When we were in school in the 70s, especially in our cadet college days, our library was one of the most sought-after places of the institution. We had a library class in our official routine, when we used to go to the library to get references from books, if needed.
When a teacher was absent, we didn’t get a substitute teacher. Instead, the entire class used to go to the library, where we had a qualified librarian whose job was to ensure that we remained disciplined in his domain and could find what we were looking for. I was in the cadet college for six years.
Then, in Dhaka University during the mid-80s, I found my peers using its central library as well as the British Council library to further study what our teachers had disseminated during our classes. Going to the library was the primary plan to prepare for exams.
Dhaka’s public library was also located close by, and we found students across the city flocking in and out of the library in search of references for their studies.
In the early 90s, as a journalist, I was still a member of the British Council library. I also had developed a personal library, thanks to our Nilkhet book market. I still have the books that I bought at the time.
It was only the mid-90s when I started to lose touch with the library. I first used the internet in 1995. By the end of my journalistic career in early 2015, I returned to reading books, not just journals and newspapers, but books.
Working for a digital company, I roamed around the districts of Bangladesh and visited a few public libraries outside Dhaka. I was awed by the sheer collection of books in those libraries. These libraries are rich. However, there’s hardly a reader or a student or a reference-seeker sitting in those huge empty halls.
I realized that with the advent of digitization, physical libraries have become or are in the process of becoming archaeological sites. The reference-seekers have started using Google as their library. People have started reading electronic books on eReaders, tabs, iPads, and Kindles. Digital books take out the physical distance as well as time needed to commute to libraries out of the equation.
The current reality is that the structures that we used to know as libraries will soon become history. The evidence is the old British Council library at Fuller Road in the DU campus. I visited the library last month for an internet knowledge session, and my heart sank to see that they have reduced the number of books to one-tenth from what we had seen in the 80s and 90s.
The current reality is that the structures that we used to know as libraries will soon become history
When the British Council reduces its number of books, it surely implies something. It speaks of a change -- the change in people’s reading habits as well as in the preference of medium. The British Council, however, has initiated a project for rejuvenating libraries around Bangladesh, but they’re going to do that on the digital platform. They say they want the libraries to be more interactive in nature than the erstwhile model of libraries.
British Council has also worked with the government to observe a national library day for the country. And finally, this initiative will come into fruition. February 5 has been selected as the day to observe Bangladesh’s national library day, every year.
This news makes me personally happy. If we can get a library day, can a reading or writing month be far behind?
I thank the Bangladesh government as well as the British Council for this initiative.
Now, the questions are: If the physical libraries are facing extinction and we’re thinking of transforming them into digital platforms, what’s the use of a national library day? How long would it take to encourage the people to use digital libraries for their educational and research purposes?
I believe it would take quite some time to rekindle the spirit of libraries among the masses of Bangladesh. Before that, we may have to ensure digital literacy as well as digital access in order to help people be capable of using the digital libraries.
The challenges are many on our journey to digitization. We still have more than 50% of our population without any access to the internet. We have a mammoth task of digitizing all those valuable books and journals in our public libraries. Without turning them into e-books or e-journals, we won’t be able to read them, even if we have access to the internet.
The ultimate challenge is to bring back the habit of reading among the people. This is going to be one of the toughest challenges of all. High-speed internet is to come here very soon, and we shouldn’t be wasting any more time. This is the right time to start working on it.
Physical libraries may be witnessing their last days, but they have immense potential in the digital domain. We must do whatever it takes to make the best utilization of digital technologies to keep the libraries alive.
Ekram Kabir is a story-teller and a columnist.