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Academy of Letters: a militant form of library

Part 2 Project 2013
Ihsan Hassan
University of Malaya Kuala Lumpur Malaysia
Why do so few people read? What is the impact of this illiteracy towards democracy? The project begins with a set of research questions which encompasses a wide range of fields. In initiating the inquiry, a book was chosen as a point of departure – a 17th-century Malayo-Javanese romance called Hikayat Panji Semirang was deconstructed as a sort of experimental performance, revealing layers of themes to show how literature unearths interesting facts about the worldview of society and not simply beautiful compositions. The hikayat is a great object to experiment with as it exudes a sophistication largely lost in contemporary Malaysian society, especially its blasé treatment of homosexuality and the free melding of Hindu-Buddhist heritage with Islamic traditions. The same process was also used to analyse the site.

Malaysian reading culture as reported by the National Library is sorrowful (in 1997 an average of two pages a year) and is evident in its equally sorrowful centres of learning. Much of its politics of sex tapes and corruption can also be traced back to the lack of reading among the general public who ignore much of real issues in society.

Building more libraries may not be the solution, and in fact a grassroots initiative called Buku Jalanan provided a basis for a model that was then expanded by the design thesis project. They started a street libraries where books are lent with no bureaucracy and for free. Its success lies in its subversion of the idea of a “library”. The library is no longer the passive repository of books for ivory towers and intellectuals but rather a form of activism that takes books out into public spaces and curate them to encourage passer-bys to take up a book.

This is how the project takes its form. It follows the Buku Jalanan model but expands it to work as a full-fledged civic library. In doing so, a mechanised library system is needed so that the librarians become active members of society freed from the drudgery of book sorting to become activists as well curators for a literary and free society.

Ihsan Hassan


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