Recently, I had to get my hands on some education statistics and the only place where I could locate some of this data was at the National Library. The National Library is located just off Jalan Tun Razak, near Jalan Semarak in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. The first and only time I had been to the National Library was in the last 1990s, after completing my studies in the UK. I remember the grand entrance into the library but recalled little of the books and reading materials.
My visit in December 2012, which took place over a few days, illustrated, in a microcosm, what is wrong with the way the country is currently being governed and administered. Despite its sizeable overall budget of RM54 million in 2013, the flagship library of the National Library system is disappointingly poorly designed and not public friendly, focuses on the wrong priorities, has poor ‘software’ and is not representative of a truly ‘national’ library.
Poor design and not public friendly
For a National Library that is supposed to promote a culture of reading, only two floors out of 3 buildings were dedicated to books and materials which the public could borrow. And both these floors were located in Wisma Sejarah, which is to be found at the very back of the National Library.
Most of the public libraries I’ve been to in the US have their borrowing section on the ground floor of the main library building so that the public can have easy access to these books. It’s not really convenient for people to trudge all the way to the back of the library complex and go up to the third or fourth floor of the building to borrow and return books.
Even getting to this building was tricky. We had to walk through the front of the main library complex (Anjung Bestari) to the back and there were no signs as to where exactly Menara Warisan Sejarah was located. It is also very difficult for a disabled person on a wheelchair to get to this building. Even though there was a disabled ramp that led to this building, from the photo below, one can see that the ramp is far too steep for someone on a wheelchair to go up and down easily.
A steep disabled ramp leading up to the Menara Warisan Sejarah which houses books which the public can borrow
In other related news, we did not see any outdoor parking lots specifically reserved for disabled visitors although we drove around the entire library complex twice. We might have missed them but if there were any specifically reserved slots, they were clearly not marked or visible to visitors.
As for parking lots in general, there were certainly enough for us given that the National Library was largely deserted of public visitors during the times (weekdays and weekends) we visited. However, the sheltered parking annexe in Menara PNM (the tallest building with 15 floors, which houses special collections and government documents) had only just over 30 total parking spaces for the public, with parking slots on the first 3-4 floors reserved exclusively for Library directors and staff. This shows that the National Library is not designed to handle high-volume traffic, should more people decide to visit in future.
Sheltered parking annexe at Menara PNM – each floor had about 20 parking spaces
When we got to Menara Wisma Sejarah, we were surprised to find that 5 floors have been rented out to other parties including a law firm and an event management company! One really has to wonder about the rationale of this rental agreement and how these contracts came into being.
4th floor to the Penthouse
Basement Floor to the 3rd floor
And even the small space that was allocated to public rentals was not properly maintained. Stacks of books were found piled up on shelving carts and strewn haphazardly all over the floor.
This kind of maintenance would be a disgrace in any public library. That this would occur in the flagship National Library building is utterly shocking! We may have all the funds in the world to buy the newest books but if we cannot even shelve our books properly, then all this money spent has clearly gone to waste.
Books piled up on the shelving carts
Books strewn all over the floor
Instead of putting the books which the public could borrow in the main library complex (Anjung Bestari), this space was reserved for exhibitions instead. There is a lot of material here promoting the Minister in question – Rais Yatim – and of course, 1 Malaysia propaganda, but also a lot of underutilized space. Wouldn’t it be more productive to use this space to put reading materials which the public can borrow and have access to, and to put in a nice café where people can sit and read instead of these largely empty exhibition spaces?
Main hall of the main library complex (Anjung Bestari) – with a lot of empty and underutilized space
Even the types of books published by the National Library and put on prominent display smack of government propaganda. Not surprisingly, many of the books on display feature the accomplishments of Dr. Mahathir, Najib and the other Prime Ministers of Malaysia. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that we shouldn’t publish literature on our past PMs but a lot of other people and institutions such as the Perdana Leadership Foundation (PLF) are already doing things like this. Wouldn’t it be better for the National Library to focus on publishing and promoting literature which is not covered by the mainstream but which is important to the culture and heritage of our country?
Literature published by the National Library featuring the usual cast of suspects
Not truly a ‘National Library’
In my humble opinion, a national library should be a progressive institution that aims to preserve, highlight and conduct research on the literary traditions of all communities and cultures in the country. Even though BM is the national language and should be given the most important status, other languages used in Malaysia have also produced important literary contributions which are of literary, cultural and historical significance and therefore should not be ignored.
And yet, this seems to be the case for our ‘National Library’. A sign which is prominently displayed has “Membudayakan Bahasa Kita” as one of the tag lines as well as “Membudayakan Tulisan Jawi”.
Taglines for the National Library
I don’t have anything against the usage and learning of Jawi. I learned Jawi in primary school and was pretty decent at it but I don’t see why Jawi should be given prominence at the same level as BM while many of the other languages spoken and used by Malaysians are totally ignored.
Many of the signs at the National Library have both BM as well as Jawi featured which is a bit odd to me – since Arabic speakers from the Middle East who may visit the library would not understand the Arabic words in Jawi, and Malaysians who can read and understand Jawi would also be able to read and understand the words in BM. Why not state basic visitor information, such as opening times, in Chinese and Tamil in addition to BM?
Opening times of the National Library in BM and Jawi
One of the other odd things I found on one of the posters at the National Library was this poster emphasizing “Kedudukan Istimewa Bumiputera”. The special status of the Bumiputeras in Malaysia is found in Article 153 of the Federal Constitution. I have no dispute with that but I was left to wonder why this specific issue is highlighted in our National Library?
Poster with “Kedudukan Istimewa Bumiputera” in the National Library
Ironically, the photo of the children in this poster is actually a photo of 3 Temiar children who are part of an Orang Asli kampong in Perak. And the Orang Asli are not recognized in the Federal Constitution as belonging to the Bumiputera population in Malaysia.
Photo of the Temiar children taken by the Center for Orang Asli Concerns and featured in a Nut Graph article (http://www.thenutgraph.com/left-in-the-margins/) The poster in the National Library does not attribute credit for the photograph to either the COAC or the Nut Graph.
Even in the area of collecting government documents – which the Library should be good at since it is a government agency – the National Library fails miserably. I was looking for education statistics at the state level and I found out that the various state education departments stopped submitting their records to the National Library in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When I asked the person in charge why these documents were stopped in the early 2000s, she said that these government agencies simply stopped sending their reports to the National Library, and the National Library never followed up to ask them to do so (even though they are supposed to by law). The Library of Congress in the United States is supposed to collect and house every single newly published book that it can possibly lay its hands on. This is a mammoth task which by most considerations, they do pretty well. In contrast, our National Library can’t even keep track and collect all of the government’s own documentation, much less the other books which are published in Malaysia.
I think that many of the problems I’ve highlighted with regard to the National Library starts with the issue of leadership. If the leadership, starting with the Minister, cares more about public appearances and publicity – which explains the large exhibition area and the 1 Malaysia propaganda stuff – then this will filter down the line and into the mentality of the organization. The leadership in charge of the National Library will then also focus on the wrong priorities – making themselves look good in the eyes of the Minister – by organizing events that will help promote themselves and the Minister rather than to focus on what is really important – to increase the reading culture in our country, to make our national library system into one that is widely accessible, frequented and used by the public and that is truly inclusive, and to protect, promote and conduct research on the important literary contributions in this country in all languages and traditions.
No amount of money spent on building new libraries and procuring new books and developing new apps can make up for this shortcoming in ‘software’ – the most important of which is the issue of leadership.
 The educational statistics I was looking for could only be found in the Social Statistics Bulletins and the Department of Statistics only provided soft copies for 2012.