Pakistan Libraries Struggle with Image, Technology, Politics, and Disaster
Pakistan librarians and U.S. State Department representatives outside the Central Library at Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad.
Mohammad Khan Marwat (third from left) of the Pakistan Library Association, with colleagues from the flood-ravaged areas of Pakistan, described the devastation.
With the media reporting new threats of terrorism in Pakistan, security was tight as we made our way to the first of many meeting venues in Islamabad. Check points and blockades, inspections and screenings are the norm for foreigners, according to the U.S. State Department, even for a representative from the American Library Association in Pakistan to talk with fellow librarians about “Marketing and Advocacy for Libraries Today.” Some 100 skeptical-looking students and faculty showed up for the preconference session at Allama Iqbal Open University, and with a great deal of trepidation over how the “@ your library” public awareness campaign would play in Pakistan, I took the podium, approaching the topic through the IFLA Campaign for the World’s Libraries.
Before long, however, it became clear that the questions and concerns of Pakistani librarians are much the same as those of their American colleagues: how to fund and staff marketing and advocacy efforts to make libraries vital to their communities, how to incorporate marketing and management training into the LIS curriculum, how to take advantage of distance learning and other opportunities offered by new technologies, and how to overcome stereotypical perceptions of libraries as book warehouses staffed by bureaucrats who don’t want to share their keys.
With library damage from the recent floods (video) in Pakistan still not totally assessed, Mohammad Khan Marwat, Pakistan Library Association N.W.F.P. Branch Council president, told me that some 250 libraries in his region, mostly rural college libraries with some 1.5 million books, were severely damaged or destroyed. He had visited several of them and said that he could not forget the stench of the dead animals that had washed up to and into the libraries. He added that a number of high school libraries and four or five of the 24 public libraries in the region were also destroyed. Marwat noted that pretty much all the libraries in three northern districts of Pakistan had been damaged by the 2005 earthquake, and they had yet to recover fully. Other members of the Pakistan Library Association, which is run entirely by volunteers, told me that they felt powerless in the face of such devastation and were hoping for aid from outside the country. Libraries are simply not a priority with the government or the public.
One of the things that became clear as we progressed through a two-day conference in Islamabad was that Pakistan libraries, unlike libraries in the United States, have not for the most part adapted to the information age, which is alienating potential users, particularly the young. While there are public libraries in Pakistan, they do not have the tradition of service that they do in the United States, and librarians feel that they are viewed as clerical staff and lack the training and support needed to move libraries forward as vital learning centers.
Even the National Library of Pakistan, charged with digitizing the national heritage, has had funding pulled and redirected to flood relief, said Muhammad Nazir, director general of the Department of Libraries at the National Library. Members of his staff agreed and said they lacked the expertise and funding to execute their mandate. Nazir called for a national policy on libraries and spoke of the need for librarians to begin working through the Ministry of Information Technology.
The October 13–14 conference, titled “A 21st-Century Vision for Libraries,” was cosponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and the Pakistan Library Association, with some 250 people attending from all over Pakistan along with guest speakers from the U.S. and India. In his closing remarks, Brent Beemer, cultural attache at the embassy, observed that “any time we can have representatives from Pakistan and India and the United States in a room together as professionals and colleagues, we set an example for all our governments. They should take our example as they go forward with their work.”
One of the only tense moments in the conference was not brought on by an American or Indian speaker, however; it was the remarks of Qaisa Riaz Jaswal, librarian at the Lahore School of Economics, who openly charged her male colleagues with sexual harassment, saying it was widespread in the profession. Based on a recent study that she had conducted, her views were clearly unpopular with the male side of the audience. The Pakistani women librarians seated on the other side of the auditorium were silent.
Delivering the conference keynote address, I emphasized the similarities among librarians all over the world. While Pakistan may be a decade or more behind American libraries in offering free public access to the internet and in image altering, opportunities exist. Many of the librarians I talked to in Islamabad had big ideas for Pakistan libraries of the future. Threatened by technology, some of the librarians expressed their fear that books would have to be sacrificed if they embraced it. I assured them that no such choice was necessary. The public expects and needs information and reading in various media, and one does not supplant the other.
I spoke at length with Chief Librarian Muhammad Anwar of the University of Management and Technology in Lahore, who explained that the 4,000-student school is building a new state-of-the-art library that should be open next year. He envisions the library as a high-tech learning organization that emphasizes access to databases and independent study, with a proactive staff that treats students as “participants” who are the nation’s leaders of the future.
Popular media personality Shahid Masood of ARY Television in Islamabad spoke during the opening session, calling himself “an ordinary guy who reads a lot.” He said he had visited several bookstore to find a copy of Obama’s Wars and urged librarians in Pakistan to make their libraries more hospitable to readers the way bookstores have done, with coffee and inviting surroundings. When that happens, he said, he will help to make libraries more visible. “If I don’t have a book in my hand,” he added, “I am hungry.”
Update October 31, 2010: Amy Ovalle, director of communications for the Asia Foundation reported that she has received “stunning pictures” of flood damage from one of the foundation’s Books for Asia recipients, Northern University Nowshera in Pakistan. She noted that “tragically, the library there was totally destroyed in the floods.”