The UN’s education agency, Unesco, released an official statement in 2013 highlighting the fact that only 1 in 1,000 Indonesian people read books on a regular basis or for leisure. Photo by Nirwan.

The UN’s education agency, Unesco, released an official statement in 2013 highlighting the fact that only 1 in 1,000 Indonesian people read books on a regular basis or for leisure. Photo by Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka.


A recent report placed Indonesia 60th out of 61 countries in terms of interest in reading. The Central Connecticut State University study, “The World’s Most Literate Nation” put Finland in top spot, with Australia ranking 12th. The former minister of education and culture, Anies Baswedan, cited the study at a reading competition in August, prompting another round of hand-wringing in the Indonesian media over the low interest in reading in the country.


The news was certainly nothing new. Previous studies have long pointed out poor reading habits among Indonesian people. The UN’s education agency, Unesco, released an official statement in 2013 highlighting the fact that only 1 in 1,000 Indonesian people read books on a regular basis or for leisure.


Indonesia fares better for library infrastructure. The Central Connecticut State University study placed Indonesia equal 36th, ahead of even Germany, Portugal, New Zealand and South Korea. But while Indonesia might perform okay on library infrastructure, little has been done to make libraries interesting to visit. Collections are mostly old and dusty, and libraries do not hold regular events to engage with their communities. Most Indonesian families do not visit libraries for educational or recreational purposes and primary schools rarely make excursions to the local library.


In countries like Australia and Japan, among many others, local libraries function as community and social hubs. Parents can take their children to attend storytelling sessions or craft classes, and senior citizens can attend various short courses, activities and discussions.


In Scotland, whose capital, Edinburgh, was named Unesco’s first City of Literature, the government has partnered with hospitals to send storybooks to newborn babies to welcome them to the world. Scottish Book Trust, the nongovernmental organisation responsible for running the program, sends a book to babies at three months, and then again on their first birthday. The program was introduced seven years ago to boost reading habits.


The function of libraries has shifted – they are not merely repositories for books but have an important role to play in building and strengthening their local communities and encouraging curiosity and creativity in learning. This is yet to happen in Indonesia. But that does not mean nothing is being done to respond to the reading crisis. While the government seems largely content to let libraries decline, plenty of reading communities, educators and ordinary people have taken up the challenge.


Take Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka, for example. His Libraries in Motion (Pustaka Bergerak Indonesia) network is bringing books to children in small villages across the archipelago. The premise is simple. According to Nirwan, children need to be introduced to fun literature that can unleash their imaginations – not just books from the state approved curriculum, which are often the only reading materials available in more isolated regions.


One of the first people to partner with Nirwan was Ridwan Sururi, from Serang, on the slopes of Mt. Slamet in Central Java. With a horse named Luna, Sururi visits local schools, letting children read books and play with Luna before the school starts. When news about Sururi’s horse library went viral last year, others joined the movement.


One of these was Muhammad Ridwan Alimuddin, a marine researcher and activist in Tinambung, West Sulawesi. Ridwan has partnered with Nirwan to establish a boat library, named Pattingalloang, after a Bugis intellectual of the seventeenth century. It, too, blew up on social media. Books and donations flooded in, as people were touched by engaging photos of children in isolated coastal villages reading storybooks. Similar initiatives have now sprung up all over Indonesia, from a noken (Papuan traditional woven bag) library in Manokwari, Papua, to motorcycle libraries – even a tofu seller who doubles as a mobile library.


For the volunteers at Libraries in Motion, the latest data about poor reading habits was not a surprise. In cities and villages, children are more interested in playing with mobile phones and video games or watching television. In many cases these electronic devices are more accessible than storybooks. Even in areas where libraries are present, Libraries in Motion has focused on creative methods of community outreach. Mobile libraries transport books to places where the children and community usually gather – schoolyards, markets, public squares or mosques.  They aim to create a new and fun, yet educational, atmosphere in public spaces.


“Now, parents love to join their children,” Nirwan says. “At the beginning, they just came to touch the books, looking at the pictures, or picking up one or two old magazines. But now, they are staying longer, sitting down on the grass or by the beach, reading quietly.”


Indonesia doesn’t need ambitious dreams of becoming one of the world’s great literary nations. Culturally, Indonesians have a very strong oral tradition, and the country is not going to transform into a nation of bookworms overnight. What Indonesia does need, however, is to recognise that creativity and innovation are urgently needed to address the reading crisis. It shouldn’t just be left up to people like Nirwan and Ridwan.


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