I remember the disappointment on my young cousin’s face when I presented him with The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, on his eleventh birthday. It was not just a compelling tale to begin with, its colorful illustration was like an icing on the cake. My cousin visits us almost religiously every weekend. During his visits, his activities are confined to a series of online multiplayer games, a juggle with the computer and smartphone all day. A year after his birthday, on my next visit, I found the book lying in a shabby corner, covered with layers of dust.
What does this gradual shift of our young generation from books to various sleek gadgets imply? In this era of technological boom, YouTube has become the new pacifier for toddlers, while our youngsters spend hours scrolling down their newsfeed. Amid an inflation of sundry gadgets, the habit of reading books—the old wholesome pastime pursuit—is facing a rapid decline.
When it stands to reason that books fire up our imagination and liberate us from the shackles of a conservative worldview, new and alternative ways should be introduced to rekindle the reading habit among our youth. One such initiative has already been taken by the University Press Limited (UPL), a leading publisher with a mission to build a “knowledge-based society”.
In January 2017, UPL launched a program called Adopt-a-Library in association with Lift Up Asia and Asialoka Trust. Their mission is to make books accessible to readers throughout the country. In fact, little access to library facilities in the far-off towns, and shockingly so in the cities, is one of the major challenges to building a sustainable readership in Bangladesh.
A study on the library landscape conducted by the British Council and the Education Watch Report 2015 discloses that library facilities at primary schools in rural areas amount to less than 15%. Among them, only 1% have a room designated for libraries, whereas in the urban setting, 6% of the primary schools have a room allocated for libraries. About 40% of the librarians have marked the lack of availability and variety of books as two of the major problems faced by them. The results raise concern about the impoverished library facilities offered by our educational institutions.
Adopt-a-Library promises to bring about a real change in the reading scene, providing support to institution-based libraries in Bangladesh. The institutions include primary and secondary schools, colleges, young learners’ centers, private and government universities, and madrassas. In addition, the public or privately-owned stand-alone libraries can also avail support from the program.
Reflecting on the unique initiative, Mahrukh Mohiuddin, director of operations and business development at UPL, says, “While we were looking for possible avenues to improve reading habits, we identified two key problems that we felt impeded the development of our readership. Our libraries were devoid of good quality reading materials. Most of their collections were worn out or in a poor condition. Within our capacity, we wanted to make a difference by providing an access to quality books. With that in mind, we embarked on our journey. We moreover have future plans to introduce more options so that readers find enthusiasm in reading.”
UPL-ALP gives the institutions a scope to choose from three bundles of books, each of which comprises 30 books. The books are carefully selected keeping the age of the readers in mind. In their pilot stage, the program offers a limited number of books with the hope of increasing it in future. “We are offering a fixed booklist for the time being. The institutions can select their preferred book-bundle. But once we finally get hold of it, we hope to operate on a bigger scale, adding more books and a continued support to the institutions enrolled,” says Mahrukh.
The selections comprise a variety of books starting from academic publications to literature. The book-bundles for schools include a few English books and translations along with Bangla classics like Bishad-Shindhu and Pather Panchali. These bundles are priced at BDT 8,000 or USD 100, while the bundles for colleges and stand-alone libraries are priced at BDT 12,000 or USD 150. A bundle for university requires BDT 16,000 or USD 200.
Interested institutions must select the bundle they want and send their requisition to adopt-a-library.org. UPL will verify their eligibility and later put them to the waiting list. Meanwhile, the donors can choose any institution option and the number of book-bundles to purchase. After the donation is confirmed, the book-bundles will reach an institution based on “first come, first serve” policy. To acknowledge the contribution of the donors, the program will put their names on the books they purchase, adds Mahrukh.
The growing number of requisitions indicate the initiative has been well-appreciated. “Currently we are in the pilot stage and already more than 1,200 institutions have positively responded to our campaign,” shares Mahrukh. UPL has started the campaign with their own books. However, the ultimate plan is to include books from other publishers as well. “We do not want to restrict our list to the books published by UPL only. Once we get into our stride, we hope to include books from other publishers as well. One of our earnest missions is to enrich the libraries.”
UPL’s Adopt-a-Library is an innovative method of addressing the gradual decrease in our reading habit. One can only hope that at a time when industries are visibly growing in Bangladesh, more and more donors will come forward to offer their contribution to this unique initiative.
“The ultimate goal is to bridge communities, create opportunities for the enthusiasts to directly take part in the development process,” says Mahrukh.
Shahroza Nahrin writes for Arts & Letters.