The third space is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace.”
They are meant to be spaces where members of a community can come together to discuss, share, collaborate and build ties. Libraries are the best example of this third space. One basic characteristic of this space is that it is a non-commercial zone where people can congregate freely without any emphasis on their social status. There are no prerequisites or requirements that can prevent acceptance or participation.
Third places, then, are anchors of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. The place needs to be highly accessible, preferably located at walking distance.
Never do I feel the poverty of my third-world existence as acutely as when I reflect on the lack of a third space around me. Lahore, purportedly the cultural capital of the country, has an appalling lack of libraries, especially functional ones. A functional library being one which welcomes new patrons with open arms, where new books readily exchange hands, which provides a corner for story-telling activities, a public-access computer area and an environment conducive to growth. The idea of a library may itself be on the way out all over the world – a casualty of spending cuts and the digital age – but in countries like Pakistan, it can still serve a useful purpose.
In the Lahore Cantonment where I live, there is just a single library I know of. This is housed within a club for army men that I and my family, as civilians living in Cantt, are not allowed to access. Other posh localities whose community libraries I have heard of are DHA and Model Town, neither of whom are welcoming to those who reside outside of these areas. As for DHA residents, I don’t know of a single one who actually frequents the community library, a failure on the part of residents, but also on the part of those maintaining the space. If my experience of other libraries in the city is anything to go by, these libraries are dark dungeons of despair no one without a suicidal urge would wish to visit voluntarily.
To put my various hypotheses to the test I decided to go to one of Lahore’s biggest public libraries, the Quaid-e-Azam Library, a week ago. You cannot become a member of this august institution if you aren’t a degree holder – a circular, self-defeating pre-requisite for the membership of a space that is built to confer knowledge. Not only do you need to produce a document verifying that you are worthy of entering the library’s premises, you have to then get its membership form signed by ‘a gazetted officer’, an archaic term coined to impede all manner of smooth progress in Pakistan.
This time I managed to go inside the library under the pretext of asking for procedural details for membership. Inside its magnificent, crumbling old premises, I found a surprising number of people sitting around reading. On closer inspection, most of them turned out to be CSS-hopefuls cramming badly printed books or going through titles like ‘How to Learn English in 40 Days’. Nothing particularly wrong with either endeavour. Just that the notion of visiting a library in Pakistan seems to have been reduced to this alone.
“Could you guide me to the children’s section?” I asked a woman behind a desk. She looked bewilderingly at her assistant and after some contemplation told me:
“We don’t have one. You can find children’s books at the Children’s Library.”
I have never quite been able to understand the insistence on pronouncing Golf Road that way, but I thanked her anyway, and went looking for the children’s library.
As it turns out, I was quite familiar with that place. When it had first opened up I’d been a frequent visitor to the gleaming, pillared structure that had housed not just the library but karate lessons, painting and computer classes. Now getting off at the deserted gate to the Children’s Library Complex I couldn’t help but notice the creeping sense of decay that had overtaken what by now is a nearly thirty-year old building. The gatekeeper asked me why I wanted to go in.
“Why does anyone go to a library?”
“There are many facilities here. I want to know which one in particular you are going to. Anyway, sign this register here. Put down your name, ID card number, time of entry and exit.”
The receptionist inside confirmed my vague recollection that the Children’s Complex Library is for children aged 4-14, presumably an age bar devised to keep ‘nefarious’ teenage activity away from its premises. I wondered where teens who want to read go. The Quaid-e-Azam Library doesn’t allow membership to anyone who cannot produce a graduate degree and an ID card. The children’s library throws out anyone beyond 14. Which essentially means that anyone from 14 to 20 (or thereabouts) has no unfettered access to public space reserved for books in the great city of Lahore.
What this criminal negligence does to libraries that do exist, is reserved for the deep reaches of another column.