‘It’s not about books, it’s about community’

A year after reopening its doors, British Council Library has become a community space for Karachiites

Saadia Qamar June 23, 2017
The British Council Library orders 500 new books every two months. PHOTO: BRITISH COUNCIL

KARACHI: After reopening its doors to the public last year, the British Council Library has become a community space, says Chris Hunt, British Council Pakistan’s director for Sindh and Balochistan.

“It is a community space, a shared space, where we would like to work together. It is certainly not about competing against other libraries in town, instead it is all about sharing,” he said.

Hunt, who was posted in Karachi in September, 2016, had different thoughts about the project prior to arriving in the city.

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“I had a different perspective altogether but on my arrival here and after seeing people in the library, I was amazed by the participation of the crowd; not only here but at events like the Karachi Literature Festival and Lahore Literature Festival where a part of the community goes to attend sessions,” he explained. “Hence this is just not about the books, but about the community,” he said.

A digital wall has been set up in Lahore but the British Council plans to set up more in other cities soon. PHOTO: BRITISH COUNCIL A digital wall has been set up in Lahore but the British Council plans to set up more in other cities soon. PHOTO: BRITISH COUNCIL

Hunt, who was previously stationed in Libya, said there was no library there and instead, he was involved in the education sector. “People gave no importance to libraries there. Here, however, people reconnect. The library is not just about the physical space but also the digital age we are living in,” he said.

How do they manage security and community? Rabeea Arif, the manager of libraries and outreach services, said they are in a pretty secure location. “We are secure given the situation and the times we are living in. We are able to hold events here often. It is largely perceived that libraries should be in large cities which should be safe places for libraries to grow. However this is not a walk-in library,” she said.

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“One needs to pre-register before walking in. That is the safest route to take, however, the library users have a diverse age group and we encourage that,” added Hunt.

According to Hunt, they are catering to everyone, but their main focus is the youth. “It is the younger generation of Pakistan, who are more involved in the digital age,” he said. “What we are catering to and looking at is the demand chain [for a digital library]. It’s not only the younger lot but retired people too who come in here to enjoy the library,” he said. Many retired people come in to the library with their grandkids to allow them to browse and just enjoy the atmosphere. “It is the diverse range of people that we are looking [to attract], not just the young crowd,” said Hunt.

Arif said that for most of their recent events, the British Council Library’s Book Club has taken the lead. “It is here that people come in to enjoy tales,” she said.

On Saturday the library plans to host a reading of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl and allow children to make their own candy at the event, along with other arts and crafts, explained Arif.

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One of the most recent ventures is a Digital Wall that was put up at Packages Mall in Lahore. People can use the wall to download books on their iPads or tablets for instant literature. Hunt said he hopes people do not use it as a reference library but instead as a place where good resource material is available.

Regarding the library in Karachi, Arif said every second month they place an order for 500 additional books. In the next five years, more digital walls will spring up in the country and pop-up libraries are likely to be seen in various cities, such as Peshawar, Lahore and Islamabad, she revealed.

With a 10-member team working to improve the British Council Library and provide better services for cultural growth, understanding and form a better diverse group of knowledgeable crowd, Hunt hopes that people continue to use it and benefit from it.

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