The two brothers who could not enter the Bibliotheca Alexandrina – This story is a poignant one, because free access to libraries, which is a given in Singapore, has always been a fabric of our growing up years. Be it the glass, sleek-looking walls of the Central Public Library in Bugis, or community libraries in the heartlands, anyone and everyone could enter a library. To borrow books, all was required was one’s student pass or identification card.
At the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, we had to buy tickets to enter. It was €75 (SGD15) for an adult ticket, and €5 (SGD1) for a student one. The €5 applied to Egyptian nationals. (I was slightly taken aback by the price disparity).
But what I didn’t realise was the fact that there were two siblings ahead of us in the line, who wanted to get in. I’ve to admit that I was feeling very impatient standing at the back, wondering what was the delay that was going on.
Alas, the older brother had only a €5 note with him, and was told firmly by the ticket collector that they could not enter, because they were missing another €5 (SGD1). Now Friend S wanted very much to help them out, but they had left by then.
I was suddenly reminded of how beggar-kids were not allowed in shopping malls in India. I can understand the rationale, because they would harass the patrons of the malls, asking for money. Or litter or dirty the place.
Therefore, it was my view that the reason why there was a cost to the library, was to put off children who could not afford it, and these children tend to misbehave in libraries. When I think of the rowdy children at the Pyramids of Giza, I think the management would probably not want them to be running around in Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
The pricing mechanism was also built-in to ensure that kids who entered had parental supervision, and therefore, a price was required of them. Life is not fair. But what I always had trouble understanding why can’t beggar-kids in India behave in a civil manner. It’s one thing to be in a sad situation, it’s another to demand that someone give you alms. It’s not respecting yourself or the other person.
I digress. Unfortunately, this library was not built as a place for the average Egyptian to spend his weekend, reading. It was not built for the average Egyptian to spend his time reading with her children. One visits the Bibliotheca Alexandrina for the architecture, for the viewing of art pieces and for using the toilet. (The toilets are really nice here!)
Students and academics are perhaps the parties that could stand to benefit from this library, which is said to house the largest collection of French books in the Middle East and Africa. When we visited the library, it was only 30% occupied. Unlike the public libraries in Melbourne which had free admission to the public, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was a lot emptier. In fact, I could hear the library staff seated at one end of the library, talking in muffled voices. Each time someone returns a book, they would get up and put it back.
As for the brothers who wanted to enter the library, I’d say that it’s not so much about the entrance fee to this grand building, but it is important to ensure that these kids be granted free access to books at this age. It doesn’t have to be in such a grand building like the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, but it could be in the form of community libraries we have in Singapore.
Literacy and language capabilities aside, every child should be able to experience the intense happiness Charlie feels when he finds the Golden Ticket in Roald Dahl’s famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, wander down the secret dungeons of Hogwarts with Harry Potter or take comfort in the solitude of The Little Prince.