Shelves full of books
Paradise is a library. Books (cropped, 2011). Photo ©

Rich Grundy.

January 2016

Far from declining, British libraries are growing in popularity and importance, most notably in the Indian sub-continent. By continuing to offer safe areas for books and ideas, but also adapting to the digital world, they are forging connections with large numbers of influential people in countries of strategic importance to the UK.

The announcement of the library re-opening was top story on Google in Pakistan for a week

After a period of decline in the face of the internet revolution, British libraries abroad are experiencing a resurgence. For example, the recent announcement that the British Council is soon to re-open its library in Lahore, with further openings planned across the country, was top story on Google in Pakistan for a week and was carried by every newspaper and TV channel. There was a massive positive response to news of the re-opening from politicians, leaders, and the general public. Many said they had found education, enjoyment - or even their future spouse - in the library. This should be no surprise. The British Council library was long considered a cultural and intellectual fixture in the life of Lahoris, and was widely missed when security concerns forced its closure after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. Recent research conducted by Latimer for the British Council found a third of young Pakistanis surveyed cited learning and reading amongst their favourite past-times, and a recent pop-up library in Karachi had 10,000 visitors in just five days.

Nor is this popularity confined to Pakistan. There are an estimated 315,000 public libraries in the world, 73% of them in developing countries. British libraries in India have tens of thousands of members. They are also popular in Bangladesh, where they play an important role in a country with an estimated 43% illiteracy rate and where writers, bloggers and publishers are sometimes attacked. British Council libraries in Burma attract a quarter of a million users a year. Under the old military government, they provided a rare space where people could access books and ideas from the outside world and uncensored internet access – particularly important in a country with internet penetration of just 2.1%. In Sri Lanka, the recently opened British Council library in Jaffna provides a place for learning, study, and reflection for all communities in a region formerly afflicted by civil war. 62% of young upwardly mobile Sri Lankans surveyed by Latimer stated they were members of libraries, and 30% stated an interest in the UK (above e.g. the US, on 23%).

Overall the Indian sub-continent is home to 1.7 billion people and is a place of growing geopolitical importance. It is also a massive potential market for British goods and services. There is already a great demand for English language products and British creative content from its young and increasingly well-educated populations. Libraries both supply and further fuel that demand. In doing so they facilitate connections with large numbers of future leaders and help create important cultural ties to the UK.

Bastions of Free Idea

Libraries can also fulfill another vital role. The Carnegie Trust and Arts Council England have highlighted the role of libraries as safe, trusted spaces to convene, debate and interact. Many parts of the world, including the sub-continent, where the British Council is expanding it's library services, lack provision in this regard. Some areas are marked by online censorship, extremism, and lack of freedom of expression, thought and association.

The libraries formed unique bastions of free ideas and intellectual gateways to the outside world

This rationale for the provision of libraries has a venerable history. It was in the 1930s that the British Council first set out to ‘establish English libraries for the free exchange of learning and ideas’. They were viewed as particularly important in countries threatened by Fascism and, later, behind the Iron Curtain. Often based on diplomatic property, the libraries formed unique bastions of free ideas and intellectual gateways to the outside world. The need for such bastions is still strong in many parts of the world today.

Instruments for the Elevation of the People

Of course, libraries have changed as the world has changed, particularly in response to the digital revolution. Yet the internet access did not herald the end for libraries, as once feared. Modern audiences want to interact and engage, and to share content rather than just passively consume it. They also want public space and authentic experiences. In the UK this was a driving force behind the new-look British Library and the Birmingham library, which has attracted over two million visitors and ten million digital users a year since its re-opening.

These trends are as true in the sub-continent as in the UK. 64% of young Bangladeshis surveyed by Latimer wanted libraries to offer places for them to ‘hang out and talk’. Sure enough, the British Council libraries are vibrant hubs providing both physical and virtual spaces (members can access them remotely). Safe and accessible places, which also provide access to huge resources of information and knowledge, these new-look libraries are ideally suited to act as venues for people to meet, access the wider world, and share the joys of reading, learning and culture. They host workshops, lectures, live performances, theatre and film screenings, literature festivals, and artists in residence. They offer members access to the best of the UK’s digital content through audiobooks, e-books, e-journals, e-papers and e-magazines. This includes a vast array of UK educational material and publications from The Economist to The New Scientist, talks from the RSA, and productions from The Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company. They also extend the UK’s Summer Reading Challenge – an initiative to encourage children to read more books – to parts of the world where childhood literacy and access to books can be worryingly poor.

What the great Scottish philanthropist and library-founder Andrew Carnegie once called ‘instruments for the elevation of the people’ are still performing that role around the world, now helped by digital technology. There is every reason to hope these libraries will continue to fuel the desires of people in the sub-continent and elsewhere for the best educational and cultural content from the UK, acting as supporters of British interests and influence.

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Analyst and Insight Editor, and Dan Walsh, British Council ‘Libraries Revolution’ Manager, South Asia

See also