Indonesia’s Mobile Libraries: Bringing “Reading Virus” to Villages and Islands

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The box says: “Horse Library (of) Mount Slamet”

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In the late 1990s, Luis Soriano stacked books on the back of two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, and brought them to impoverished areas in Magdalena Province, Colombia. An elementary school teacher with degree in Spanish literature and huge love for books, Luis was inspired by a dedicated professor who visited his town twice a month when he was little. He also saw the powerful effect of reading on his students, who were not only from poor regions, but also had witnessed bloody conflicts in their fragile years. His mobile library, Biblio Burro (lit.”Donkey Library”), slowly added its collections through donations; from mere 70 books to more than 4,000 books. Although the activity experienced setback a few years ago because of an accident that required Luis’ leg to be amputated, he refuses to stop his mission in spreading the power of reading among poor children in his region. 

In Indonesia, the same story emerged about a year ago. Ridwan Sururi, a horse caretaker in Serang Village, Purbalingga, Central Java, started Kuda Pustaka (lit. “Horse Library”) in January 2015 as an effort to combine his love of books, horse, and local initative. With the help of his friend, Nirwan Arsuka, Ridwan decided to start a mobile library, and he got his first books from friends’ donations.

With help from Luna, his horse, and Indriani, his daughter, Ridwan makes round to local schools in his village, three times a week. He also makes several stops in areas where people can gather and read the books. He lets people reading for free, and allows them to borrow the books, just like in actual library; using a simple notebook as recording tool. At first, he mostly brought books for children, such as folklore, comics, history books, and popular science. Lately, he has added popular novels, magazines, cookbooks, farming books, and many others. According to him, farming-related books are huge hits among adults, since most of them are farmers. They use the books to help improving their works on crops, fish ponds, chicken coops, and cattle breeding.

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Ridwan said that people actually have huge interest in reading, but getting access to books is the main problem. His area does not have book store, and people cannot access books easily. Ridwan must ride motorbike to bigger town just to receive packages of donated books. Thankfully, his activities are getting more spotlight, especially since he regularly gives updates of his activities in his Facebook page, such as informing people whenever he gets donations (some donations from other countries have been starting to pour in). He has even started spreading his “reading virus” by putting books in local food stalls, so locals and tourists can read for free while waiting for their orders. He now operates his mobile library with three horses (although those horses are not his; Ridwan once voiced concern that his activities will be halted if the owner decides to sell his horses). His ultimate dream is to having his own permanent library.

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According to UNESCO , while Indonesia managed to reduce adult illiteracy numbers from 15.4 million to 6.7 million in just four years, illiteracy is still a serious problem, especially in remote areas. In Central Java Province, where Ridwan lives, there are about 977,000 illiterate adults. As you can see, any little help matters, including Ridwan’s efforts.

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Perahu Pustaka, the Boat Library

Around the same time with the birth of Kuda Pustaka, similar movement was initiated in South Sulawesi Province. In June 2015, Perahu Pustaka (lit. “Boat Library”) started its maiden voyage during Makassar International Writers Festival. Initiated by Muhammad Ridwan Alimuddin and Nirwan Arsuka (who also got the idea from Kuda Pustaka), the boat library was deemed more appropriate for the area. There are many small islands off the South Sulawesi coast where people, especially children, cannot get access to books, because bookstores are only available in big mainland towns.

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Another good reason to use boat is because of South Sulawesi’s maritime culture, which is renowned across Indonesia. The boat was built by traditional boat makers in Polewali Mandar. Muhammad, who has studied traditional boat and maritime culture in his area for 17 years, said that the boat is a traditional ba’go boat, with can sail to narrow waters without getting stranded easily. The boat was named Pattingalloang, taken from the name of a Gowa-Tallo prime minister from the 17th century, who was famous for his fondness of knowledge and reading. Most of the books carried by the boat are children’s books, although Perahu Pustaka keeps adding its collections. Just like Kuda Pustaka, Perahu Pustaka allows people to borrow the books, which they can return a week later when the boat comes back to make its round.

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This movement later inspired several other grassroot initiatives; Becak Pustaka (using pedicab), Motor Pustaka (using motorbike), and Bendi Pustaka (using horse-drawn carriage), with the goal of reaching small villages where access to books are scarce or even nonexistent. Not only spreading books, the mobile library initiatives are even starting to participate in cultural education. Muhammad, Nirwan, and their other friends have recently started a maritime museum and library called Nusa Pustaka. On 18 February 2016, the library invited David Van Reybrouck, a Belgian historian, as a guest speaker for discussion forum. They hope that these “reading virus” movements can grow bigger, and even inspire similar activities in other parts of Indonesia.

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