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By Dzhumaguly Annayev
ASHGABAT – At the start of his first term in office in 2007, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov heralded a national rebirth and great change – to be marked by, among other things, re-opening libraries that his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov deemed redundant.
“Of the changes … in the past five years, I welcome the re-opening of libraries the most, and I am glad to be engaged in my favourite work again after five years of idleness,” Ogulnabat Atagarriyeva, a librarian from the Bakharly District of Akhal Oblast, said.
In March 2005, Niyazov closed all village and district libraries, leaving only a few in the capital, oblast capitals and universities. “No one ever goes to libraries anyway,” Niyazov said to explain his decision at the time.
“That was a real outrage,” Atagarriyeva recalled. “Hundreds of libraries were closed, with their staffs fired and some of the books destroyed, others lost.” By early 2007, only 89 libraries – less than a tenth of the original total – remained in the country.
Architectural rebirth of libraries
In the past five years, the number of open libraries has grown threefold, reaching 274 by January. A total of 140 public libraries, 117 district libraries and 17 city libraries in Tedzhen, Serdar and Köneürgenç operate today, Merdzhen Kabulova of the analytical and forecasting unit at Turkmenistan’s State Statistics Committee, told Central Asia Online.
“Libraries have opened also in new districts ... in Dashoguz, Mary and Lebap oblasts,” she added.
In addition to re-opened libraries, many new ones – about 20% of today’s 274 – have been built from scratch, “looking as grand as some world-class luxury hotels,” Kakadzhan T., a Culture Ministry official, said.
“One such library worth US $36.4m (104.1m TMT), with a storage capacity of 3m books, six reading rooms for 600 readers, and computer rooms with access to the internet will open in the city of Mary shortly,” he said.
The National Library of Turkmenistan, which cost the government US $75m (214.6m TMT) to build, “overshadows all the rest,” freelance journalist Maksat Gurbanov of Ashgabat said.
This library, decorated with expensive marble, is called the only one of its kind in Central Asia in terms of architectural grandeur, interior luxury and level of equipment.
“We can serve 1,100 readers and have storage capacity for almost 5m books,” librarian Ogultach Kerimova said.
Some improvements remain undone, some users said.
“However beautiful they may look inside, those libraries don’t have many interesting books,” university student Adilya, from Ashgabat, said.
Many libraries, few readers
All the libraries face the same problem – a lack of readers. Gurbanov blames this on Niyazov, who, by reducing the number of libraries to a minimum, further undermined interest in reading.
Kerimova and her colleagues are glad to have 20 visitors a day to their library. The library saw at least 500 visitors a day before.
“Niyazov did much harm by closing libraries, but he is not alone to blame,” she said. As in much of the developed world, television and the internet have become popular sources of news and information, she said.
Only 2% of the population has internet access in Turkmenistan, but almost all Turkmens have satellite dishes to pull in Russian, Turkish and other TV broadcasts, independent analysts say.
Although large library buildings are now in place, they have few books to offer, Nurmuhammed K. of Abadan said.
The number of book titles annually released in the country shrank from 759 in 1990 to 221 in 2010, according to the Statistics Committee. Most of those releases are textbooks, although “the inventory of books is annually replenished with works by our esteemed president,” Kerimova said.
Maisa, a third-year student at the International Relations Institute, attributed the lack of readers at Turkmen libraries to the unavailability of foreign-language volumes.
“They have all the reading conveniences but no books in English, German or French that I need, so I prefer to browse for these on the internet,” she said. Still, the libraries offer a sufficiently wide choice of books, a Magtymguly Bairamgeldy University student contended.
“There are many classical books – in Turkmen, as well as in Russian and other foreign languages; people are just too lazy to go to the library,” he said.