CHICAGO - With total damage to libraries and schools from the devastating floods that ravaged large areas of Pakistan in August still to be assessed, the U.S. State Department and the Pakistan Library Association brought together librarians from the United States, India, and Pakistan for a conference in Islamabad Oct. 13–14 to discuss “A 21st-Century Vision for Libraries.” Representing the American Library Association, American Libraries magazine Editor and Publisher Leonard Kniffel delivered the keynote address titled “Libraries Now More Than Ever” and held post-conference discussions at several libraries in Lahore and Karachi.
“The political atmosphere in Pakistan is tense, and many people are also wondering what’s happening to $7.5 billion in U.S. aid that has gone to the civilian government that replaced the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf,” said Kniffel. “Libraries are struggling with meager budgets and no government leadership. The Pakistan Library Association is trying to map out a progressive agenda for library recovery and growth, but libraries are simply not a national priority.”
Muhammad Nazir, chief librarian at the National Library of Pakistan in Islamabad, said the library is charged with preserving the nation’s cultural heritage and with implementing a digitization project without the appropriate equipment and training. Staff have heard that the money has been diverted for flood relief but doubted that any of that money would go to libraries, an estimated 250 of which were destroyed in the deluge that claimed more than 1,600 lives. Nazir called for a national library policy and observed that librarians need to work with the Ministry of Information Technology.
“Security was heavy during the conference,” Kniffel reported, “but the 250 librarians who attended were eager to learn. Like many developing countries, Pakistan has no tradition of free public libraries. The public and many librarians still tend to view libraries as book warehouses, but others have observed what’s happening in the West and want to understand how they can transform their libraries into vital community centers and how to raise public awareness of their value.”
In the keynote address, Kniffel emphasized the similarities among librarians all over the world. Pakistan may be far behind American libraries in offering free public access to the Internet and in altering their public image, but opportunities exist, he said, assuring colleagues that they do not have to sacrifice books to embrace technology. “The public expects and needs information and reading in various media, and one does not supplant the other,” he concluded.
“Librarians in Pakistan are struggling with technology and how to pay for it, with public perception that libraries are irrelevant in the age of the Internet and in a political climate that is isolating the country,” Kniffel said. “I visited a number of libraries and talked with many librarians, university faculty, and students. The need for renovation, preservation, and staff training is extreme, but there are visionary librarians in Pakistan who understand what must be done.” He pointed to the University of Management and Technology in Lahore, where a new library is being built that Chief Librarian Muhammad Anwar promises will be state-of-the-art and constructed without government money. “Where there is a will there is a way,” he said.
Brent Beemer, cultural attache at the U.S. Embassy, observed that “any time we can have representatives from Pakistan and India and the United States in a room together as professionals and colleagues, we set an example for all our governments. They should take our example as they go forward with their work.”