It was a sunny day at a public elementary school in a rural area near Yogyakarta. Students lined up to return the books borrowed from Helobook, a non-profit organisation that regularly lends books for free to schools in the province’s outskirts.
The kids looked happy and laughed a lot because this was their opportunity to access new, interesting books and movies.
Their school’s own library collection was mostly made up of books from government aid in 1990s, published by state-owned publisher Balai Pustaka. The books were out of date and there weren’t enough of them.
These students were also disadvantaged by the fact that their nearest book store is 15 kilometres away and the nearest public library is about 20 kilometres away. This is a problem because these students are from low-income families who can’t afford to travel to borrow books.
Are Indonesians interested in reading?
Low rates of interest in reading among Indonesians is something frequently referenced in news reports from media like Kompas, The Jakarta Post and Antara, which quote data supposedly sourced from UNESCO. These stories quote that one in every 1,000 Indonesians has a high interest in reading. But an exploration of UNESCO’s database and a request for this data have both failed to confirm these statistics.
Last year, a Central Connecticut State University study put Indonesia’s literacy rate at 60th out of 61 countries, one above Botswana. Officials and public figures also quote this but the ranking is not about reading interest. It’s about computer access, newspaper circulation, and reading comprehension, among other things.
This low rate of reading might not be due to a lack of interest but rather a lack of opportunity to read.
Book access and library condition
Let’s take a look at the data that could serve as a parameter to understand reading interest. First, school library data.
In 147,503 primary schools we only have 90,642 libraries, that’s 61.45%. The percentage shrinks more when we look at the condition. From the total 90,642 libraries, only 28,137 are in good condition (19% of schools, 31% of total libraries). Junior high and high schools have similar situation.
The quantity of village or subdistrict libraries is the same. From 77,095 villages, Indonesia has only 23,281 libraries or about 30%.
The number of book stores is also much lower compared to the vastness of the archipelago. The biggest book store network, Gramedia, has only 100 stores in only a handful of big cities, out of the 514 cities and regencies of Indonesia.
The number of book stores, school and public libraries show how limited the access to books is for many Indonesians. How would people develop some reading interest if access to books is limited?
Library quality and communities of readers
Nurturing reading interest begins with making books available. Unfortunately, the number and condition of school and public libraries are far from adequate. Some school libraries might have a decent building, but the collection is an entirely different matter.
Libraries often serve a dual purpose, such as a storage room or sports hall. One library in Sleman in Yogyakarta, for example, is complete with a ping pong table to indicate its “flexible” function.
The government has instructed schools to allocate budget – increased to 20% of the government school funds in July from previously 5% – for library development and buying textbooks. But most of the funds are spent to buy school textbooks. The result is underdeveloped reading interests among students because of the inadequate book collection; students are bored with outdated books.
Amid this inadequacy, communities of readers in these have proven valuable. These communities open mini libraries in neighbourhoods. One example is the moving library network, Pustaka Bergerak. The growth of these communities is massive and sporadic, as readers reaching out to underrepresented and remote areas.
This network has library ponies, libraries on rickshaw, libraries on bicycles, libraries on boats, and even a mobile herbal drinks seller that brings books to lend for free.
This movement has had a positive response from the government. After a meeting between literacy activists and President Joko Widodo on May 2 this year, the government, through state postal company PT Pos Indonesia, allowed citizens to send books free of charge to the communities registered in this list on the 17th day every month.
Small in scale but big in spirit
Communities of readers are usually built on the members’ love of books and their aspiration to share. Enthusiasm, idealism and capacity to build network are key to the growth of literacy communities and have less to do with the existence or the absence of government funds.
The network has been facilitated by Community Libraries Forum, initiated by the government. Pustaka Bergerak network has also shown great passion in their social media account, enabled by initiator Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka.
The number of these communities of readers, compared to the geographical and population size of the country, is perhaps minuscule. Nevertheless, this movement deserves an appreciation for its impact: nurture reading interest.
An example of the success of these communities is Pustakaloka Rumah Dunia in Serang, Banten. This community enabled a scavenger’s son to finish higher education, a fried snack seller to become a journalist, and a farmer’s son to become a poet. Their stories are compiled in a book Relawan Dunia (World Volunteers).
Discovering books also changed Muhidin Dahlan’s life. He was a kampung boy in Sulawesi’s remote area, who was curious about books, before he moved to Yogyakarta to become a writer and an activist in Indonesia Boekoe, a community known for its dedication in archive management, book publishing and establishing Radio Buku. His story is written in a book, Aku, Buku, dan Sepotong Sajak Cinta.
Unlike formal education institutions like schools, the success of reader communities is not measured quantitatively, like how many people have their access to books improved, or how large their book collection is. But the lack of impact in this area is dwarfed by their spirit, their effort to share the importance of books and the efforts to help others access books. Literacy, in this case, is not merely about reading materials and knowledge, but also about volunteer spirit.
The author is doing a research on literacy movement by communities in Yogyakarta, in Anthropology Department in Gadjah Mada University.