The British Council, Pakistan is reviving its libraries in three major cities across the country, much to the delight of an entire generation of book lovers that grew up frequenting the iconic reading spaces. The first of these libraries opened recently in British Council, Lahore. The Karachi library, which is housed at the British High Commission on Shahrah-e Iran, Clifton, is slated to open its doors to the public in the first week of August.
Representatives of the literature and arts industries got a preview of what the library had to offer in a series of exclusive tours of the new space. The group that Desi Writers’ Lounge was a part of included journalists, literary entrepreneurs, radio producers, and bloggers.
Rabeea Arif, Manager of Libraries and Outreach Services, shared from the outset that the British Council’s vision was to put together a modern library that would function as a space for people to convene and to interact. Gone were the days when library visits were highly anticipated but fundamentally somber affairs, with stern, double-spectacled librarians who enforced pin-drop silence. A new age demanded new approaches to learning, and this library team believed that there was more to be learnt and gained through a freer, more open space that encouraged interaction.
To that end, there was a lot of potential in the place that had been allotted for the library project, which comprised two large, open-plan halls, one auditorium, and two smaller rooms. The books were mainly stocked in one of the open-plan halls, while the rooms had been set aside for administrative work and for hosting smaller congregations like book club meetings. Because a multipurpose space required flexibility, the auditorium had collapsible walls and the bookshelves had wheels. In fact, all the furniture had been designed so it could be moved at a minute’s notice to make room for different types of events. The large courtyard adjoining the auditorium would be used for cultural events, Rabeea Arif shared. The spacious café that bordered the courtyard, run by Karachi’s favourite eco-friendly providers of organic food, N’ecos, would provide yet another area for conversation and dialogue.
In keeping with its modern ethos, the library had a high-tech feel to it, with a booth for digital check-ins and check-outs, a line of computer stations, several iPads, and its most impressive feature: a touchscreen ‘table’ that could be used by up to four users at a time to access the British Council’s fantastic digital library services. The digital library, in addition to giving users access to a truly amazing array of reading material, will also allow library members to use JSTOR – an exciting and genuinely valuable service to provide to researchers in Pakistan, who usually do not have access to world class, original research in many fields of study.
The clean lines and minimalistic aesthetic of the décor encouraged the eye to focus on the most important thing in the library: the books. Overall, the selection was excellent, with a number of very special titles on display. The team had clearly spent time curating these, and the visitors were told that new titles would be added every six months. Out of the current selection, the fiction and children’s sections stood out the most. The British Council’s ability to access and source books from the UK was a huge advantage in procuring titles from British literature, Rabeea Arif said. Another shelf that immediately called attention to itself was for graphic novels, a collection that she said she was particularly proud of. While there was a section for South Asian fiction in English, the library did not yet have any books in Urdu or regional languages. These will be added on later, once the initial stages of setting up and launching the library are over.
The lack of local language books was one of the issues highlighted by the group, which gave spirited feedback and suggestions in a focus group session after the tour. It was recommended that more colour and personality be injected into the library space, that more niches be created for readers to curl up with their books, that the British Council’s educational network be leveraged to provide access to students from all over Karachi, and that more YA fiction and art books be added to the selection on display. These and other suggestions were received well by the library team. If they’re able to implement even some of them, it is likely to improve the space and services substantially.
Fifteen years ago, when the British Council announced that it would be closing its libraries in Pakistan, many hearts were broken. Things have moved on since then. Reading behaviour and habits have evolved in a very different direction. Libraries have tended to dwindle in numbers rather than expand. But the nostalgia of the British Council library remains. After fifteen dry years, the reading public welcomes the chance to fill out that registration form again, and to feel the familiar excitement of getting a membership card that gives access to a veritable world of knowledge and stories.