As we make the turn from Liberty Roundabout in Lahore onto Hafeez Kardar Road, which leads to Qaddafi Stadium, a striking building with its distinctive architecture immediately captures one’s attention. This impressive structure boasts exteriors designed to resemble open books, adorned with Quranic verses, continental maps, and essential facts, drawing us into its modern, air-conditioned halls. Allow me to introduce you to Lahore’s pioneering public e-library.
A substantial number of students assemble at the library even before its official opening hours at 9 AM, eager to secure admission and secure a spot within its comfortably air-conditioned halls. Here, they are provided with tablets or laptops equipped with high-speed internet access, enabling them to explore a vast catalogue of over one million e-books, journals, and research papers, all funded by the government through platforms like Jstor. Should groups of students wish to engage in discussions, there are dedicated scholar rooms available for this purpose. Additionally, the e-library complex features an auditorium where pertinent seminars, workshops, and other events are regularly hosted.
In 2017, the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) embarked on a transformative mission under the auspices of the Youth Affairs & Sports (YAS) department, under the watchful eye of then chief minister of Punjab, Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif. This visionary endeavour led to the establishment of 20 cutting-edge e-libraries across 20 districts of Punjab, including Lahore, Sheikhupura, Okara, Sahiwal, Multan, Muzaffargarh, DG Khan, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Gujranwala, Gujrat, Rawalpindi, Attock, Toba Tek Singh, Faisalabad, Sargodha, Bhakkar, Mianwali, Vehari, and Narowal. Presently, these libraries have a membership exceeding 75,000 individuals.
An e-library, in essence, is a digital haven that provides organised access to a wealth of digital content via the Internet or physical storage devices. It serves as a platform for storing, retrieving, and managing a diverse array of materials, including magazine articles, books, audio files, images, and videos. These digital libraries come in various sizes and scopes and can be maintained by individuals or organisations. They offer powerful tools for organising, searching, and retrieving content, embracing technological innovations like electronic and audiobooks, wikis, and blogs.
An inspiring example of such an e-library is Open Library, driven by the Internet Archive, a non-profit dedicated to building a digital library of cultural artefacts. Open Library offers millions of books through Controlled Digital Lending, empowering users to track their favourite books, organise their collections, and search within millions of texts using Full-text Search. Like Wikipedia, it encourages user contributions to expand and enhance its catalogue, making it a community-driven resource for book lovers.
The primary objectives of Punjab e-Libraries are clear and impactful:
Revival of Reading and Learning Culture: The initiative aimed to rekindle the spirit of reading and learning within the general public, with a special focus on engaging youth, families, and senior citizens.
Promoting e-Reading and e-Learning: By fostering an e-reading and e-learning culture, these libraries sought to empower not only the general public but also students, teachers, and society at large.
Centralised Digital Library: The project aimed to create a centralised digital repository encompassing e-books, e-theses, Pakistani laws, press clippings, annual company reports, indexes of Pakistani periodicals, documentaries, and DVDs.
Access to Diverse e-Resources: The e-libraries were designed to explore and provide access to a wide range of e-resources, including free, purchased, subscribed, and indigenous materials.
Engaging Authors and Publishers: The initiative encouraged authors and publishers to offer e-versions of their publications for free reading and, when appropriate, for paid downloads using platforms like micropayments.
Remote Access to International E-Collections: The e-libraries facilitated remote access for the general public to top-tier international e-collections, ensuring that knowledge was just a click away.
Digital Access Points: To ensure widespread access, these libraries offered remote access through VPN and on-the-spot access through hotspots, strategically located in e-libraries across Punjab.
Economising Knowledge Access: An important goal was to make knowledge accessible to everyone, thereby democratising education and information.
Proximity to Sports Complexes: Each e-library was strategically located adjacent to sports complexes, promoting holistic development by combining intellectual growth with physical activities.
Features and Key Components
Digital Resource Repository: The heart of the Punjab e-Library Project is its vast repository of digital resources. It encompasses a wide range of subjects, including literature, science, history, arts, technology, and more. Users can explore e-books, academic papers, multimedia presentations, and interactive learning modules, enhancing both formal and informal learning experiences.
User-Friendly Interface: The platform has a user-friendly interface designed to facilitate seamless navigation and content discovery. Users can search, browse, and filter resources according to their preferences and requirements, ensuring a tailored learning experience for each individual.
Multilingual Support: Recognising the linguistic diversity of the region, the Punjab e-Library Project provides support for multiple languages, enabling users to access educational materials in their preferred language, thus breaking down language barriers to education.
Accessibility and Inclusivity: The platform is designed to be accessible to people with disabilities, ensuring that everyone, regardless of their physical or cognitive challenges, can benefit from its resources.
Collaborative Tools: The Punjab e-Library Project promotes collaborative learning by offering tools for online discussions, study groups, and virtual classrooms. This fosters a sense of community among learners and educators, encouraging the exchange of ideas and knowledge-sharing.
Under this initiative, five e-learning centres have been established across Lahore, including Government College University, the Social Welfare Department, Lahore College for Women University, and Jamia Naeemia. These centres are seamlessly interconnected with the main e-library.
Prior to the Punjab E-Library initiative, educational resources in Punjab were scarce, with only a handful of public libraries like Punjab University’s Main Library, Quaid-e-Azam Library, and GCU Libraries in Lahore. For students outside these institutions, accessing quality educational materials was challenging. However, the introduction of e-libraries changed the landscape.
These libraries have been particularly useful for students of smaller towns and cities, where such facilities are scarce. Students preparing for competitive exams, including MDCAT, GRE, and GAT, found these air-conditioned libraries to be a blessing, equipped with modern gadgets, tablets, and computers.
Speaking with Horizon, Assistant Director of Youth Affairs, Sajid Ali revealed, “A significant number of candidates who utilise this library’s resources go on to secure government jobs or get admission to their desired educational institutions after successfully passing their exams.”
While the PTI government tried to co-opt the initiative by introducing Tasawwuf Centre boards at the E-Library in Lahore, the public recognised the genuine commitment of the PML-N government to empower youth and students. Initiatives like the Laptop Scheme, Punjab Youth Festivals, PEEF, Zewar-e-Taleem scholarships for females, and others demonstrated a true dedication to the development of youth.
It is imperative that a forward-thinking government invests in the future by prioritising education, youth policies, and the resumption of impactful projects that benefit the younger generation. The legacy of these initiatives will continue to shape the educational landscape, providing opportunities for youth to thrive.
The writer holds an MA in Political Science from the Government College University and an LLB from the University of the Punjab.