In Norzin Lam, Chubachu, a small traditional cottage houses Thimphu’s Public Library.
Named the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck Public Library in memory of His Majesty the Third King of Bhutan, the library was established in 1978– and has barely changed, at least in the last 20 years.
The steel shelves, stacked with yellowed books that infuses the still air in the library with that glorious, old-book scent, are still the same shade of blue it was almost 20 years ago, and the contents of the shelves have not changed significantly either.
To borrow books from the library, one must be a member- there are now over 3,000 members, and over 70 percent of them are children. This is probably the most humble of city libraries in the world, and most certainly the cheapest. Annual membership costs only Nu. 25 for children and 50 for adults. First time members pay an extra 250 (children) or 500 (adults) as a security deposit, which is returned when someone decides to terminate their membership.
Children are restricted to the children’s section, which is proportionally large compared to the rest of the library- and is magical, as all children’s sections are. Perhaps bookstores boast of a much larger collection of children’s books, with much more well known titles, but this is the oasis of the practically unknown- the entire collection of Chalet School Series, by Elinor Brent- Dyer, or Just William by Richmal Crompton, for instance.
The library isn’t supposed to get rid of old books, but the cramped space means that new books won’t be on the shelves unless some of the older ones are sacrificed. The oldest, and least borrowed books are withdrawn and sold in an annual sale. That is how, over the years, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars have found space in the shelves, and lured young readers to the library.
The library has long had plans of expansion, which may finally culminate in a more impressive establishment in the next few years. The Royal University of Bhutan has given the library some space in its building, and the JDWPL will soon have an extended library there, with some of the newer books.
And soon, if the proposal to demolish the old structure and build a newer, bigger building to house the library is approved, Thimphu’s public library will be bigger in the coming years.
Still, small as it may be, the library has seen an increased membership this year, a phenomenon Tshering Phuntsho, a library staff, attributes to the National Reading Year. There are several members, mostly children, signing up every week, as opposed to barely one a week previously, he says.
The library has a few programmes to encourage reading.
Every Saturday, between 12:30 to 1:30, volunteers read books, or teach arts and crafts to children. Volunteers are mostly members of the ‘Friends of the Library’, a group that initiated this programme, but the library welcomes other volunteers to help out. Children don’t have to be registered to participate, and can just join in on Saturdays- there is no age limit for the participants.
A reading competition, which requires members to maintain reviews of the books they have borrowed and read, is currently underway. The winners will be those members who have finished reading maximum books, declared at the end of the year.
There used to be a mobile library on a bus that went to designated locations, and stopped for an hour to allow people to select a book and read, but the bus broke down and the programme has been on a hiatus. The bus has now been repaired, and the library plans to send it out again, to deliver typed delights to children across the city.
“Children who have been members of the library have done well. There have been many who topped in their class 10 and 12 exams,” Tshering Phuntsho says of the children members. “Our members are certainly avid readers.”