Former Malaysian national rhythmic gymnast builds mini street library in her neighbourhood


Low has set aside about 300 books for the mini library. Photos: Carol Low

In good and bad times, our ties with family and community bind and strengthen us. This Our Malaysia column celebrates how Malaysians care for one another and make this country better for all. Please share your inspiring Malaysian stories with us. Email us at lifestyle@thestar.com.my.

It pass off as a birdhouse from the outside but there’s nothing feathery about it, just a wealth of knowledge.

And the small structure – located in Shah Alam, Selangor – has been gaining attention from people around the area lately.

Last month, businesswoman Carol Low, 44, set up the mini street library – located at Section 23, Kemuning Utama – for people to borrow reading materials without any monitoring.

The mother of two has complete trust that readers will respect the neighbourhood facility enough to take care of the books and duly return them.

“It’s free and easy; just take what you want to read and return it when you’re done. If there’s a book that someone really likes and wants to keep, then I encourage that person to put in another book of their own as a swap. This way, it will ensure that the library won’t be empty.

“I’ve always held on to author C. S. Lewis’ quote: ‘Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching’. And what better way for the children in our community to learn integrity than this, ” said Low in an email interview recently.

Children are always excited to source for new books at the street library.Children are always excited to source for new books at the street library. Like other street libraries, the public book-sharing space aims to encourage a ‘take one, leave one’ approach to make books available to everyone.

While the concept is similar to Titi Street Library in Kuala Lumpur’s Taman Titiwangsa, Low’s mini library caters to residents living in the neighbourhood.

Through it, the former national rhythmic gymnast hopes to spark an interest in reading among the community.

“Reading, to me, is a source of inspiration and motivation, a great teacher in all kinds of subjects, and a restorer of faith. It also offers endless adventures and learning opportunities.

“If this library can help a handful of people pick up reading – which wasn’t a part of their lives before – it would have served its purpose in empowering a community, ” shared Low, who runs an online book rental business.Teenager Angel Yip is one of the happy patrons of the street library.Teenager Angel Yip is one of the happy patrons of the street library.

While social media, e-books and digital media consume a lot of our time these days, Low believes it is essential to tip the scale towards physical books.

“Reading should be something that’s fun and not treated as a tedious activity. It is essential to cultivate the reading habit in children. Let the individual select what he or she wants to read. Only when someone has an interest in something will they be willing to pick up a book on the topic, ” said Low, who clinched a gold medal in rhythmic gymnastics at the Manila SEA Games in 1991.

Low said that in general, Malaysians are not reading enough.

“Even though we know its importance and benefits, we hardly engage in it. During the little spare time that we have, many people prefer to turn to their mobile phones or Netflix rather than read.

“We are constantly fed information in a passive way when we are watching something on screen. Whether it’s a good or bad influence, we simply absorb what’s being put in front of us.

“But with reading, it’s an active input. We use more of our brain cells to digest the information we’ve read, and we can stop to think through or question what we’ve read.

“We get so much more exposure if we give ourselves a chance to read widely across genres. Reading builds a person’s character too, ” she said. Low hopes the library can help people pick up the reading habit.Low hopes the library can help people pick up the reading habit.

Take a look, read a book

Low was inspired to launch the street library after seeing such set-ups in Western countries on the Internet.

“I’ve seen photos of them being enacted in parks, along the streets, and within residential areas. I’m a book lover and I thought, what a nice thing it would be to have one here in our own community too, ” said Low, citing Agatha Christie, Paulo Coelho and Osho as some of her favourite authors.

The mini library measures 1m by 0.76m and can store up to 60 books. The topics range from self-help, health and nutrition, business and management, to spirituality. There are also books for children and young adults, along with some Chinese language books and Malay titles.

“I’ve set aside about 300 books for the mini library. As the books are being borrowed, I will slot in new ones to fill up the shelves, ” said Low.

Besides channelling books from her personal collection, friends, people from the neighbourhood and Red Shield Industries (the social enterprise unit of The Salvation Army) also donate to the library.

Low worked with her husband, businessman Ray Sern, 45, to create the library, which resembles a tiny house complete with a roof. In total, the couple spent RM500 on the project, including the cost to acquire a few new books.Low says it's important for children to love reading on their own accord.Low says it's important for children to love reading on their own accord.

“We agreed on a weatherproof bookshelf that can withstand heavy downpours. Thankfully, my husband is quite the handyman who enjoys making things with his DIY tools. He put a lot of thought into constructing the library, using weather-resistant materials including pinewood, aluminium sheets and all-weather transparent waterproofing composite, ” said Low, adding that it took a week to construct the library.

Low hopes her effort will encourage other communities to set up similar libraries for the public.

“I think it takes a success story to encourage others to do the same. When people learn that this is doable and users appreciate and respect such initiatives, they might be inspired to set up something in their own neighbourhood.

“It takes small steps like these to grow into something bigger and better. It’s doubt that holds us back. So if we can take one step at a time, take a bit of risk and be prepared to ‘lose’ some books (as I did!), publicise (the initiative) within the community to garner some support, then we might see more of these libraries mushrooming around our communities.”

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