The halls and corridors of Peshawar Archives and Public Library are desolate and empty. Located on main Sher Shah Suri Road near Peshawar Museum, the library is being maintained by the Directorate of Archives and Libraries. However, both buildings which were once a book lover’s paradise have turned into a breeding ground for decay.
But the change is hardly noticeable. From the outside, the library appear to be an architectural marvel. It is only when one enters the premises that the story of its decline becomes evident.
Where have all the people gone?
The shelves are stocked with over 120,000 books on a wide range of subjects. This is a promising figure since the library had only 8,000 books when it was established in 1946.
However, the library’s empty seats and stifling silence tell a completely different story.
Although it is the first library of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and has nearly 5,000 members, it seldom attracts visitors.
Muhammad Umar, 62, has been coming to the library for over five years to read the Urdu newspaper.
“I have observed that now people only come here to read the newspaper,” he says, recalling a time when the library was a hub for book lovers and research scholars.
Sitting alone in the library’s hall, Umar voices concern over the decrease in the number of people visiting the library.
“It is surprising to see such few people here,” he says. “We have a treasure trove of knowledge in this library and unless young people make use of it, the nation will lose it forever.”
According to assistant librarian Sumaira Iqbal, a handful of students continue to visit the library for research.
“The annual fee for registration is only Rs100 for the general public, Rs50 for students and only Rs20 for children,” she said.
Old is gold?
While the library has a large collection of books, very little has been done to preserve them.
“No arrangements have been made to either replace old books or protect others which have been damaged,” says Samiul Haq, a visitor who holds a masters degree in philosophy.
“As a result, librarians have no choice but to retain these books,” he adds.
Moreover, it lacks basic facilities which are expected of a modern library.
Iqbal also voiced concern about the maintenance and preservation of books. “Paper doesn’t last for more than 15 to 20 years and books get damaged due to constant use,” she said.
She strongly believes librarians should be allowed to update book collections as they deem fit.
“We should be allowed to destroy old books and add new editions in the records as librarians in the West do,” Iqbal explains.
According to Haq, there is no internet access on the premises and it is difficult to find foreign newspapers and new books.
“I have repeatedly requested the librarian to order a book for me,” Haq explains. “However, the most they have been able to do is make a note of my request. I am still waiting for the book.”
The library’s director, Zahirullah Khan, says funds for the upkeep for the library come directly from the provincial government. “We receive approximatelyRs250,000 and Rs500,000 to maintain each branch every year,” Khan says.
“More often than not, people have hurled false allegations at us for only buying books on paper and never stocking them in the library,” he says. “On the contrary, a system of checks and balances is maintained.
According to Khan, a committee, chaired by the higher education secretary, selects books for the library from catalogues and lists obtained from booksellers. An audit is conducted every year and the books are checked, he explains.
“What is more, thousands of students have benefited from the material available at the library,” Khan says. “We have quite a few registered members.”
The library is also faced with a series of administrative challenges. Members are allowed to issue two books for 15 to 20 days. But they are seldom returned on time.
“In European countries, members who don’t return their books on time are blacklisted. But here, librarians are held responsible for any delay which is not fair,” Iqbal says.
Over time, the directorate has opened libraries in Abbottabad, Mardan, Swabi, Akora Khattak, Bannu, DI Khan, Mingora and Chitral. However, the public library in Peshawar remains in desperate need of an overhaul. Unless prompt action is taken, it will gradually take the appearance of a relic.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2014.