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Public libraries, still relevant in the digital era?

Efforts continue to prove that public libraries are more than just places for reading and studying.

Nur Hasliza Mohd Salleh
3 minute read
Three women share an umbrella as they make their way through the rain past the Kuala Lumpur Library.
Three women share an umbrella as they make their way through the rain past the Kuala Lumpur Library.

While public libraries have always been centres of reading and of access to education and knowledge, in the not-too-distant past, they were also community hubs where people from all races and walks of life could come together.

At public libraries, students could come together for group study sessions, free after-school classes, and reading activities for children and teenagers alike.

For those whose parents spent all day at the office, libraries were also hangout spots where they could wait and get their homework out of the way before going home.

Once upon a time, libaries were filled with life and the constant movement of people going to and fro.

Now, though, they no longer hold the same attraction that they once did.

Some attribute this to the rapid pace of information technology which leaves books unfashionably far behind.

Former librarian Akwa Mahzan believes that public libraries may be struggling to cope with losses incurred by borrowers who simply never return their books.

According to him, such cases normally involve children’s books or those in the young adults section – rarely reference books.

“Those are the expensive books which cannot be lent out and which are placed in the ‘red spot’ zone,” he said.

“The books that don’t make it back are normally worth less than RM50.”

Akwa, who used to work at the Kuala Lumpur Library, said every book taken out and returned, every penalty for late or lost books, and every membership at public libraries are a matter of careful record.

“Every month, a runner is assigned to collect all of the penalty fees from every branch,” he told MalaysiaNow.

Akwa has fond memories of his years at the Kuala Lumpur Library, where activities do not revolve around reading alone.

He said state public libraries should take the initiative to provide a range of activities targeted at every level of society.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, he recalled activities held in conjunction with refugees from Sudan, Yemen and Somalia to raise awareness about violence against women, in collaboration with the UNHCR and NGOs.

Until today, he is actively involved in community outreach programmes through the use of mobile libraries and public tuition centres.

Socialising spots

It wasn’t just the youth who once enjoyed hanging out at the library – those getting along in years also made it their go-to spot to read the papers and socialise.

This was especially important during the so-called age of digitalisation which saw a significant increase in social isolation among the elderly.

This was accompanied by a slew of health problems such as depression, the early onset of strokes, and premature death.

Public libraries have the potential to help prevent such ailments and to ward off the sense of being alone among senior citizens.

Eager to tap the sense of community and well-being once available at these libraries, many especially among the youth have begun efforts to revive their role in society.

Community libraries are springing up throughout the country, and nearly every weekend brings with it announcements about the location of mobile libraries set up by NGOs and youth organisations.

One such initiative is the Buku Jalanan Semporna programme, established by Sabah-based group Borneo Komrad.

The programme aims to help undocumented children in Sabah gain access to knowledge and information like any other Malaysian.

In Bangi, Selangor, meanwhile, a youth group is working to set up a cultural knowledge centre to be called Astaka Fikir.

The group’s spokesman Amar Ismat said the initiative would focus on spreading knowledge among students and researchers as well as providing a reading centre for those in the area.

“We want this place to be a space for people, especially in Bangi, to gain a better understanding of Islam,” he said, adding that other such facilities at public universities, for example, restrict access to those of that religion.

He also said a community library would be able to reach a wider group.