Public Libraries as Community Service for National Development

An Address by Inche Anwar Fazal, Hon. Supervisor of the Penang Library, at the “Joint Conference on the Role of Public Libraries in National Development” held at the Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka on the 21st and 22nd October 1967.

Our country entered the last decade faced with the problem of having one of the highest birth rates in the world and a rapidly increasing young population troubled with declining terms of trade arising out of our heavy independence on a few primary products, stricken with rural poverty. We had to create out of a multitude of races and out of the experience of the past a nation which we all could be proud of, and we have had this year, on our tenth anniversary, an occasion to weigh the achievement of the last 10 years and we have cause to be proud.

We can be proud of our Government for leading in creating a set of conditions that have generated economic and social development in a manner acceptable to a wide cross-section of the population. Nations anniversaries must also be a period of self-criticism as much as they must be days of rejoicing. We have moved a step forward but the problems that we faced 10 years ago still continue to plague and challenge us.

It is of utmost importance therefore that we continuously search for new methods and new ideas so that we may reach that much closer to the goals we have set ourselves in this country and the main point I wish to make is that Government must take a second and closer look at the Public Library situation in this country; they cannot fail to see that the present system leaves much to be desired; that the present system is ad hoc, unplanned, uncoordinated and primitive and it is wasteful, inefficient and unproductive when viewed in the light of what can be achieved and what has been achieved in other countries.

The Government’s eyes must be opened to the fact that the public libraries have tremendous potential for national, social and personal good, that public libraries are powerful tools that can help create in this country an environment conducive to the type of society that our country is striving for, that if it is to be harnessed for national development there must be a planned network of public libraries in this country, based on a scientific assessment of this country’s needs and that it must be provided as a community service.

There is much we can learn from the advanced countries about the role that public libraries have played in creating a progressive society capable of meeting the challenges of science and technology. Perhaps we can learn from a countrywhich this year, in fact this month, is celebrating a 50th anniversary – a country we are soon establishing diplomatic relations with – the U.S.S.R. The library system in that country is a product of the 1917 Revolution. Lenin was familiar with libraries and spent many years in them. He wrote an article entitled “What can be done for the people’s education” in which he said, “the pride and glory of the public library is in its ability to allow the widest possible circulation of books among the people, in how many new readers public libraries have had, in how quickly a demand for a given book may be satisfied, and how many books are distributed in a given house, in how many children are drawn to reading and using a public library”.  Lenin himself signed the many laws which defined the principles of library organisation in the U.S.S.R.  There principles are as valid today in Malaysia as they were in Russia and are: 

1)      general accessibility

2)      planned distribution

3)      organised acquisition

4)      participation of the people in library work.

In 1913 three quarters of the population of the U.S.S.R. was illiterate but the planned development of the nation-wide public library service was a powerful force in reducing tremendously the illiteracy rate, in raising the standard of education and creating a climate for scientific development, for developing a largely backward illiterate society into one of the greatest powers in the world today. Public libraries are not a luxury but a necessity in any country that aspires to mature rapidly. The evidence for this is overwhelming.

The task before us is to convince the Government that there is a force of tremendous potential for the good of the nation awaiting exploitation, that only the Government can provide the framework and the resources for the harnessing of this force in a systematic, integrated, efficient and positive way, that it is an investment in this country’s continued progress. The first part of the paper deals with the present situation of public libraries and draws attention to the serious gaps in our system. I have emphasised the fact that any proposal presented to the Government must be realistic and I have outlined a possible strategy for increased Government participation. I attach great importance to the role of the Library Association in persuading the Government and I am sure that the participants of this Seminar will be forthcoming with suggestions as to how best the exacting mission that is before us can be successfully achieved.

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