More Than Just A Library

Students wait expectantly to begin their exams. Access to a well-stocked library would certainly ensure they excel at their exams.

‘When we read, we are able to travel to many places, meet many people and understand the world’ Nelson Mandela.

When I saw on social media, the inspirational story of a man in Kegalle who runs a mobile library for children in the area, I was transported back in time to a similar ‘book man’. Back when I was a teenager, there was an old man who cycled all around Kotte and Nugegoda (I am not sure where else), with a little metal trunk strapped to the back of a rickety bicycle. His little lending library was made up almost entirely of romance novels, and could be borrowed for a few rupees. A lack of choice of subjects certainly did not deter those of us who patronized the book man.

Those days, the ‘Big’ libraries were the Colombo Public Library and the British Council Library. Books were also less affordable and as I did not venture into any local municipal libraries, the mere fact that there was a mobile collection of books was thrilling.

Things have changed considerably now, with local book sellers offering books at affordable prices, and bargain sections and events like the International Book Fair and the Big Bad Wolf book sale, attracting thousands of customers. There is definitely an emphasis on reading and books. But how much is pleasure reading and are our children cultivating the reading habit?

Thanks to the advent of smart phones, you will rarely see anyone on public transport, reading a good old fashioned paperback. Most are just glued to their screens. But for the time being at least, newspapers are not doing too badly as there are still members of the public reading them in hard copy.

Play time is as important as reading. Two facts that most parents living in urban areas seem to overlook.
Play time is as important as reading. Two facts that most parents living in urban areas seem to overlook.

Though Sri Lanka enjoys a high literacy rate and can boast of ancient literature and texts, the reading habit seems to be on the decline.

The story from Kegalle was highlighted by Neth FM’s ‘Balumgala’ segment and featured a man by the name of Mahinda Dassanayake, a Child Protection Officer by profession. Using personal funds, he  has remodelled an old motorcycle to accommodate his library of children’s books and has opened up the world of literature to children in the surrounding area.

At a time where children seem to be just reading text books to pass exams, this kind of venture is definitely to be appreciated. For many children today, burdened with all those ‘tuition’ classes, extra-curricular activities and of course huge syllabi, there simply isn’t enough time to indulge in a pastime such as reading. Also, many school libraries across the country are quite limited or non-existent, while municipal libraries also do not seem to attract a wide readership.

A student monk busy studying. Temple’s are a rich source of ancient books and oral traditions where stories are told and re-told.
A student monk busy studying. Temple’s are a rich source of ancient books and oral traditions where stories are told and re-told.

To encourage children to read, libraries need to move with the times too. In a sense, it needs to be thought of as more than just a building with dusty shelves and books no one reads! Given that there is a growing demand for e-books, many libraries across the world have an e-library too, where readers can simply download books onto their phones or tabs. The books are automatically deleted when the loan period expires.

Libraries need to play a bigger role in attracting readers, and it should not be limited to larger cities alone.  After all, it is our rural kids who have limited access to most things, and well-stocked libraries, offering a wide range of other resources could fill that gap. Readership needs to be cultivated and should not be limited to children or teenagers hunting for textbooks. In fact, it need not be all about books either. In many countries, libraries act as community centres, offering adult education courses, story times for kids and book clubs for senior citizens.  They are also a gathering place for seniors, and offer resources for newcomers to cities that help them find their way about the place, and information about job opportunities and public transport.

In Sri Lanka too, libraries have the potential to become local hubs. They should be the first point of contact for local communities, offering information, education and a safe environment for children.

Some libraries in the UK that I know of, offer homework clubs after school and adult reading groups. These adult groups are great for senior citizens in terms of their mental wellbeing. Apart from a few religious institutions, I cannot think of a single place where a group of pensioners can gather to discuss a book they read, enjoy a game of carom or just get out of the house. Faced with an ageing population, it is important that senior citizens have a place of fellowship.

Free education means a highly literate society, yet, quality reading matter is still not available in most parts of the country.
Free education means a highly literate society, yet, quality reading matter is still not available in most parts of the country.

It doesn’t have to all happen at the big libraries. Imagine if our little municipal libraries also venture out to offer author visits, general interest talks, cookery demonstrations and other topics of interest. They can be a place where parents bring their toddlers for story time and songs. It can be a place where community health workers and midwives could offer information on health issues. It can be a place to meet, learn, share ideas and indeed, begin to understand the world.

The possibilities are endless. If one dedicated individual can make such a difference to the lives of children in his area, what can’t a sound public policy achieve? We must and should impart the love reading amongst our children in the hope that it will broaden their horizons. Not only will it teach them to understand the world, but also, each other.

 

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