Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Bhutan : The low priority library

09 March, 2009 - A few steps away from the massive and modern Taj Tashi hotel, across the noisy six-lane upper Norzin Lam, lies an aged one-storied building. Its significance and, at the same time, unfortunate obscurity, becomes apparent after reading what’s written on a small sign that hangs over its door: “Jigme Dorje Wangchuck Public Library, 1979”.

While larger modern buildings, that house snooker rooms and bars, video game parlors, video rental stores, dance clubs and other social entertainment venues sprout all around it, Bhutan’s sole public lending library continues to languish in the same building it has occupied since 1985.

The building, smaller than any single floor of the Taj Tashi, has five rooms accessible to the public. None of these rooms are large enough to fit even five rows of shelves. Books are stacked on shelves that line the walls creating an even more confined area. A middle shelf placed in the centre of the main area causes visitors to uncomfortably squeeze past each other while browsing for books. Looking for a book on a bottom shelf becomes virtually impossible because either a chair or the next row of shelves is in the way.

“The present building is not suitable for an institution, that not only serves the public’s need for information and knowledge, but is also an essential instrument in getting Bhutanese, particularly the youth to enjoy reading,” said its chief librarian for 28 years, Tshewang Zam. “We need more youth to pick up reading habits instead of roaming the streets.”

The library has a total collection of 12,189 books, a number that could have been over 20,000, according to library assistant, Tshering Phuntsho.

“Yearly we have to buy new books and we have to make space for them.” He said old books had to be removed from the library’s collection. Damaged books that were beyond repair were withdrawn and either sold to the public, donated to schools, or simply dumped as trash. For the year 2009 until February, 187 books have already been withdrawn to make space for newer books. These books have been trashed.

There are other difficulties. It cannot accommodate enough members. Library records show its membership has increased to about 1500 today from 370 members in 2005. Assistant librarian Tshering Phuntsho said that the majority were students.

Yet, the library has only 4 tables and 15 chairs and two benches available for visitors. Assistant librarian Chandra Gurung, who has worked at the library for the past 15 years, said, “Sometimes we arrange mats on the floor for them to sit and study.” She also said students use the non-fiction section, a tiny room that is also a store for boxes filled with damaged books, when all four tables in the reading area are occupied.

Asked whether the library management had submitted requests to Thimphu city corporation (TCC) for relocation to a bigger building, Chandra Gurung said they have been waiting for the past 7 years. “We’ve submitted proposals to the city corporation several times but, apparently, because of a lack of budget, there’s nothing we can do but wait.”

TCC executive secretary, Phuntsho Gyeltshen, said, “There are plans but the city doesn’t have the resources.” Asked whether a specific building had been identified since the library’s first proposal for relocation in 2002, and how much longer till the library was relocated, he declined any further comments, saying he had no definite information on the matter.

Meanwhile, the library continues to operate in its cramped accommodations. It provides free community services, such as a bi-annual reading challenge and weekly reading, art, origami and singing activities for children. “During these events, we have to take the tables and chairs out of the building to fit more people inside,” said Tshering Phuntsho. “It’s not a comfortable place for children to read.” He also said that sometimes children passing by looked in and seemed interested in the activities being conducted, but they find no space and leave.

These free community services are organized jointly with the Friends of the Library (FOL), a group of volunteers involved in supporting reading activities. A founding member of the group, Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, said, “We’d conducted a media impact study in 2003 and it confirmed our suspicions that reading was decreasing. At the same time, membership at the library was dropping, the budget had just been slashed and so we thought we’d better show some support.” She also said it was important to promote a reading culture amongst the youth so that they are able to write and express themselves.

Kesang Yuden, a businesswoman and parent, who brings her son to the library every day after school, said she would definitely be happier to see a bigger and better equipped library. She said, “I want my son to be more into reading and expanding his knowledge.”

“It’s a shame for a prospering city like Thimphu to have neglected the public library,” said renowned Bhutanese author, Kunzang Choden, and a founding member of FOL. “The absence of a good public library is an indication that our society has failed to nurture our youth with meaningful leisure and lifelong learning.”

By Gyalsten K Dorji


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