A library by the dusty streets

Grime settles on once pristine shelves as books wait to be picked, read

Safdar Rizvi September 08, 2021


Affixed into the outer walls of Karachi’s crumbling Metropole hotel, the Anarkali of this story is a street library once lovingly inaugurated by the city’s mighty commissioner. Some two years ago, she’d made news world-wide as the region’s first outdoor athenaeum. Today however, the books on her dusty shelves longingly gawk at the cars zooming past, hoping for a reader to lose his way.

If one blows the grime that has made home on the glass panels of the library’s oaken shelving, it’s not hard to tell that the books inside have dwelled in solitary confinement for a greater part of their sentence.

In absence of a budget for upkeep or repair allotted by either of the municipal corporations, it begins to appear as if the construction of the street library was a one-off thing. Perhaps, she was destined to be forgotten and consigned to oblivion.

According to registration records of books issued in the last one year or so, the library remained its busiest in October 2020, with a total of 30 books being released to readers. In comparison, in the last seven months of 2021, only some 31 books in total could be taken home.

It would however be half-a-lie to claim that the books don’t attract people anymore or the library administration itself is not interested in issuing them. However, it is rather the inefficacious system the library has been built upon, which is to blame for much of its neglect. “There is no card system for issuing books, so anyone who borrows one leaves their mobile number with me instead,” said Mir Shah, one of the two security guards posted to watch over the library. “I have been instructed by the authorities to issue less books. Because people tend to take books to read but some never return,” he added.

Although the library is open 24-hours a day, it’s hard spot anyone sitting on its lonely benches during the sweltering summer heat, when the sun beats its wrath down on Commissioner Corner’s concrete pavement. “Since there is no canopy of trees or any kind of shade, most people who come to the library come after sunset,” commented Shah, who is held by duty to brace the weather come scorching heat, hail or thunder.

According to the security guard, a person from the commissioner’s office comes from time to time to check up on the library and its functioning. When called, he introduced himself as Sultan Khalil, a member of Karachi’s library council. “Since inauguration in 2019, we have lent over 6,000 to 7,000 books to people that haven’t been returned to date,” the bookkeeper alleged.

In his reasoning, it is the public’s lack of respect for the library that has pushed the administration to limiting the number of paperbacks and hard-shells up for borrowing. “A student of NED University used to regularly come to study here. Once, he had picked out a book worth 12,000 rupees to take home. We forbade it. However, the commissioner was present there and he told us that we couldn’t stop any student from taking whatever book they pleased,” he narrated.

Another issue that contributes to the street library’s descent into oblivion is the lack of popular titles within its dimming collection of books. Something which Khalil himself acknowledges. “We have new books and the collection is soon to be updated with the latest titles,” he added.

The Express Tribune contacted District Municipal Corporation South Director Libraries Salik Bhutto regarding the matter. When probed about the situation, he said that he is new to the post and hence unware of the developments. “Offices were closed during Covid-19 and we limited staff coming in, so DMC did not get a chance to look into this issue,” he excused.

When asked about the library’s budget and the government’s plan for it however, Bhutto mentioned the addition of a new Administrator to DMC South, with whom a meeting pertaining the issue has been held. “It has been decided to visit all the libraries soon after which we will review the situation and try to spend on it with the new budget,” the director told, raising new hope for the forlorn shelving on Commissioner’s Corner.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2021.


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