At a recent discussion in Jakarta, novelist Ahmad Tohari lamented the poor standard of reading literacy among young Indonesians today. Author of The Dancer (which was published by Lontar as part of its Modern Library of Indonesia series), Tohari focused his attention on the reading habits of elementary school children but, sadly, this applies to older Indonesians as well. UNESCO’s Reading Index puts Indonesia at 0.001, meaning that only one in 1,000 Indonesians is considered to be a serious reader. The same survey also notes that in the organization’s 2015 list of “Most Literate Nations in the World,” Indonesia ranked 60 out of the 61 countries surveyed. The situation has improved somewhat since then and last year UNDP reported that Indonesia had succeeded in reducing its overall illiteracy rate. Nonetheless, major challenges remain to instilling better reading habits among Indonesians. This means making books more affordable, more accessible, and more attractive as a pastime.
In this, libraries are a key and in terms of library infrastructure, Indonesia is not doing too badly, but little is being done to attract people to make use of them. Collections are old and poorly catalogued and libraries have failed to hold regular events to engage with their communities. Elementary school teachers rarely take their pupils to public libraries as part of their education.
Lately, there has been a surge of interest in setting up smaller, community libraries as one way of motivating people and children to read. One exemplary project is the Pustaka Bergerak Indonesia (Libraries in Motion), pioneered by Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka. His network of volunteers brings books to children in small villages across the country. Aided by social media, the network has been flooded with donations of books. But sadly, they must compete with video games that are available on hand-held electronic devises—which are more accessible than story books and have become an integral part of an average child’s leisure time.
Another important element in heightening public awareness of books and their importance is literary festivals and book fairs. In this regard, one such event is the annual Makassar International Writers Festival. First established in 2011, this year’s festival hosted close to 70 writers, translators, and other literary activists. Another is the better-known Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, which has now been running for 16 years. And recently, we have seen festivals sprouting up in other regions as well: Banten, Banyuwangi, and elsewhere—including Jakarta which will host the first Jakarta International Literary Festival this coming August and “LitBeat,” a “literary action” festival which is scheduled to be held in September around the same time as the Jakarta International Book Fair.
Lontar is highly supportive of all these efforts and, like Ahmad Tohari, believes that a better future for Indonesia rests in getting all of the nation’s youth to take joy in reading and writing books.