PESHAWAR: Despite growth in population and literacy rate, only a small number of people turn to the few government-run public libraries in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The public libraries in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province with a population of over 22.2 million, have only 7,478 regular members.

The number of daily visitors to 11 public libraries in the province is around 2,000, another indicator of the fact that how low the culture of reading and research has nosedived over the years.

Interestingly, while membership of public libraries is going down gradually in urban centre like Abbottabad, it shows an upward trend in semi-urban areas.

libZahirullah Khan, the director of archives and libraries, said that trend of visitors to libraries was going high in semi-urban areas despite lack of facilities while membership in developed cities like Abbottabad was discouraging.

“A few years ago, the public library in Abbottabad was among the top, but now its regular membership and daily visitors have decreased. Presently public library in Swabi is on the top with 1,429 regular members and 164 student members,” he said.

The official said that apart from other reasons, security environment discouraged people from visiting public libraries in towns like Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and some other areas.

“Earlier, membership of public library in Bannu was on the top, followed by Dera Ismail Khan, but membership and numbers of daily visitors have decreased due to the security situation there,” he said.

Official says membership of public libraries in semi-urban areas shows an upward trend

The public library in Bannu lies near the main police lines and people have to take a detour to reach there while the main library in Dera Ismail Khan is situated in main cantonment with ordinary visitors having little or no access to it.

Officials said that two anti-terrorist courts had been set up on the premises of public library in Mardan that discouraged members and daily visitors.

The province has 11 public libraries with around 300,000 books on different subjects. The public library in Peshawar has 1,500 regular members and about 120,000 books. Officials said that on the average, 200 to 400 people visited the library in Peshawar daily.

The public library in Haripur has 61 regular members, Rehman Baba Memorial Library in Peshawar has 92, Timergara 80, Swat 700, Dera Ismail Kan 1,150, Mardan 400, Bannu 966, Swabi 1,429, Akora Khattak 150 and Abbottabad has 950 regular members.

Before partition, there was network of public libraries and reading rooms in small and big towns of the province. After partition, libraries and reading rooms could not be maintained and preserved. Most of the archival record and valuable material perished due to negligence on the part of the government.

Zahirullah said that loss to libraries resulted into loss to culture of reading among people. “Library is not a place only to use for books reading. It has various components which are used for promotion of culture of reading and research, history, heritage and reference. The problem is that we treat our libraries like offices, open only from nine to two. They need to remain open until late to encourage people to visit them at their convenience. We have sent a proposal to the provincial government in this regard. Let’s hope it finds favour with them,” he added.

He said that a proposal was under-consideration to keep public libraries open till 8pm to facilitate the readers. In this connection, he said, the matter had been taken up with the finance department.

Despite lack of readers and conflict in the province that has kept visitors away from libraries, the authorities have been setting up libraries with state of the art facilities in districts that lack the facility. Consequently, the budget allocated to purchase of books in Peshawar and other public libraries has increased considerably over the years. In 2010-2011, the budget amounted to Rs5,580,000, which was raised to Rs74,000,000 by 2015.

“Over the next two years, we will be inaugurating libraries in five more districts,” said Zahirullah. He added that it was planned to establish a public library in Hayatabad town in Peshawar. “We hope to have a public library in every district of the province in the next five years,” he added.

Published in Dawn ,July 13th, 2015