Impact Journalism Day 2016

Baku Project Proves One for the Books

A mini-library in the Azerbaijan capital encourages everyone to pick up a book, even if they never return it.

Public Bookcase curator Zeynab Jahan standing next to Baku’s latest, unlikely tourist attraction.
Public Bookcase curator Zeynab Jahan standing next to Baku’s latest, unlikely tourist attraction. Courtesy

Lemony Snicket (the pen name of children’s author Daniel Handler) described his idea of a good library when he wrote, “A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them.”

And there’s definitely no need to be concerned about dust at a special, open-air books project in Baku. There, in the historic and picturesque Icheri Sheher (Old City), you’ll find the “Public Bookcase” project, which attracts people in search of a good book and the chance to delve into the world of printed knowledge.

The Bookcase has actually become something of a landmark in the Azerbaijan capital, even being seen as an unlikely tourist attraction.

Since it was set up in 2013, this Book Club-with-a-difference has featured many Azeri publications, as well as some foreign literature.

The organizers had one goal in mind with their project: to provide everyone with the opportunity to take one or more of the books for their own use, or exchange them for another book. Or, as the project’s motto puts it, “Take a book, leave a book.”

The Azerbaijan Youth Foundation, Azerbaijani Student Network and Global Shapers Community Baku are behind this simple initiative, whose idea originated in Europe.

It’s a unique opportunity for bibliophiles to exchange the books they’ve read, with users seemingly happy to drop finished books off for others to take and read.

This free-for-all outdoors mini-library is designed to serve everyone, irrespective of age or education. It’s open all hours of the day, come rain or shine. No registration or documents are needed to use the service, and no restrictions are placed when you take out a book.

All the organizers ask is that the public uses the facility with respect for the books and other users.

Noble tradition

Zeynab Jahan, the 25-year-old curator of the Bookcase project, says it’s “necessary for Azerbaijani people, who are so fond of reading.”

The organizers say the project supports the noble tradition of bringing reading to life and inspiring youngsters to pick up a book.

Furthermore, this idea strengthens the culture of reading and actually aids society, since it encourages people to meet while exchanging their favorite books. By seeking access to books, people will step outside their closed circle of family and friends, and interact more freely, organizers hope and believe.

“In some ways, the book-exchange process unites the citizens, as people leave notes in books and in the margins,” says Jahan. The most remarkable thing is that “99 percent of the books” in the library have been left by other people, she adds.

Moreover, the Bookcase offers a convenient solution for the many people who feel guilty about throwing books away when they no longer have room for them, or have exhausted their interest in them.

“Most of the books [we display] have become superfluous in the house of their owner. But the key point is that one person’s redundant book can become an essential one for another reader,” says Jahan.

The Bookcase not only encourages young people to read; it also fights for books’ right to exist and be reprinted. The project is also fighting back against the prevailing culture, given the increased use of tablet computers and e-readers.

Generation to generation

Another purpose of the project is to protect the honorable place books have in our daily life, and preserve their right to pass from generation to generation.

The Bookcase is also unusual in another respect. “We don’t count missing books,” says Jahan. “On the contrary: we actually celebrate when we notice the shortage of books – it means that people cannot bear to part with them.”

For now, the project is the only one of its kind in Azerbaijan and is regarded as a test case. What’s clear, though, is that local residents are fans of the concept. Jahan says that they have received many requests to see a second Bookcase, to the delight of the organizers.

Indeed, the organizers are working on expanding the project to other regions. Along with a plan to open a second Bookcase in the capital, they are also keen to open other mini-libraries elsewhere in Azerbaijan – for instance, in ancient Ganja.

“That will be an excellent chance for books to find their readers as well,” the organizers say.

This article first appeared in Azerbaijani daily AzerNews.