Moinuddin Khan: The PIIA Library

The specialist library of The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA) is committed to maintain a living, updated and balanced collection of original books, official documents, research journals and related files of independent national and foreign newspapers and to exploit its resources for an objective study of international affairs.

After the dissolution of The Indian Institute of International Affairs at New Delhi in 1947 and the subsequent painful division of India, the collection of books and other material belonging to The Indian Institute of International Affairs was shifted lock, stock and barrel to Karachi by Khwaja Sarwar Hasan and was accommodated in a building in Intelligence School, Queen’s Road, Karachi. This corpus of books, though damaged in transit, constituted the very bedrock of the initial stock of the PIIA which surely but steadily grew in depth and breadth. Memorably, when the ground floor of the pink landmark present-day building of the Institute at the junction of Havelock and Strachan Roads (now Aiwan-i-Sadar Road and Deen Muhammad Wafai Road) was ready for occupation, the library was set up in the hall on the ground floor opening on Strachan Road.

After some time, when the façade, first and second floors of the building were completed, the library was finally moved to its present location, which was then considered to be quite spacious. It was at this point of time, in the mid-1960s, that I joined the Institute as librarian after completing nine years’ service in the Royal Air Force/Pakistan Air Force as Teacher Librarian. I stayed at the Institute until mid-1970 when I went to the University of Sindh as deputy university librarian.

Internal relocation

The collection was finally moved from the ground floor to its dedicated space on the second and third floors of the same building. Open wooden shelves of about 8 feet high were erected along the walls on the three sides of the hall on the second floor. Architecturally, the slight curvature in the middle, bounded by two side walls, provided the enclosed space for the library.

Overlooking the open space was the upstairs balcony all around the top floor and the walk-in area protected by banisters. Fortunately, the load-bearing terrace in the centre had enough elbow room to hold in place deep and oversized wooden shelves to house heavy bound volumes of periodicals and newspapers. Ideally, books were thus separated from serial publications. Whereas books were classified subject-wise and in the main hall and periodicals were stocked in the balcony date-wise and alphabetically according to their titles ignoring articles a, an and the.

In this operation of arranging and rearranging the material in same workable order, the elderly librarian was a source of strength. He knew the serviceable copies of 3,615 volumes that were brought from India and several later additions like the back of his hand. He had managed them all carefully. After a couple of years, he died in harness. His spade work was highly appreciated by the authorities.

Concept of international relations

In the early 1960s, social scientists and academia identified quite a few independent disciplines within the dispersed subject matter of the social sciences. Across the Atlantic, international relations was distinguished from political science as an object of serious study. Though the PIIA was patterned after the traditional Royal Institute of International Affairs, yet the profound impact of An American Social Science: International Relations was far-reaching. As per the library mission, the growing literature to help support the objective study of present day excitements had to be accessible under one roof. This one-window operation of collecting and organizing material which is scattered and its selection bred its difficulties. Resources from the two worlds – America and Europe – were to be tapped. It was felt that there ought to be a comprehensive international relations collection of books and print media, within reach.

My background of graduate study of political science was helpful to a certain extent. The rising field of international relations being inter-disciplinary, the library had to present a synoptic view of accumulated material on a particular area for research. For me, the ground was fallow and the challenge daunting. Though equipped with training in the art and science of librarianship, yet it was not possible for me to act off my own bat.

I had to turn to available knowledgeable sources for guidance. I first turned to L. A. Sherwani, Deputy Secretary, who represented the owner’s and scholar’s point of view. He encouraged me to arrange and rearrange the stock in the light of newly developed library science methodology but at the same time extended a warning not to hide books and that they should be at one place where we want them.

The second source I approached was the librarian of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Her reply was rather evasive. Most probably, she arranged the material according to some home-made scheme but she emphatically stated that the undertaking should be scholar-friendly.

In the last resort, I corresponded with the late Nur Ellahi, librarian of the Punjab Public Library. Incidentally, Nur Ellahi and L. A. Sherwani were from the same Delhi University. Nur Ellahi was my teacher at the Punjab University (1952-1958) when I attended the Certification in Librarianship course. His letter dated 20 September 1960 is still in my possession wherein he laid down the guidelines for a specialist library: “I would advise you to adopt the Dewey Decimal Classification. This is universal and moreover you are conversant with it. All these documents should be geographically subdivided” was his directive.

Reorganization and rejuvenation

Armed with the advice of my late lamented teacher, I chalked out the plan to arrange the existing collection geographically. Within the area, books on countries were sub-divided by subject to present a representative collection of material covering all aspects of an area kept at one place.


Politics & government in Pakistan 320
Study of sociology in Pakistan 360
Scientific research in Pakistan 500
Pakistan folk Lore 700
Economic issues at the time of Pakistan 330

Accordingly, all books and literature pertaining to Pakistan were sub-divided by subject. Pakistan’s geographical DS number was put in covered brackets and the subject number beneath it.

To arrive at this numbering on the spine and their shelving together, much took place behind the scene. An accession register has to have all the books entered date-wise as per their arrival. Catalogue cards have to be prepared. All this nitty-gritty needed supervision and guiding manuals for constant reference at hand.

