By Muhammad Mehdi
Until recently, I had a solid conviction that libraries are lonely and empty places in Pakistan that people hardly visit. In my imagination, a public library could serve to be a perfect vision for nightmares – dark, quiet and lonely, inhabited only by a murky, old librarian. Even though being a book lover – or as my friends would say, a ‘book-worm’ – I was a frequent visitor to my school library, from where I got most of the books I read, I had never visited a public library in Karachi. Thus, when I finally chanced upon one, it was quite a shocking experience that unsettled all assumptions I had held on to about the general state of public libraries.
Like your average Pakistani, I am cynical when it comes to government organizations and matters thereof – and perhaps rightly so. My perception regarding state-run libraries, then, was no different. I thought that few existed, or came to last in the first place, and the ones that did were bound to be in neglected and dilapidated conditions like most government institutions tend to be. Within their shelves, books must be scarce and obsolete, rarely privileged enough to get thumbed through.
As fate would have it, on one of my motor-cycle rides to the university, sneaking glances to bill boards and roadside happenings as I rode, my eyes caught a glimpse of a building which read: Mansoora Library. A library? Despite commuting on the same route every day, I had somehow, much to my intrigue and surprise, never spotted it. Thus, within a few seconds, the impulse to explore and discover the veracity of the building’s identity found me mounting off my bike and going straight into it.
It was soon apparent how mistaken I had been throughout my life. Contrary to my expectation of seeing a deserted and cobwebbed space, with just a vexed librarian (unlikely to be) on duty, the place was fully functional, with several dozen people deeply immersed in reading and teaching one another. Most of them were older teenagers who seemed to be matric and intermediate students, while the rest were adults of all ages.
With a mix of surprise and happiness, and perhaps a tinge of embarrassment deep down, I rushed to the librarian and inquired about the process of getting a membership. He told me that it was free of cost and they only required a photocopy of the member’s CNIC. As I tried to converse with him further, he told me that he had been working there for 12 years. Still half-shocked, I asked him,
“Sir, what do you say to people who believe in and declare the obsoleteness of libraries, saying that their time has gone and the over consumption of technology has rendered reading, too, as a digital activity?”
At this, the librarian replied that he, along with many of his constant visitors, strongly believed that the learning that books have to offer cannot be replicated or replaced through technology. Libraries have always existed and will continue to exist against all odds. In fact, in his twelve-year-career, he had never seen the importance of libraries waver. He elaborated, however, that there were seasonal changes in the visitors’ numbers: near exam times, the library gets more crowded, hosting a greater number of students than working-adults. This brief exchange showed me that far from the murky old fellow of my imagination, the librarian was a warm and welcoming person. With a final look around the busy main hall of the library, I came back to my bike, still in an air of pleasant disbelief.
A few days later, with the experience of the visit fresh in my mind, I happened to meet a relative who is an ardent reader of Urdu literature. I confided in him of my detour, expecting him to share my awe. To my further surprise and embarrassment, he told me of two other public libraries he has been visiting for quite some time – the Ghalib and Bedil libraries. He told me of the plethora of valuable and rare resources they contain, how cooperative the staff members are, and how each one is always teeming with students and adults of all ages.
Shame gripped me all over. I had always complained about libraries and kutub-khaaney, not only missing out on this valuable resource myself, but also probably misguiding other potential beneficiaries. En route from my relative’s place, as I resolved to go back to Mansoora Library and look through its books, I could sense cynicism drifting away to make place for hope and optimism. And to the latter, I decided, I would cling.
A final word
According to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation website, the city has 41 well-distributed public libraries, 14 university libraries, 3 academic libraries, 4 historical libraries and 10 special libraries that including British Council Library and America Library.
The numbers reflect and reiterate that resources and means are present but perhaps it is us who are not ready to take advantage. It’s true that some of these resources are not in their most taken-care-of state, but the responsibility for this is on us too. Perhaps it is time that we stepped up to revive and reinvigorate the reading that one thrived in the older generations. And owing our public libraries must just be the first step. As Ahmed Faraz once said:
شکوۂ ٖظلمتِ شب سے تو کہیں بہتر تھا
اپنے حصے کی کوئی شمع جلاتے جاتے
(It would have served much better if instead of complain of the tyranny of the dark night/
We instead would have lit a candle as a contribution from our part)
Muhammad Mehdi is an undergraduate student at the University of Karachi.