Did you know that Malaysia has its own versions of Kabul’s story book bus? Many states have had government-sponsored mobile libraries since the early days. They are usually created to serve rural areas or lower income populations with less access to books.
Sibu, Sarawak, for example, has had one since 1995. The Kedah State Library Corporation’s mobile library started in 1978, and currently has five units operating.
The Terengganu mobile library is fairly representative of most of these libraries. It began in June 1982 as an initiative by the Terengganu Public Library Corporation to give rural citizens easier access to books.
The service currently has four units, which operate from state public libraries in Kuala Terengganu, the Kemaman District public library, and the Besut District public library. All these units have recently been upgraded with a system that allows users to register as members online instead of having to do so manually. The units also come equipped with state of the art facilities such as air-conditioning, LCD projectors and televisions.
Response to these mobile libraries has been encouraging: from 2015 to 2017, the Kuala Terengganu mobile libraries recorded 22,075 visitors (with 3,798 people becoming members) while the Kemaman mobile library recorded 16,761 visitors (with 2,576 members).
In Selangor, the Smart Selangor Mobile Library (SSML) started as a joint project between the Selangor Housing and Real Estate Board and the Selangor Public Library Corporation. The state-funded project was envisioned as an outreach programme for youths in low cost flats all around the state.
SSML started in March last year with four mobile units serving the areas of Petaling Jaya, Ampang, Selayang and Kajang.
Today, there are seven units, some of which visit two places or local councils a day.
Selangor Housing and Real Estate Board director Mastura Haji Muhammad says the mobile libraries provide valuable services, as they could inspire a love of learning among less-privileged youths. This would cause other effects, like reduced crime rates in the area.
“The libraries can bring people together. If people keep coming to the libraries, they will become more creative, more confident, their self-esteem can rise. And that will help them to get better careers in future,” says Mastura at a recent interview in Shah Alam.
According to Mastura, each of the mobile libraries is housed in a van; this is so drivers do not need special bus licenses, and also to make it easier for them to travel into less-developed, rural areas. Many of the vans bear motivational quotations and sayings on their exteriors – to create a conducive atmosphere for learning, says Mastura.
Each unit carries about 1,500 books, with titles available in English, Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and Arabic. Digital services, in the form of WiFi and laptops, are also available. While the mobile libraries are targeted mostly at children and youths, there are also titles and reference books for older patrons to enjoy.
“Nowadays in our library, we even have datuk-nenek and all coming. Our new modern concept attracts even the adults, there are recipe books and novels for them. I think we can get all these people of different ages to the library, and I think that can change the country,” Mastura says.
Any member of the public can sit down and read the books; borrowing them, however, requires membership, which is free. Every member is allowed to borrow up to 10 books for a period of three weeks.
“I’ve had whole families come to the library. Five members in the family, so 50 books in total! We had to offer them bags to take the books home,” Mastura recalls with a laugh.
Each mobile library could usually only fit four to five people at a time so many of them also carry beanbags and portable tables that are placed outside the van, usually in a shady spot, so more people can read at the same time.
Maintaining their mobile libraries, Mastura says, usually cost about RM400,000 a year. Challenges include making sure the library supplies books that the public enjoy, keeping to service standards, and ensuring there are enough staff to properly maintain all the libraries.
Reception to the mobile libraries so far has been good, Mastura says, noting that the four original units recorded about 32,000 visitors since they started last year. While specific book tastes differ by area, the most popular reads seem to be novels, cookbooks, religious books and children’s picture/pop-up books.
Mastura hopes that, eventually, each of Selangor’s nine districts will have its own mobile library.
“Receiving good feedback, hearing that we’ve helped people, is always great,” she says.