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Sunday July 10, 2005

Turning kids into happy readers

It’s National Reading Month and once again libraries are leading the charge to get people, especially children, interested in books. But is that happening? DAPHNE LEE finds out. 

IF you don’t like reading how are you going to do well at school and be successful?” 

I overheard a mother ask her son this question one day while browsing in a popular bookstore in Kuala Lumpur. The boy, aged about nine, was facing a shelf-full of books with a less than enthusiastic expression on his face. 

As I edged closer to shamelessly eavesdrop it became apparent that the poor kid was being lectured because his mother wanted to buy him a book and he refused to choose one. 

The National Library, situated on busy Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur.
Book-lovers might find this hard to believe. Why would anyone turn down a free book? But it was clear that this little boy was not a book lover and I’m almost certain that his mother had something to do it. After all, equating reading with doing well in school is an almost guaranteed turn-off for most kids. 

True, research has linked a love for reading with academic success, but it’s my opinion that children couldn’t care less whether or not this is true. If they read it’s because it’s fun. 

Reading has to be appealing before children will even want to begin: It looks like fun so they read; they have a good time so they read some more. I don’t think any child ever got into reading because he was nagged into it. 

It has also been shown that children whose parents read and who have access to books at home are more likely to read. It makes sense: If mum and dad read a lot then it must be enjoyable. Conversely, if it’s such a great pastime then why aren’t mum and dad doing it? 

If children do not have access to books at home, they should at least have the alternative of a library where they can read and borrow books. 

It’s interesting though how many parents want their children to read yet baulk at the task of leading by example. And when the subject of public libraries is raised, most have little to say that’s positive. 

The Kuala Lumpur Children’s Library has registered an increased number of members, but fewer books are being borrowed.
For Dalbir Bhulla who lives in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, taking his children to the library is not convenient as he usually works on weekends. He said, “It’s easier just to drop them off at the bookshop when the family goes to a shopping complex.”  

Another parent, Bernadette Kee of Klang, Selangor says, “I took my kids to the library a few times, but they ended up being bitten by mosquitoes. Anyway, there were not many books and they were all very old.” 

Even if she doesn’t think much of her local public library, Kee at least knows where it is. Chatting with friends and colleagues over the past couple of weeks, I’ve come to realise that most people have no idea where the nearest public lending library is to their homes. 

Open doors 

“The way to get children reading is to leave the library door open.?” 

THE above quote, by popular fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett, is used by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) in Britain as an introduction to children’s reading and the role of libraries. 

The full statement, which appears on CILIP’s website (www.cilip.org.uk/professionalguidance/lobbying/consultations2003/childrenslit.htm), talks about how libraries have a “core role to play in developing children’s reading and their enjoyment of books.” 

Dr Haji Wan Ali Wan Mamat promises a new and better National Library by next year.
Among the ways libraries fulfil this role is by catering to individual preference and assisting children in developing their tastes and finding books that suit them. Libraries are also supposed to make available the most popular titles while exposing children to a wide range of literature. 

The latter is important as research shows that children need access to a large variety of reading material if they are to progress from the ability to perform the mechanics of reading to actually enjoying the activity. 

So do Malaysian libraries have what it takes to turn our children into happy readers? To be honest, when I began my research for this story I thought not. In fact I had long wanted to write an article about how inferior our libraries were compared with those in other countries and National Reading Month just seemed the perfect time to rant about just how bad things are. 

Yet my low opinion was based on nothing more than hearsay. Furthermore, most of the people who provided me with information were basing it on what they had experienced five to 10 years ago. 

The public library that received the most verbal bashing was, surprisingly, the National Library, chief organiser of National Reading Month. Held in July each year, this campaign-cum-celebration sees the National Library as well as state, municipal, academic and school libraries organising various reading-related activities that, according to the National Library’s ibaca website (//i-baca.pnm.my/main_en.asp), aim to “create an awareness of the importance of reading and to encourage Malaysians to read from various available reading sources”. 

Of course the most common criticism was that it was ridiculous of the National Library to even talk about encouraging reading when it had next to no books. Some said that the only books that were worth borrowing were for reference only. 

Others that there were few if any English books and hardly any fiction. There was also complaints about it being closed on Sundays and how the library’s official website was neither user-friendly nor informative. 

When I visited the website I did end up frustrated and none the wiser and when I finally walked through the doors of the library itself I expected to see empty shelves and even cobwebs. 

Always on a Sunday 

THE National Library’s Director-general Dr Haji Wan Ali Wan Mamat, when asked to comment on the National Library’s poor reputation said, “I hope that we can change the public’s perception of the library.” He acknowledged that the National Library needed to be updated in all areas and outlined some of the plans to ensure that it fulfils its function as a place the public can turn to for information and services. 

“We would like to promote the National Library as a centre of knowledge,” said Dr Wan Ali. “We would also like to be a leader in promoting reading in Malaysia.” 

Addressing the need for a wider range of books available in the lending section of the library, he said, “The chief function of the National Library has always been as a research centre and so our focus has been on reference material. However, we intend to upgrade our lending facilities.” 

According to him the library is currently in negotiations to rent a nearby building and use the space to house more books as well as a fiction lending section. This will free up space in the main building for more reference books. 

Dr Wan Ali also spoke of plans to redesign and reconstruct the library’s website. 

“What you see now is out of date,” he acknowledged. “We are now building a new one that will be more user-friendly and interactive.” 

The director-general who was appointed in April this year, assured StarMag that 2006 will see the birth of a new and better National Library, which, incidentally, is open on Sundays (from 10am to 6pm).  

The National Library’s children’s section has roughly 93,000 books, including reference materials and story books by Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries and the ever-popular Harry Potter series. However, many of these books are in poor condition. 

That’s something Dr Wan Ali is aware of and he hopes to see an increase in the total book-buying budget of the library – from its present RM1.2mil allotment – so that he can improve the situation. 

“(More money means) old and damaged books can replaced and new books purchased,” he said, adding that although weeding out damaged books should be done as a matter of course, lack of funds to replace these books would mean increasingly empty shelves. 


Hope for the future 

Indeed, while my heart sank at the sight of half-filled shelves and shabby furniture in the children’s section of the National Library, I was somewhat heartened by the staff who seemed genuinely committed to making the library part of the lives of Malaysian children. 

Assistant director Sofia Osman who is in charge of acquiring books for the children’s lending division explained how her purchases are partly based on what the children want to read. 

“We have many very old books, but we try to delay withdrawing them from circulation as they are popular with our members,” she added. 

Sofia keeps in touch with what’s hot in the world of children’s books by surfing the Internet, reading magazines and newspapers and talking to friends.  

Both she and Dr Wan Ali agree that children deserve reading material of the highest quality and lots of it. 

They welcome the recent ruling by the Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry that decrees that publishers must submit within a month five copies of every new book they print. 

“The move will encourage more Malaysians to read locally-produced works and increase the storage of local books at the National Library,” the Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, was reported as saying. 

Under the law, publishers that fail to heed this ruling may be fined up to RM3,000 for each offence. 

However, Dr Wan Ali stressed that although increasing the number of books in the library is desirable, the quality of these books must also be monitored. 

“I am concerned that locally written and published books cannot compete with foreign books in terms of colour, illustrations, even paper quality and, most of all, good stories,” said the director-general. 

“I think more attention has to be paid to improving the quality of local children’s books. Then our libraries will be able to offer children an even better selection of books.”  

Then perhaps children like the reluctant reader I encountered would be drawn to a library near him and find it a treasure trove of books to explore.  


  • Next week: What the kids say 

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