treaties since 1947 was not in its designated place and called an assistant to put the book, which had been returned recently, back where it belonged.

Although the names of 85,000 books and their shelf numbers might be hard to memorise, this number is substantially low compared to other libraries across the country. Despite this, the NA Library is a treasure trove for researchers and politicians alike.

Stocks compose writings on law, constitution, parliamentary practices, legislation, economics, politics, international affairs, philosophy, history, literature, religion, among other subjects, in English, Urdu and Arabic. And the computerised catalogues make searches easy for members.

Since the library’s primary purpose is to cater to the reading requirements of members of parliament, the library’s collection also includes the UK House of Commons debates from 1066 to 1990 in the form of microfilms, National Assembly debates 1947 onwards, Indian Legislative Assembly debates from 1921 to 1947, the Council of State of India debates from 1921 to 1946, India’s Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha debates from 1947 to 1976, the Gazette of Pakistan copies 1947 onwards, reports of federal government and the United Nations and its agencies, and related documents of parliamentary interest.

It also has a safe house for some rare documents of great constitutional, legislative and political importance. In order to preserve this national heritage, a number of these documents from the historic archive have been scanned and converted into digital format.

These documents include Jinnah’s speeches in the Constituent Assembly from 1947 to 1948, short biographical sketches of members of the Constituent Assembly, the Constitution Committee report presented to the National Assembly on December 31, 1972 and the Tripartite Accord of March 6, 1972 with PPP, NAP and JUI.

Priorities in place

With an annual budget of Rs3 million the library’s collection has grown over time, with books being purchased on an almost monthly basis.

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“We consider books recommended by members while making purchases,” shares Hattar. On some occasions, members of parliament (MPs) donate books themselves, mostly their own writings. Among those who have donated are Syed Abida Hussain, Dr Tahirul Qadri, Gohar Ayub and Bushra Rehman. Some of this amount is also allocated for providing newspapers and journals to all secretariats.

The library even caters to special requests made by MPs for newspaper clippings of articles by their favourite writers and photocopies of a few pages or chapters from a particular book. It takes its primary objective so seriously that “staffers prepare material in accordance with the day’s agenda for assembly and standing committees,” Hattar shares, adding that a staff member is even present in the house during proceedings for assistance.

According to Hattar, they are also working on the revival of a ‘union catalogue’ which was discontinued over a year ago. The union catalogue’s online portal will allow resource sharing between the Punjab Assembly Library and National Assembly Library.

At present some 100 members of the Lower House have borrowed books from the library. Each member can issue three books every month and the rate of return, according to officials, is more than 90%.

This is because each member must be issued a clearance certificate from the library to submit to the Election Commission of Pakistan along with nomination papers. And in case a book is lost or unreturned, members have to pay the cost of the book.

While Hattar has no qualms listing the names of precious books at the library, he remains tight-lipped when asked to disclose the names of members who visit regularly, barring Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani.

But it appears that few visit the library on a regular basis. The spacious library hall and private reading rooms, which can accommodate nearly 50 people, were mostly deserted apart from a few students scanning through documents for their research.

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The library allows international students and researchers to access books after completing mandatory security formalities and a Bangladeshi student, pursuing higher education in New Zealand, was the last foreign student to benefit from this provision.

Members only

The NA Library was also shared by members of the Senate till the establishment of the Senate Library at the Parliament House in 1986. The Senate Library also caters to retired members of the Upper House in line with an SRO issued in 2012.

It houses over 20,000 books and has an equally healthy budget of Rs2.6 million. “We do not buy books blindly and surrender the budget if it is not utilised,” shares librarian Shagufta Shaukat, adding that their purchases, too, are mostly dictated by members.

Unlike the NA Library, the Senate Library does not disclose its purchases. Their online public access catalogue can only be browsed online by members.

“It is a special library for special people,” says Shaukat. If a member is working on a terrorism bill, he/she will ask to be provided relevant laws from across the world, she explains. Currently, over 24 senators have borrowed books from the library.

But with two reading rooms and a book stacking area, “the space is inadequate,” says Shaukat. And with the establishment of the second library there is not enough room to house the expanding book collection, she elaborates.

Though both the librarians did not disclose names of regular visitors, they share a similar observation: more members are now visiting these libraries as compared to the past.

Photos: Huma Choudhary

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