Libraries in Brunei - what the public wants

I received an email from Rinni Amran about libraries and the importance of reading. While we at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports are currently taking a very proactive role in addressing many of the issues raised here, clearly we are not doing it as fast as the public wanted due to a number of factors. For instance, upgrading works at the main library in Bandar Seri Begawan is currently halted because of the need to determine building lines as is required by PWD. Anyway, take a good read at the many good ideas by Rinni Amran:

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I just wanted to comment on the government's emphasis this year on the importance of literacy and encouraging good reading habits. It appears to me that books in general suffer from a lack of good publicity in the nation. I don't think it right to say that there's a lack of enthusiasm for reading among the population - there are a couple of book swap events, for example, that can be found to be going around lately, and of course, there is an increasing number of literature students in both A-levels and at university level. But even for these students, finding access to the books required on their courses is a difficulty - they occasionally rely on photocopies of the texts instead. So although there may be enthusiasm from the government for reading and literacy, the lack of access to these books/funding for these courses to provide these texts indicates otherwise.

I've always wondered whether Brunei could benefit from a well-stocked, modern national library that can be compared to the likes of the British Library or the Library of Congress in the United States, and as iconic as the New York Public Library, for example. These institutions, apart from being libraries, are also national landmarks, i.e. reasons in themselves to visit the particular country/area. The Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in Brunei is, I believe, not as efficient as a promoter/advertiser/face for reading and books. I remember going there once for research on my thesis into modern Brunei Malay literature and was disappointed to be turned away because they didn't actually have the works I was looking for - they were, rather, being sold at the bookstore at the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports, if I'm not mistaken. I must say that that little bookstore was an even better "library" than the DBP - they had all sorts of interesting resources for a researcher and avid reader like myself. It is also thanks to this bookstore that I discovered Mussidi's works. Mussidi's works, I must say as an aside, are national treasures.

The DBP as a building is also a bit of a disappointment - great books should be housed in buildings of great architectural feats. I'm sure you would agree that the outside should reflect the inside if it wants to promote what is inside. Books are fantastical things, the building that houses them should itself be fantastic. It should not be intimidating, of course. It should be open, hospitable, and accommodating. It should be inviting and appealing. It should be all of these things if it wants to rival the movie theater/cafe culture that the young generation of today indulges in. If books were advertised as attractively and aggressively as food and movies are in Brunei, then there will undoubtedly be curious readers-to-be coming to the library. It couldn't hurt to promote the idea of a glamorous reading culture.

The library should be the number one resource of knowledge, and as such it should be well-stocked, reflecting the hopes that the nation be well-read and well-educated. It should be filled with books from all disciplines - not just science, technology, and management, but history, politics, modern literature, world literatures, ancient literatures, philosophy, critical theory, etc. It should be the number one resource for primary materials in Brunei studies, history, and literature, and besides books and novels, the library should also house a special collection of archives and manuscripts of poems, stories, novels, letters, newspapers, journals, even photographs and artworks. The DBP perhaps is already quite well-stocked, but there is no way of knowing this because there is no online catalogue or even an informative website. If reading is to be promoted, then it should be promoted through the foremost advertising space, i.e. the internet.

It is important also to be selective in what is being promoted. There are books of all kinds, but if we are to encourage reading, then we should promote great works of literature - texts that have proven through generations their appeal, their intrigue, their influence. Libraries should be different to commercial bookstores that sell textbooks, popular romances and children's books. They should guide, influence, and educate in creative, rather than instructional, ways. Libraries are, if you like, an alternative form of school.

A library is much more than a place to store books and a place to read. It's also a place where traditions, culture, and heritage are preserved and exhibited with pride. In light of this, it should exhibit works/portraits of Brunei's greatest artists, writers, academics, thinkers. In this place, let these creative minds take the spotlight and show future generations that the nation does value creative thinkers, not merely the more logically-oriented. If Brunei is to invest in its local talent, this is one of the ways to do it. Bruneian art and literature should not be underestimated. With the recent turn in critical fields towards Asia, there will certainly be (perhaps there already is) growing interest in Brunei's unique position as one of the last monarchies in the world today, and the unique art and literature that can be found from the nation.

I think it is a step in the right direction for the government to emphasize the importance of reading. Indeed, the first instruction to the Prophet (saw) was to "Read!" in the name of the Almighty. Reading, then, should never be underestimated and books should never be unappreciated or devalued. And if so, then it is a duty to promote it in the best way possible.

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Comments

zk said…
Although I completely agree on the importance of reading, having a "world-class" library in Brunei would be a bad investment. Constructing such a stand-alone library would cost half a billion dollars, and with the added cost of maintenance not to mention book preservation especially in such high humidity, the cost of maintenance will easily push the accounts into the red. Moreover, there is the risk of not being able to garner much interest from non-readers, and therefore the return of investment for the Brunei government may not be appealing. I'm not here to put down an otherwise great idea, but to add on to it.

Now imagine a place that houses a library, galleria and cultural shows. A building that epitomizes Brunei and its roots under a single roof. I imagine this place to be a combination of The New York Public Library and Museum of Modern Art together. Now let's call this place "The Brunei Art Center". The Arts center would have the following:

1) Galleria. Invite local and international artists to showcase their paintings/sculptures/art. To generate income, the Art Center will allow paintings/sculptures to be sold to the public with a percentage of fee in return.

2) The Art's center will have an open theater for Weekend performances such as a cultural performance or historical plays. Through ticket sells and sponsorship, the Arts center can generate income. The open theater is open to the public on weekdays to be used for events such as public speaking or even a comedy club!

3) The Arts center will house a modern library covering Local literature to English literature as mentioned in the post but at a smaller scale. Inside the library - we'll have a coffee shop (at reasonable price for all) with great ambiance for reading, which helps generate income. Book clubs are encouraged and facilities setup for meetings.

This is an entrepreneurial view of how a "modern" library may be feasible in Brunei.

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