The novel coronavirus may have hit education across the world hard, but imagine suffering that disruption with poor internet facilities and no public library.
That is the story of Balochistan’s impoverished Zhob district. Or it was until two local youths decided they would do something about. Armed with a will to learn and spread knowledge, they have set up a state-of-the-art library in the little known district and are now engaged in efforts to foster a culture of reading in its populace of 800,000.
Mother of invention
With no public library at the disposal of its residents, continuing educational activities had become a stark challenge for the youth of Zhob once the government closed all schools and colleges in the country last march. “As over 50 million school and university students were asked to take their studies home, things seemed especially hopeless for us,” said Shehzad Khan, an engineering graduate who the chairman of the Library Governing Board of the district’s newly established Imperial Digital Library.
The closures put the youth in Balochistan at particular risk of falling behind, as the province is Pakistan’s most impoverished and has the lowest literacy rate as well as comprises the poorest internet networking facilities in the country.
In the remote district of Balochistan, the youth were struggling to attend online classes due to the poor internet networking as well as shortage of space at homes.
Therefore, Shehzad Khan and Muhammad Ilyas, vice chairman of the Library Governing Board came up with a solution to help local youth continue reading and learning, and initiated efforts to establish a start state-of-the-art digital library.
A thousand books in a week
The two youths with the support of some other volunteer students set up a six-day books donation camp at Kamal Chowk, Zhob in July, 2020. "We set up our books donation camp at Kamal Chowk because it is the busiest chowk in Zhob and it can easily draw the attention of the government and philanthropists," said Ilyas.
The initiative succeeded in receiving more than 1,000 books during the six-day camp. Initially, they were disappointed as neither Zhob deputy commissioner nor representatives of other departments and philanthropists visited the camp. “I still remember, former DC Zhob used to travel his office daily as the camp was set up before his office but he never visited us, even to say some encouraging words," Shehzad recalled. “After some media coverage, we started getting responses from philanthropists and donors, including a response from deputy commissioner himself,” he added.
Responding to a question about the motivation behind their initiative, Muhammad Ilyas said that they thought that if the pandemic gets prolonged, thousands of youth in would be unable to continue education.
A large number of youth in the district was forced to book hotel rooms on rent to manage their studies as we have a joint family system with limited space at homes and unavailability of the internet was adding to their problems, said Shehzad Khan.
They had feared that the Covid-19 pandemic could threaten more youth in the district who already had a poor education system, said Hazrat Shah, a volunteer student and member of the library board. This library helps them to not only save money but to helps students in focusing on their studies in a good environment, said Shah.
A space for reading
It was ultimately SDPO Sherani Mir Shin Gul who donated the space for the library. He wanted the students quest to pursue education and gain knowledge to remain undeterred and therefore donated the space for a year, which comprises a portion inside a building. Shin Gul thus, ended up being one of the few philanthropists, whose played an integral role in the establishment of the library.
“The volunteer students are playing an important role in promoting library culture in the district,” said Shin Gul, adding that their efforts for book donations last year inspired him to donate a portion of his property for establishing a library.
Shin Gul is also involved in collecting books donations from Quetta and other areas of Balochistan for the library. So far, he has been donated around 300 books for the library.
Thirst for knowledge
“We have some 7,000 books on history, political science, fiction, novel, English grammar, Islamic historical, Urdu and Pashto poetry,” said Khan. However, the library still lacks books on basic sciences and students interested in studying their course-related books are often found complaining about them, he added.
“We received around 200 applications for library membership but due to shortage of space and limited facility we have given membership to 100 knowledge seekers including students and teachers of different disciplines,” said Khan.
The library related affairs are managed by a 22-member volunteer group in three shifts as all of the volunteers are engaged in studies or jobs and they manage their responsibilities as per their availability. The library, which is not only used for studies purposes by students but also for online events, remains open for visitors from 8am to 9pm seven days a week.
“Since its establishment, we have held five seminars in the library and a three-day book festival,” said Ilyas. The book festival, which was first in the history of Zhob, remained successful as book lovers not only showed unprecedented interest in the book collection but also purchased books worth Rs140,000, said Ilyas.
“When we first began this initiative, we had no support whatsoever from the district administration, but now the new Deputy Commissioner Zhob Meer Shaheikh Baloch is very supportive of our efforts,” said Khan.
“He [the DC] has not only assured the district government full support to seek a permanent solution to the challenges they face in managing the library affairs but has also facilitated a book festival in the library,” said Khan, adding that the new deputy commissioner has also promised them the provision of a library building and other needed facilities too.
The library now has over 7,000 books in its shelves, a 10-computer digital library, a reading hall equipped with an LED, and internet, newspapers and magazine facilities. However, the library still has an uphill battle when it comes to upkeep of the library as well as continuing to stock the library with current and relevant books for students.
“So far, we lack donations to purchase books as current stock is not enough and we are managing library affairs from our own pockets,” said Luqman Layaq, another volunteer student.
Challenges to current facility
“There are hundreds of more students and professionals who are interested in getting membership of the library but we are short of space and could not entertain all the applicants,” said Khan.
“The district government has a building structure and funds as well, and with its support the library can be shifted in the government’s structure that is already in possession of the district administration,” said Shin Gul. “What I could have done, I did when I saw the efforts these young boys were sincerely making. However, this is not a permanent solution and that lies in the facilitation and assistance of the district government,” he added.
“The imperial library is a great achievement which was made possible by the efforts of a group of volunteer students,” said Deputy Commissioner Baloch. “We [district administration] have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the youth under which, the district administration will spend over 10 million funds on the library and provide a structural facility to them while the volunteer group will manage administrative affairs of the library.
“They [the volunteers] have fresh ideas and skills to promote library culture in the district,” informed the deputy commissioner. “This will be an exemplary public-private partnership in the district,” the DC hoped.
Plea for the private sector
According to data from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, up to 62 per cent children between the age of 5 and 16 are out-of-school in rural areas of Balochistan. Add to that, the quality of education provided by public schools in the district leaves plenty to be desired.
According to Shin Gul, “though the district has many public educational institutions, the quality of education is poor and because of that, people in the district prefer enrolling their children in into private schools. My own children are also studying in a private school due to that reason,.”
“Quality of education starts from primary and secondary school levels but unfortunately the quality of education in the province in general and Zhob in particular is low due various push and pull factors,” said Deputy Commissioner Baloch.
He said the private sector as well as the development sector can play an important role in improving the quality of education in the district by facilitating them in the establishment of good standard institutions and libraries.
Ali Khan Mandokhail, a journalist and right activists, appealed to non-development organisations to support the volunteers in their efforts of establishing a state-of-the-art library in real means. “The library has a limited collection of books, and the financial support of development, non-development organisations, and philanthropists can play an important role in the promotion of library culture in the district, which would eventually lead to improving the overall quality of education in the district,” said Mandokhail.