The then present staff could not undertake this monumental task within a predetermined time frame. Negotiations were started with an international aid giving agency, particularly one interested in library development in Pakistan. The matter was finalized with the Asia Foundation. They provided funds for technical staff to be engaged to complete classification and cataloguing of the stock within the stipulated time. The Asia Foundation provided stationery and equipment for the library such as a small catalogue cabinet, bookends, shelf label holders and styles for marking on the spine. With all this paraphernalia, the open shelf library of wooden racks presented a picturesque background and a friendly ambience. It was very much on the map and second to none as a specialist library.

Demand for library services

The daily number of visitors and scholars phenomenally increased. The library hours were increased and a second shift had to be introduced. The library was kept open for 12 hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

During my tenure, two scholars from the Australian National University were attached to the library for quite some time. An Indian scholar had also visited on the recommendation of A. K. Brohi, who was our High Commissioner in New Delhi.

In short, the Institute’s library had come of age and had gained national and international status. The Institute emerged as the leading research entity strengthened by its living resources in man and material. In the meantime, in the mid-1960s or thereabouts, the University of Karachi opened its post-graduate department of international relations under the leadership of Khurshid Hyder, who approached the Institute’s authorities to allow the students of her department to enjoy access to the source material in our library. Not only did the students benefit from the library but also directly or indirectly this cooperation raised our standing in academia.

There was yet another academic undertaking, the evening diploma classes in international affairs that enhanced the use of the library. Though this activity was short-lived, the library’s support was tangible.

UN documents & newspapers clippings

The Institute’s library was designated as a UN Depository. Day in and day out, loose sheets of documents from the Security Council and other UN organs were received and they were filed as per global standards. Their arrangement and servicing, without fear of contradiction, were second to none. These could be reached instantly as our holdings were exemplary.

Another service of this specialist library was the cut and paste newspaper clipping files. The Deputy Secretary would mark every day from English dailies Dawn, Pakistan Times, Morning News, Karachi and Dacca editions. These cuttings were pasted on loose sheets, which were punched and held in place date-wise within folder files. These files of manageable thickness could be referred to easily though bound files of Dawn were also maintained. These clipping folders were arranged schematically and could be made available to research officers or visiting scholars at the drop of the hat. Year after year, these files grew in number and had to be shifted from the library hall to make room for current ones. A young boy, Sadiq, ran this service single-handed and I encouraged him to sit for his matriculation examination.

Librarian’s role

In the hierarchy, I reported to the Deputy Secretary for administrative matters and to the Secretary for the research and publication projects. The Secretary would invariably call me when he briefed research officers for their quarterly assignments or articles to be published in the forthcoming issues of Pakistan Horizon. I was required to get together material and research literature on assigned topics. It was part of my duty to be present at the meetings, speeches and discussions taking place in the library hall in the evening after office hours. I had to supervise the seating arrangement for such programmes.

With the consolidation of library operations, development of the collection in depth and breadth and administration control, I used to submit my annual report to the Secretary. The report provided statistics pertaining to the number of visitors and research queries attended to. It covered the whole gamut of a specialist library’s research functions. It was gratifying to note that the Secretary would invariably incorporate its salient points in his annual report to be presented at the Annual General Meeting of the Institute.

The overall environment of the Institute in general and the library in particular was conducive to concentrated work, barring the increasing traffic noise from the street outside. There was high regard for the research officers by their superiors. I enjoyed a good understanding with the research officers who were equally courteous. Discipline and courtesy marked our daily routine.

Rare books collection

Rare books lend a distinctive character to any organization. Their collection not only satisfies the possessive instinct of its owner but also reveals the choice of a discerning collector. The late Secretary, Khwaja Sarwar Hasan, looked around for rare and out of print books and material related to the subcontinent’s early 20th century and the renaissance of Indian Muslims. He was himself a witness to this historical period. Bound files of Comrade and Hamdard were purchased. He also sent me to Hyderabad in response to a notice in the press that a particular gentleman there had cuttings and clippings of speeches of Muslim leaders. I failed to settle the deal. Khwaja Sahib used to invariably talk about a particular book, A Speech. Kemal Ataturk had delivered this speech for 48 hours in the Turkish Assembly. It was a German edition translated into English. Khwaja Sahib would often relate the episodes behind the acquisition of each rare item in the possession of the Institute. All this treasure trove was kept in the librarian’s room in the absence of a strong room.

Relinquishing charge

In July 1970, I was offered the post of deputy librarian at the University of Sindh. I accepted the challenge to upgrade a university library and to shift it to its purpose built premises across the Indus. When I left the Institute, its library was a going concern. Its use by Karachi University students of the international relations department and area studies was on the increase. The collection touched 20, 000 volumes and about 100 journals were on the exchange and subscription list. The research and publication programmes were well established. The library was considered to be the best in the country for its resources to analyze foreign policy and issues in international relations.

I had contributed my best and my departure from the scene was inevitable because of my instinct for adventure to help raise library standards in the country. Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) believed that books were forever, so does any librarian worth his salt. My ten years’ stay at the Institute was mutually beneficial. I was enriched in experience and my pragmatic approach to library issues was strengthened.

Moinuddin Khan is a former librarian of the PIIA, check out our Library Blog and our Pakistan Horizon Journal publication list.  

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Filed under Discussion, India, Karachi, Pakistan, Pakistan Horizon, Partition, PIIA, Sarwar Hasan

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