Islamabad street library
Pakistan's street library Image Credit: Supplied

The wooden shelves and stunningly carved portraits at the city’s Metropole building intrigued many residents of Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, over the last few months.

“Driving past the Metropole building, we wondered about the development work there,” says Sadaf Sharif, 37, a housewife who considers books her best friends.

The mystery was solved last week as the country’s first street library was inaugurated in the presence of officials, diplomats and book lovers.

“It is surprising to see that this dull place has been transformed into a vibrant reading corner. My daughter is so fascinated that she wants to come here every day to find new books,” Sharif told Gulf News.

Tribute to Jinnah

The street library, a project by the Commissioner Karachi Office, was opened by Sindh Chief Secretary Syed Mumtaz Ali Shah on December 25 to pay tribute to the country’s founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah, on his 143rd birth anniversary.

Noteworthy authors including Gazi Salahuddin, Rumana Husain and Muneeza Shamsie who attended the ceremony appreciated the initiative.

“The idea behind Pakistan’s first street library is to promote the culture of reading so that our young generation will learn to value books,” Karachi commissioner Iftikhar Ali Shallwani told Gulf News. “We are reviving the habit of reading in this digital age because Google can give you information, but not knowledge,” he says.

The street library has a collection of some 600 book in English and Urdu s — fiction and non-fiction — covering literature, science and other areas, with more to be added.

Street library Pakistan
The street library is a project by the Karachi Commissioner office to make reading an essential part of the city culture. Image Credit: Commissioner office

It encourages people to take, share and give books — all for free.

“It is based on the ‘take a book, leave a book’ concept which is very common in European countries such as Germany and Austria where you will find people reading on the trains even in the cafés. The library is an attempt to foster the love of reading,” Shallwani said.

There is no member of staff or librarian because the city administration wants the people to own the library.

However, there is a guard for security reasons.

The street library is part of a bigger project to improve the streets of Karachi and revive the commercial hub’s artistic and cultural glory, says Shallwani. The city administration aims to set up such libraries in all the city’s six districts after a rousing response from the public and authors.

Shallwani said he hopes the idea would be replicated in all cities of Pakistan. City officials are also eager to improve the condition of the existing 41 public libraries in Karachi to make reading an essential part of the city culture.

One of compelling features of the project are the walls surrounding the street library, which are decorated with portraits of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, his sister Fatima Jinnah, poet Allama Iqbal, first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan as well as some of the country’s major landmarks.

There are also benches outside the library for those who wish to take a break from their busy routines and read on the spot.

“The library can also be a good place to escape from the digital world, have a conversation with other readers and reconnect with the community which is missing from the city,” said Sharif.

The best part is the library has something for both the adults and children, she says.

“It’s a haven for people like me who prefer to pick up an actual book than read online.”

“I highly appreciate the effort of reviving a book culture because, as a mother I know it’s really hard to encourage young people to pick up a book.”

She hopes their frequent visits to the street library will compel her 11-year-old daughter to replace the iPad with books before going to sleep.