When I go to my rich friends’ houses, I see no books. A million-dollar household with a hundred thousand-dollar sports car outside has no books. Rich people who spend thousands of dollars on a dinner do not even spend a hundred dollars annually on books
We have five polo grounds and three golf courses in Lahore; and one library in disrepair left to us by the colonial masters, and a ‘sort of’ bureaucratic library that we built in our sixty years. Says a lot about us, does it not?
Lahore even has more offices for the chief minister (Three or four. Who’s counting?) than libraries. Of course, the chief minister needs office space more than our children need libraries.
Suppose an alien were to land in Lahore, what would he conclude about us?
“They are decadent, pleasure-loving, authority-worshipping, and full of pomp and circumstance, with little regard for learning and education!”
Growing and progressive civilisations have been known through history through their libraries. Love of books has characterised civilisations all the way from Sumer, where there were libraries of clay tablets.
Recognising this, even Egypt has built a brand new mega-library in Alexandria to remember the famous library of Alexandria from ancient times.
Libraries now flourish in all progressive and well-managed countries. Many of us, when we visit the British Museum, are stunned by the huge, airy reading room of the British Library in the heart of London. Their website proudly announces: “We hold over 13 million books, 920,000 journal and newspaper titles, 57 million patents, 3 million sound recordings, and so much more.”
The Americans, early in their history, established by an act of Congress the Library of Congress in 1800. “Today’s Library of Congress is an unparalleled world resource. The collection of more than 130 million items includes more than 29 million catalogued books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 58 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.”
Most serious countries have not only large national libraries but also large networks of local public libraries. Most communities in the US and Europe and many countries have libraries with adequate library resources. In England, this network starting establishing itself in the 17th and 18th centuries and is now extremely large, with every locality having a library nearby. In the US, once again an act of Congress initiated the public library system in 1850.
In our history, we have built lovely government official residences such as the President House, Governor Houses, the Prime Minister House and many other buildings but no libraries. We have built many polo grounds and golf courses but no libraries. Lahore, an ancient city of culture, now has more polo grounds than libraries.
A search for libraries on the internet reveals only university and organisational libraries in Pakistan. When you go to the university and organisational libraries, you see what a sorry state these are in. They hardly have a collection and are operated like bureaucracies with severe entry limitations, and on a short working day, mostly during office hours.
Our national library did not even get space on the main Constitution Avenue. It is tucked away behind the PM office as if we ae ashamed of it. As its website puts it, is in a plot of 500 by 100; a little over an acre is all the government could afford for a library. It took us 46 years to come up with the concept for a national library. Even today, the National Library has 130,000 volumes, 555 manuscripts, 45 reels of microfilms, 48000 microfiches cards, 845 magazines and 135 newspapers. What a testament to our great civilisation. I might add that this collection does not even compare to a reasonably sized public library in a civilised country.
When in Pakistan, I witnessed our bureaucracy and the Planning Commission playing this game called “Who Can Spend Our Development Money The Fastest On Pet Projects”. I saw many strange projects, like megabucks universities contracted to unknown consortiums, bureaucracies setting up mango pulp and football-making plants, textile cities, garments cities and so many others. I asked and wondered why we cannot have project for community libraries.
Why can we not dedicate, say, about Rs 50 million for a library in the top 20 cities of our country per year? That is only a billion a year. Not a large sum of money when you think of the vanity projects, VIP trips and the sums required to maintain our VIPs.
But then I was reminded of who demands books in Pakistan. When I go to my rich friends’ houses, I see no books. A million-dollar household with a hundred thousand-dollar sports car outside has no books. Rich people who spend thousands of dollars on a dinner do not even spend a hundred dollars annually on books.
None of the manifestoes of our political parties even mention libraries. So perhaps the government is right: there is no demand for libraries in our country.
So too is our visiting alien!
Nadeem Ul Haque is former Vice Chancellor of PIDE. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org