IT MAY be arguable that the best things in life are free, but this is starting to ring true, at least when it comes to books, with the mushrooming private-run libraries in the Klang Valley, offering everyone books and spaces for free.
The people who made this happen do not mind putting in time and money on a long-term basis, with the intention of serving the community they are in.
In addition to addressing the absence of a reading habit in our society, they create a space close to the hearts of many and mobilise like-minded people to better society.
And, these libraries are located in interesting and unexpected places.
An old village house
A half-century-old wooden house meant to be demolished has became a crowd-puller since July. The emergence of Little Giraffe Library in Batu 11 New Village, Cheras, has brought new happiness to villagers even though it also brings heavier traffic into the area.
Several architecture graduates in their 20s used their skills, recyclable items and an initial sum of RM5,000 to transform the building into a raved-about attraction oozing rustic nostalgia.
Not only is it filled with thoughtfully categorised children’s books, it is designed to promote children’s mental and character development with features such as a speakers’ corner and exhibition lane.
Out of love for the village in which he was born, curator Lee Soon Yong shoulders the task of running the community library that was operating from a cabin before this.
The books were first collected for an art carnival initiated by several villagers six years ago, and the titles were added on over the years.
“I think the timing was right. The cabin could not accommodate that many visitors, and this house needed to be rescued. I felt the need to do something for my village,” he said.
Lee returned to Malaysia after working in Lijiang, China, for several years.
“No doubt Lijiang is a beautiful place but this is where my home is,” he said.
The team’s intention to build the library was welcomed by all who supported with cash, time, resources and expertise, such was the warmth of a new village.
“Having been born here and then moving out to an urban setting makes me appreciate the new village culture even more. I always treasure those weekend visits to my grandparents’ house here.
“With social media expediting globalisation, it is easier for us to be influenced and that is why it is all the more important for us to appreciate and emphasise on our uniqueness,” he added.
Why is it important to have a library? To Lee, it fills a void.
“We did not have facilities like this when we were growing up to encourage us to read. It was only later that we realised how much we missed.
“The environment we grew up in did not cultivate the reading habit from young, so we hope to do it for the next generation,” he said.
The team of four combines everyone’s strengths to make things happen, and to pay the monthly rent of RM1,000.
A section of the library is used as cafe with one of the founders selling fruit rojak and the other making beverages and desserts to sustain the library’s operations, but patronage is not compulsory. Meals can also be sent from other vendors anywhere in the new village, so it is another source of income for villagers.
“We hope to make it work and promote this model as a prototype for more community libraries to be set up and self-sustained, instead of depending on funding,” Lee said.
The team is finding the most ideal system to catalogue the books so that the public can soon borrow them.
“Residents like this place, you should come see us at night, many treat it as their home and just lepak here after work,” Lee added.
Little Giraffe Library is located at 114, Jalan 15, Batu 11, Cheras. Tel: 012-6322 955 (Lee) or 016-3318 427 (Chua).
The architects’ office
Over in Old Klang Road, another group of architects are generous enough to open up part of their firm to be used as a library called Booku.
The idea was mooted about two years ago when the ground floor of the two-storey terrace house was turned into a meeting area, leaving the space unoccupied most of the time.
Designers Doris Quek and Lim Huei Miin thus suggested that the space, as well as their principals’ collection of books, could be better utilised if shared with fellow bibliophiles.
They were spurred by the success of the Kaktao46 library in Kuala Sepetang, a community project led by their former lecturer and heritage conservationist Teoh Chee Keong.
As soon as the library was opened, it quickly generated warm support from many who came in with their book donations and volunteered their time to man the space.
The team tagged all the books and listed them online, but even so, they felt it was too passive to just wait for the public to discover them.
Soon, they began to organise reading sessions, video screenings and relevant activities such as city walkabouts to boost interaction.
“These activities are basically about sharing and promoting the joy of reading.
“Often, even when we enjoy a book, we may not be able to find another person to share our thoughts and feelings about the book with,” Quek said.
Taking it a step forward, the reading sessions have inspired the readers to produce their own creative works.
One of the latest is the Toyscape project in which designers and readers created six toys for children to encourage learning.
While the library’s popularity is increasing through word of mouth, the team has only the time to run it on Sundays.
They are trying to develop a volunteer system with an allowance scheme to sustain the effort.
One of the ways considered is to sell the readers’ creative works as the effort has unearthed some hidden talents.
“We are still fine-tuning the mechanism and figuring out how to keep this library running, as a sole voluntary system will not be able to sustain it for long.
“But so far, it has been an amazing and fulfilling journey because we are able to do our part to make our community lively through this, and even help to discover talents. I am moved,” Quek, 30, said.
Lim, 25, who was a librarian at school, applies the Dewey Decimal System to classify books here. The books are listed on https://booku.libib.com/
“The response we receive from the public makes us want to do more.
“It is getting harder for working executives to develop their talents, but here, there’s a draw and a push for them to do it.”
Booku is located at 24, Jalan Sepakat 9, Taman United, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 03-7971 3678.
Former foreign workers’ quarters
The recently re-purposed Zhongshan Building in Kampung Attap also houses a library that focuses on books on the humanities, called Rumah Attap 84.
The place was started in February with books transferred from the now closed Humanities Library housed in the Chan’s Clans Association in Kuala Lumpur.
The task is taken up by three groups – Amateurs, In Between Cultura and an artist – all with a humanities background.
It was created because the founders felt the need for a space – physically and figuratively – for studies and discussions on topics they feel strongly about.
It turns out, judging from the popularity of the talks and courses held here, that a lot of people in society are in need of such a space, too.
“I feel happy that we can gather like-minded people, and I feel touched that they are ever willing to collaborate and contribute for the community,” said one of the founders, Show Ying Xin, 29.
“I suppose that’s because we all understand that we can only influence the next generation for the better when we do this,” she said.
One of the events was Archive of The Other, which involved a walkabout around Kuala Lumpur to study the life and culture of the foreign worker community.
She acknowledges that the trend of private-run libraries in the Klang Valley offered mainly Chinese books, and expressed a wish to increase English and Bahasa Malaysia titles here.
“Such is the trend because this kind of setup used to be a tradition among the Chinese community,” she said.
The library has been running through online crowd-funding and walk-in donations, but the team is not considering any form of commercialisation for its operations.
The response online has been encouraging, and they have started a new drive through MyStarter to try to get another RM20,000 (https://www.mystartr.com/projects/rumahattaplibrary) to sustain the space.
Show said the team would soon put up a borrowing system so that readers could bring the books home.
Members of the team have their full-time jobs, but have no qualms spending time here.
“Humanities graduates are, in another sense, culture workers, it is our job to help create an atmosphere that encourages intellectual discourses.
“We don’t see it as a noble thing because we do not think we are sacrificing anything, it is just an ‘indie’ effort, like many others being done for the community, ” she said.
Rumah Attap is at 84c, Jalan Rotan, Off Jalan Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 012-500 5787 (Show).