Beyond books and bookshelves

Though the Dr Mahmud Husain Library has books aplenty ... it is more than just a library.

Faizan Usmani August 08, 2011

For many students, life spent at their university campus is always the most memorable phase of their lives, but for a bookworm like me, there was more to look forward to than just routine academic proceedings or extracurricular activities.

The most thrilling place for me at the University of Karachi was, in fact, the main library — the Dr Mahmud Husain Library. Located in the midst of the food area of the campus, the library was the one place where I spent most of my free time and explored areas which many KU students are sadly unaware of.

So in this account I will share some exclusive information about the library rather than a routine description of outdated books, disgruntled staff, broken furniture etc., — all characteristics of a typical public library.

Believe me! It’s really true that a day in a university’s main library may appear to be more than a whole year spent in any other place on the campus. If you don’t agree, then just visit the Dr Mahmud Husain Library and you will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Andrew Carnegie said, “Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity.” A library is the one place where you think you can read in peace, but in fact, it seems like people do everything in a library but read. This fact was revealed to me at the main library of the university as soon as I stepped inside this gigantic building. The library was heavily crowded with young lovers who knew how to make good use of the available space with its many hideouts.

Other than the above-mentioned love birds, frequent visitors at the main library included members of political groups/born rivals who regarded this unique venue as a perfect ‘Hyde Park’ to speak their heart out, using jargon which was distastefully full of flowery words and fancy clichés.

The third category of library goers consisted of those night owls and early birds as well as habitual class bunkers who desperately needed a spot to continue sleeping...and snoring. And the rest comprised of unfortunate readers from all departments of the university who had no other option but to come to the main library in search of further material that could help them with their academic studies.

Besides the variety of library visitors, other entertaining visuals in the spacious reading halls of the library included a group of girls comparing their mehndi designs or their respective burqa shades while on the other corner, wanna-be Salman-Khans would stand showing off their six packs (or one-packs for that matter) and receiving lots of applause from their young (read foolish) fans.

Other unusual yet entertaining activities at the Dr Mahmud Husain Library were the annual ‘Miss KU’ competition held in the Arts section of the library, and the bodybuilding contest, which was unofficially titled as the ‘Mr KU Bodybuilding Competition’ and was held in the Library’s Science section. Quite interestingly, these healthy activities were considered as ‘extracurricular activities’ by the majority of the students. Strange... but it goes to show the lack of investment by the administration in that area.

The Reference section of the library was full of voluminous encyclopaedias and bulky dictionaries in almost all major world languages. Therefore, this section was mostly visited by shy lovers (including me) who looked for relevant translations of universal love expressions like “I love you” in order to somehow express their hidden love to the (usually unaware) objects of their desire. For this purpose, I discovered a Somali dictionary, which successfully provided me the desired expression ‘Vaan kochaa laey’ meaning ‘I love you’ in English.  It took me more than a week to memorise and pronounce this sentence accurately.

At the entrance of the main library, there is a cautionary board warning  that no food or drinks are allowed inside the library; unsurprisingly, it was the library staff themselves who freely ate and drank in front of the students. The Science section was used by the library staff to reheat their meals and fry other eatables on a stove placed amidst thousands of books. Not the safest place to be lighting a fire I tell you. I even found all of them, including the pan-chewing library in-charge, having tea and eating junk food in the afternoon.

Then for the foremost rule of the library — ‘Pin-drop silence’-- it was yet again the library staff that disobeyed their own rule and the students were more than happy to follow suit.

You may be surprised to know that the students were forced to leave the library two hours before its actual closing time. The staff harassed students and used different tactics to get them out of the library. For example, at times, they would switch off the lights of the reading rooms despite the presence of students. This was the first and often the last signal to pack our bags and head off in a flash. Whenever anyone questioned the reasoning behind this apparently odd act, the standard reply was, “This library is too big and it takes at least two hours to close it down completely.”

More than missing the university itself, it’s the main library at KU which I desperately miss today. This unique ‘all-you-can’t-read’ place is, definitely, a treat to stay at for born booklovers where all books, encyclopaedias and dictionaries etc. are randomly placed in their specific sections with an unwritten slogan of ‘Read Me If You Can’.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2011.


Haider Hussain | 12 years ago | Reply

@Moonis Ahmar: I really feel proud of being an Alumni of AERC and its good to hear that people do admire its library environment. Yes, AERC's library is a good example of how libraries should provide reading/learning environment. Perhaps people should also share their experiences of private universities' libraries

Haider Hussain | 12 years ago | Reply

Although I believe some of the writer's observations are exeggerated, KU's main library used to be in bad shape as far as borrwoing books is concerned. I studied in KU (first Dept. of Econ., then AERC) some ten years ago. I never dared to borrow a book from the library but me and my colleagues used to to go to library mostly to complete our assignments and to study for exams. For those who wanted to find a peaceful cornor to study, I think the best time was to visit the library after 2:30-3:00 p.m. Don't know what's going on these days...

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