Imagine a young man or a woman, anywhere in Pakistan, interested in reading up on a topic of his or her choice — anything, philosophy, sociology, economics, history, Mohsin Hamid’s take on how to get filthy rich or an age-old classic like Umrao Jaan Ada. What options does he or she have? In a society with no electricity, security crises and a myriad of other problems appearing on the doorsteps of our conscience and begging for all too scarce attention, reading seems like a luxury, but it does not have to be. The concept of public libraries in modern Pakistan seems a thought too foreign, an idea that belongs to the richest of nations and not for the people crushed by the scorching sun and a UPS that refuses to charge. Yet, I believe that many of our social ills find their refuge and their comfort zones in a society that provides no avenues for learning outside the classrooms.
The recent federal budget has a number of problems, but a few good nuggets as well. One of them is a renewed commitment to higher education, which must be applauded. Therein is also a scheme for giving laptops to those who meet a certain standard of achievement in HEC-recognised institutions. Laptops are great and rewarding success in education is a tried and tested method that works every time. Yet, a laptop is a vehicle, not a means of education. It cannot replace the library system, which in Pakistan, is in urgent need of repair, and in most cities, needs to be created. Not everyone can buy books and not everyone wants to. It is also worthwhile to note that those who are too young to be in a higher education institution, or those who are no longer in school, or were never given an opportunity to attend a university benefit equally from a library as those who have a long list of diplomas on their resumes. And, of course, given the stiff competition that exists in the education marketplace of Pakistan, many never make it to the merit list. A library will give these, whose number border the millions, an opportunity to discover themselves and in the process, create a more tolerant society.
We desperately need a national public library system. Whether the federal government or the local government manages it is immaterial at this point. The issue is to realise and recognise that society at large can benefit tremendously from having the means to access knowledge, whether for pleasure or for profit. A library system will always lay the foundations for a more rational society. One may argue, and rightfully so, that we have much bigger problems. Even in the domains of literacy, we have huge gaps in access and quality. There is little doubt or debate there. But we also have plenty of literate people who can certainly benefit from a mechanism of public libraries. The naysayers will argue that everything is available on the web and libraries are obsolete. If only these people could go to the public libraries in Finland, which has one of the best public education systems in the world, they would find that public libraries are the temples of knowledge and are treated like a sacred space would be treated in an extremely pious nation. They are used, utilised, revered and considered a common treasure. The public library system in Boston, arguably one of the most intellectual-minded cities in the US, is outstanding and not only a forum for knowledge but a platform for debate and civility. It has been there since 1848. The lessons in Muslim history are aplenty. The libraries from the Middle East to Europe in Muslim states nurtured and sustained a literate, scientifically curious, inclusive and more tolerant society. God knows we need those traits in Pakistan today.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2013.
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