Libraries are knowledge powerhouses. Their effect is universal and far-reaching. When listening to the stories of leaders, writers, entrepreneurs, innovators, etc, who are now world famous, libraries emerge as nurturers of their minds. How wonderful would it be if there were libraries for the disadvantaged children, opening up new worlds for them and widening their horizons? One such library is in Lahore, which is the uniquely whimsical library on wheels — Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS). It truly is a haven for children and broadens their vision about life and its possibilities. ALBBS is an initiative that started its journey as Pakistan’s first children’s library set up in an old double decker bus in 1978, by Dr. Juanita Baker, an American living in Lahore at the time.
Dr. Baker left Pakistan soon after, leaving the library in the care of a group of dedicated volunteers. The stewardship of the project changed many hands because people moved away and in 1979, Kathleen Kisting Alam became the President of the Society.
That was the time when Ms. Basarat Kazim became deeply involved with ALBBS. Her fondness grew when she saw children from private schools visiting the library on a regular basis. Later, she aimed to visit public schools as often as she could so that the children who did not have the opportunity to read would have a place entirely designed for this purpose. Being a mother of two very small children, for whom introduction to books, even before they could walk or talk, became the reason for their sharpened intellect and skills, she realized what she was meant to do in life she wanted to do the same for as many children of Pakistan as possible.
Ms. Kazim’s dream since childhood was to become a writer. Being an avid reader of English books and getting lost in the worlds of fantasy and idealism they created for her, she wanted to write and craft books in Urdu that could bring magic, laughter and imagination in the lives of Pakistani children. Her first book, Bubloo Bhai aur Bhalo Mian was published in 1992, and since then she has authored twelve books spanning diverse themes: the environment and our responsibility towards it, nurturing human relationships, being self-reliant, collective responsibility, focus on girls and their ability of problem-solving, empathy, kindness and love.
In 1998, Alif Laila launched their first mobile library, Dastango or The Storyteller. This was now moving to different schools and communities, bringing books and the joy of reading to those children who had never seen a storybook. A few years later, they were able to add another smaller vehicle to their mobile family and then in July of 2019, Pakistan’s first rickshaw library was launched. Alif Laila’s history with rickshaws goes back to 2010, when they started using them for a campaign to promote reading in Pakistan. They simultaneously ran ads for reading and took books on rickshaws to communities where the lanes were tight and not accessible by larger mobile libraries. They used rickshaws to create excitement about reading both at the launch of the Living Library in Sheikhupura in 2013, and at the Children’s Literature Festival in Lahore in 2015. Finding rickshaws to be both cost effective and easily maneuverable, they applied for a grant to the Chinese Embassy, which was approved earlier this year, and Pakistan’s first rickshaw library was launched on July 13, 2019. The library has been greatly appreciated by adults and children both as it brings cheeriness to schools and communities. Children flock to it and adults come too, excited by the novelty!
Ms. Kazim hopes to find the funds to make this a nationwide project in which Alif Laila will collaborate with organizations working in education in all provinces of Pakistan. Dotting the map of the country with colorful children’s libraries remains Alif Laila’s and International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) dream.
Life has changed completely for those children who visit the library regularly. One such story is that of Sumera, a school dropout. She started visiting Alif Laila and became motivated to pick up her studies once again, with the help of Mr. Iqbal Ahmad who was administering the library in the 1990’s. Today, Sumera is a professional and was even interviewed for a television program Heeron Ki Talaash.
Reading is an integral part of our children’s life experience and revitalizing school libraries is of utmost importance. Teachers need to know that children who read will comprehend better, become problem solvers and excel in their studies.
Pakistan needs more libraries — libraries that provide children the books to empower them to imagine, create, innovate, empathize, connect with different cultures and laugh gleefully! We need for our children to read, form connections with the past, present and future, dream of things that may be possible, so that they can step into the 21st century with confidence and poise. We also need to make our libraries vibrant and welcoming so that they create a lifelong passion for reading and love for books in children.
‘Read to succeed’ is a core belief of Ms. Kazim who has dedicated her life for the evergreen ALBBS. Indeed, we need more people like her with such determination to help young minds explore endless possibilities. While spending some time in that euphoric place, one can observe the keen interest of children in books and related activities and marvel at how relaxed they feel while being there. Children hailing from financially stable backgrounds to children from neighboring madrassa, all find this place as wonderful as a dream. Ms. Kazim is an inspiration for many young individuals trying to work for the education of children in Pakistan. HH
The writer is a children’s books illustrator and author.
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