Penang's old phone booths get a new ring as pop-up libraries


Public phone booths are on the endangered species list in Malaysia, but one community group Penggerak Komuniti Muda in George Town has found a nifty way to give them new life: phone booth libraries. Photo: PEKA

Bright and loud. That is the aim – and colour – of a new pocket library project that has lit up the historical streets of George Town, Penang.

Initiated by Penggerak Komuniti Muda (PEKA), five old public phone booths have been transformed into mini libraries where book lovers can borrow, exchange or donate books to be shared with the community.

PEKA executive director Joshua Woo says the idea first came about in 2019 when he was passing by three derelict phone booths outside the Beach Street police station – a familiar sight and rendezvous point for those living or frequenting the heritage city.

“They were unsightly at the heart of the George Town heritage core zone. So I thought, why not transform them into something iconic?

"I studied what could be done with the booths given their existing structure and the idea of creating mini libraries came to mind; a place where the public can pick a book to read and donate their books for others to read,” says Woo.

The initiative fell perfectly in line with the objectives of PEKA, a youth empowerment programme under the state government, that footed the RM9,000 bill to transform a total of five old public telephone booths in the area.

PEKA executive director Joshua Woo says the idea first came about in 2019 when he was passing by three derelict phone booths outside the Beach Street police station. Photo: PEKAPEKA executive director Joshua Woo says the idea first came about in 2019 when he was passing by three derelict phone booths outside the Beach Street police station. Photo: PEKA

“PEKA’s aim is to empower our youths’ social mobility and cultivating a reading habit in Penang is aligned to that goal.

"Before the pandemic, we managed 37 free tuition centres across Penang, helping 1,400 students who mostly came from families who could not afford private tuition.

"In recent times, we’ve taken that project online through the e-Tuisyen Rakyat (eTR) initiative,” adds Woo.

Designer Norfahmi Osman produced a draft design for the mini libraries and together with Muhammad Adam Hafiz Tan Abdullah and Nurhafiza Huda Idris, planning began in earnest.

Realising the project

The pocket library project officially kicked off at the beginning of 2020.

But aside from the pandemic, which hit Malaysia in full force in March of that year, the proposal encountered another large snag – the colour selection for the library booths.

The phone booth libraries are also equipped with lighting to allow users to visit them at night. Photo: PEKAThe phone booth libraries are also equipped with lighting to allow users to visit them at night. Photo: PEKA

“We wanted something bright and loud – something to attract the younger generation to come and see what was going on.

"The implementation was harder than we thought. Getting MBPP's permission (local authority Penang Island City Council’s) is one thing, the other was actually sourcing for the right paint and painting techniques.

"Just getting the right colours took us weeks!” says Woo.

On top of that, several city stakeholders were hesitant about the bright hues chosen with concerns that they would clash with the city’s heritage character.

“We were told that our colours would not blend well with the surrounding buildings but we held our ground and thankfully, were granted permission.

The pocket library project officially kicked off at the beginning of 2020. Photo: PEKA The pocket library project officially kicked off at the beginning of 2020. Photo: PEKA

"In the end, we hope the bright colours will attract people to come and take photos here, with the space acting as a bridge between older generations who may prefer physical books to younger generations who may be more used to reading digitally,” he adds.

Now, in Chromatella yellow, Fire Princess red, Frost Blue and Fascination pink, the five library booths stand proud – three located at the north end of Beach Street, one on Gat Lebuh Gereja and another on Lebuh China.

“Regarding the design, we didn't shift or change the structure of the booths.

"We just cleaned them, removed the protruding wires and unwanted parts, painted them, and installed racks with acrylic covers, while MBPP provided the USB ports and lights.

"Although we have already had an instance of vandalism, in fact, right after we finished painting the booths, we have cleaned and repainted them. Our volunteers will be mobilised to maintain the mini libraries as much as we can,” Woo adds.

On one last note, he points to the top of the booths where a multilingual statement sums up the passion motivating the pocket library team.

"I Love Penang" can be seen in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Chinese, Tamil and Jawi.

“I wanted the major languages in Penang to be featured on top of the booths to show that regardless of our ethnic background or language that we speak, we can all be united to love and celebrate Penang,” concludes Woo.

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