Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Libraries of Lahore

Lahore has always maintained an aura of a city that is comfortable in its place in the realm of history. Christened as the Paris of the Orient during the British Raj, the city of gardens has been at the centre of power and a force of culture throughout history, which according to some experts dates back to some four thousand years.

Known as the cultural hub of Pakistan, along with it culinary and architectural heritage, Lahore had (or has depending on one’s personal taste) a rich resource of libraries as well. However, given the overall declining trend of reading, sadly libraries went from flourishing to stagnation.

Public libraries for the most part now act as monuments, echoing the tales of a glorious past. Most of the foot traffic they get is of civil services aspirants.

Punjab Public Library can be considered the oldest one, established in 1884. It is home to a variety of books, old gazettes, bounded volumes of old newspapers, magazines and manuscripts dated before pre-partition. Constructed in the reign of Emperor Shahjehan, under the supervision of the then Governor of Lahore, Nawab Wazir Khan; its architecture holds equal importance to the contents it holds within. 

Sardar Dyal Majithia established the Dyal Sing Trust library in 1908. It has a collection of some 108 books and is known to have been involved in some scholarly publishing work as well. During partition due to the transfer of trustees is was shut down and re-started its operations 1964. This too is more of an architectural attraction now compared to the treasures it protects.

Then there is the Quaid-e-Azam library inside the Jinnah Bagh, originally built as a botanical garden modeled on the Kew Gardens. Along with a vast collection of dated books the library also contains some 125,000 microfilms of rare newspapers, journals and documents in English, Urdu, Persian and Arabic languages. 

Copy right Fatima Arif

One of the oldest housing societies of Lahore, Model Town has its own library. Initially, the set up catered to the residents of the society like an exclusive club. However, since recent past the rules have been changed and the membership circle has been widened to include the entire city. It is a government run establishment and its macro management is linked with that of the city’s other public libraries. Malik Eid Muhammad, Librarian, Model Town Library said; “Our daily foot traffic is of some two hundred individuals and during the peak examination season we actually run out of space”. Talking about the quality of the stock he added, “We keep adding to our stock and we even arrange for books on demand for our patrons. In order to encourage the habit of reading, the membership fee has been kept minimal and same goes for the fines of overdue books”.

Walking around the Model Town library, I ended up in the children’s section and the sight of it took me down memory lane to a similar set up where my love for books was nurtured, the children’s section of British Council Library. A small room on the left side on the entrance to the main library, covered with book shelves on all four sides and a center table with the books left after reading or the ones that still needed sorting. Many a memorable weekends have been spent in the security of that room. Now that the British Council is back there is not much trace of the old building as they have revamped the entire place. The new set up is more than just a library, it is modeled more on a community centre format with regular documentary screenings, interactive sessions and even mini concerts. They sure are trying to follow Catherynne M Valente saying; ‘A library should not shush; it should roar!’

Lahore’s libraries might be seeing a somewhat monotonous patronage now but the city remains true to its literally tastes with a shift in style. The trend of bookshops combined with coffee shops is on the rise. These outlets also double as venues for literary sessions from book launches to jamming sessions. They serve as the modern version of the coffee houses of the old Lahore. Simultaneously, the reading culture of the city is kept alive by the footpath stalls of Anarkali and the likes of mobile libraries run by independent vendors. Many a Lahories personal libraries can be credited to these unique resources.

Copy rights Fatima Arif

Books and the habit of reading is a form of conversation; they might be digitized to some extent, the coffee houses might take the form of social media groups but there are going to be people in every generation that are going to be keep this form of conversation alive and they will keep Lahore’s libraries, bookstores and footpath stalls going.    

The article was originally written for Newsline Magazine. This blog post is the unedited version.

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