Published: Sunday July 18, 2010 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday July 30, 2013 MYT 3:38:22 PM

Build it and they will come

Libraries Down Under are much beloved and well used.

HERE are some areas in which the Australians could teach us something: books, libraries and reading.

While our government believes in getting a celebrity or two to boost the reading habit among Malaysians, the Australians have done it simply by building a library in every suburb and filling it with books – heaps of them.

As the saying goes, “build it and they will come”. In Australia, however, people do not just wander into libraries when the thought of going occasionally occurs. They flock in there every week; if possible, every day.

It is no wonder, really, because libraries in Australia are spacious, comfortable and quiet, and filled with a cadre of friendly, helpful, knowledgeable librarians that are not any less professional but inexorably more book-loving than staff of book store chains.

In well-loved libraries, the smell of books, old and new, emanates seemingly from everywhere. This smell wafts in the air and fuses with the smell of coffee, producing an intoxicating aura that relaxes the mind. Classics come alive in this environment and look more irresistible than ever. My left hand grabs Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God and my right gobbles up Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. As I turn the corner, Terry Pratchett’s Nation winks seductively. Though I once publicly reproached Pratchett’s over-the-top imagination, my recent craving for fantasy has allowed a more unstinting exploration. Who knows, I may find joy this time. After all, I am given 21 days to come to a verdict.

From naught to old, Australians visit libraries as though they are returning home. Go into one on a Monday afternoon after school, and you’ll see older students doing their homework, mothers reading to their young children and primary school students hovering around trolleys, looking for popular returns.

On the floor, in the chairs, on the sofa or in the café, patrons are reading or being read to. Babies hardly cry, toddlers are uncharacteristically quiet for there are loads of books to browse, to find, to read and to borrow.

As for older folk, reading keeps them busy: “What else to do if there is no library and book?” I once overheard an old man say.

Along the aisles, parents nudge their children to leave. At check-out counters, again, they nudge, at times scold, their children for borrowing too many books. I am amused, for this sort of scolding is unheard of in Malaysia. Parents and children negotiate; finally, no book gets left behind. The children smile triumphantly while parents shake their heads, wearily tailing their bookworms.

Believe it or not, I am now am one of those parents, but of a completely different sort. My two children normally have to remind me it’s time to leave; and no scolding from me if my son wants to borrow more than the allowed 10 books – as long as I do not have to share my library card! These days, even my three-year-old daughter is fighting for a card of her own.

She is not too young to have one. Nobody is in Australia! She will get hers on our next trip to the library ... but that means we have to go again tomorrow. Why not, since I have just finished J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and my son is edgy about not yet having his hands on Frenchman Timothee de Fombelle’s Toby Alone, a book wildly popular among a few of his classmates who are also his book buddies.

Readers well-versed in books will doubt these seven-year-old boys’ ability to read Toby Alone, which is meant for children much older. But they can. Their teachers somehow have a way of teaching them literacy and turn ing them into book lovers.

Books can be their own ambassadors. To think that books need a bridging medium – a “celebrity spokesperson” – to reach out to humans is to overlook the power of literature and art.

Let’s just do what the Australians have been doing: put a roof over those heaps of books. The most appropriate book ambassadors are in fact book-loving teachers and book-knowing librarians.

We know you are reading this. Would you roll your sleeves up and start building those libraries, book collections and the cadre of book ambassadors, please?

■ Abby Wong’s fantasy about libraries is that at midnight, the books come to life, mingle, and linger off their shelves until dawn. The toys in Toy Story 3 do, why can’t books?

Tags / Keywords: Books, Lifestyle


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