Community libraries in Indonesia: a survey of government-supported and independent reading gardens.

Author:Haklev, Stian


Indonesia is a country with over 240 million inhabitants and 16,000 islands, 8,000 of which are inhabited. After having been colonized by the Dutch for over four hundred years, the last fifty years has seen the country develop at a rapid pace. To promote equitable development and democracy in such a large and variegated country, spreading literacy and access to information is crucial. Uniquely, this is achieved through a combination of public libraries, private renting libraries, and a variety of free informal lending libraries or community libraries, also called reading gardens (Taman Bacaan).

There has been little written about the Indonesian reading gardens. Kamil (2003) and Priyanto (2006) have introduced the phenomenon, and Septiana (2007) has provided a detailed case study of a few community libraries, but none of these have made any attempt at surveying the amount of community libraries in different categories, or give an overview of the government's policy. Thus, this paper attempts to provide an "overview of the field" of community libraries in Indonesia, including rental libraries, independent community libraries, and government support and strategy. This is an initial exploratory study with many weaknesses, but it is believed that the data collected will still provide a valuable snapshot of the current community library movement in Indonesia.

Historical Background

The first library in Indonesia was the Batavian Kerkeraad, which was established in 1624, and only available to clergy. The Dutch colonial government gradually opened more libraries, including the Batava Association for Arts and Science library in 1778, which became a depository library for the Netherlands Indies, and would later go on to become the National Library of Indonesia (McGlynn 1998, p. 86). In 1864, the Free Masons began operating libraries to provide reading materials to less well-off Europeans, and the Catholic church also founded public reading rooms, so that by the beginning of the 20th century almost every larger city maintained an openbare leszaal (public library). However, these libraries were usually only available to Europeans, contained almost exclusively publications in European languages, and did not contribute much towards the literacy and information needs of the large indigenous population (ibid.).

However, going back as far as the official library history, Indonesia has a parallel history of informal libraries, book rental stores and other alternative distribution systems for books. In Jakarta, there is evidence of private renting libraries for hand-copied manuscripts operating between around 1790 to 1900, and with the advent of printing these were replaced with book rental libraries, often operated by Chinese immigrants to Jawa (Iskandar, 1981; Drewes, 1981). This is also the earliest recorded usage of the term "Taman Bacaan" or reading garden, which must have seemed much more inviting than "library" that would have been perceived as a colonial institution (Salmon, 1985). Renting libraries of various forms have persisted until our days, but in addition there were experiments with free reading gardens in the 1970's and 1980's, which ultimately formed the precursor to today's large wave of reading gardens (Menguji Idealisme, 2002; Septiana, 2007, p. 4-5). In addition, during all these upheavals, the original idea of fee-charging renting libraries, which have played such a crucial role through the history of the nation, and hark back a hundred years or more, is still in operation.

During this period, the government has also participated actively. During the beginning of the 19th Century, the "Ethical Policy" led the Dutch colonial government to begin introducing primary education for non-Europans (Tjoen, 1966). At this time, they also developed the Balai Pustaka as a publisher of literature in Indonesian languages, and set up several thousand "people's libraries"; 3x3 meter cupboards which would be located in classrooms, hospitals or baracks to distribute Balai Pustaka approved literature (ibid. ; Drewes, 1961, Freidus, 1977). After independence, the Indonesian government began another large-scale project to create "people's libraries" in 16,000 villages using volunteer librarians (Hadi, 1956). This project soon faltered due to a shortage of fund, and political instability, but something similar would be tried again later (Anuar, 1983).

Beginning in 1992, the government wanted to provide reading material for new literates to help them keep and improve their literacy, and avoid relapse. To achieve this, it began creating village "community reading gardens" (Direktori TBM Tahun 2007, 2007). Numbers are unclear, but they might have created as many as 7,000 of these centers, which mainly offered access to government propaganda, and were never properly embraced by the communities (Suryadi, cited in Bella, 2007; 5.500 TBM Terbengkalai, 2006). Once again, the project did not last long until support ended due to the Asian financial crisis, and political instability (Menguji Idealisme, 2002).

The year 1998, when the Suharto regime fell and Indonesia became a democracy, was a watershed in Indonesian history. This opened up for a rapid growth in NGOs and voluntary associations, and after 2001, led to a new wave of free independent lending libraries, which re-use the old term "reading garden". After a few years, the government decided to begin contributing financially to this development, and the Ministry of Education released their strategy on how to support independent reading gardens.


I lived in Indonesia from 2006-2007, and participated in one Book Day event at the Ministry of Education where many community libraries participated. I also made a field visit to one community library, as well as several public libraries in Jakarta and Jogjakarta. Because there is so little research published in this field, and documents are frequently not online, or difficult to access, a number of research methods had to be employed to gather data. Since there is no exhaustive list of reading gardens, I have used two sources: the government statistics covering only the reading gardens that have received government support, and a list of 1001 Buku members. 1001 Buku is an NGO that collects and distributes books to independent reading gardens, and it will be apparent later that their members are statistically very different from the community reading gardens that receive subvention from the government.

Communication with informants

I have communicated with a large number of people who are active in community libraries, library networks, research, and the government. My initial contacts put me in touch with some that were helpful, and I also found others through their academic writings or their blogs. Almost without fail they have been incredibly helpful, trying to answer my questions, and crucially supplying me with documentation and information that could not be readily found on the Internet. I have shared my theories with them, and as my understanding has developed, my questions have changed and become more specific. This is similar to the approach that O'Brien (2006) used in his fieldwork in China, where he would test his developing arguments directly on his interviewees.

Newspaper and other articles

Because of the paucity of sources, I have used newspaper articles frequently. Even this has not been uncomplicated: some newspapers do not publish their articles online without passwords (which can only be gotten through the use of an Indonesian cell phone account), others take articles down or restructure their websites so that even internal links are broken. I am indebted to the many mailing lists and blogs that republish articles regarding libraries and reading gardens, some of them even creating extensive clipping archives (a great example is "Kliping Mengenai reading garden" at I would rather have taken the articles directly from newspaper websites, and have attempted to locate them, in some cases even using's WayBack Machinese ( and Google's cache function (, however at every single instance where I have found the original source, it has been identical to the one reposted on blogs and mailing lists, and I believe that the articles reproduced on blogs and mailing lists are mostly very faithful to the original.


It is important to gather more data on reading gardens in Indonesia, since many questions about topics such as the efficacy of government programs, factors that are conducive or not to the establishment and success of a reading garden, and others can only be answered in this way. Conducting a large-scale survey was not feasible in the time frame of this research, but as an initial attempt at collecting some useful data, a survey was conducted among reading gardens that are in the 1001 Buku network. I obtained from 1001 Buku a database of libraries in their network located in the greater Jakarta area, and a research assistant in Jakarta assisted with calling the contact persons. Out of a total of 98 reading gardens contacted, 11 were unreachable, and four did not want to answer the questions, leaving a response rate of 84%. In most cases, initial contact was established through the phone, and answers to our questions were later returned through e-mail.

Renting Libraries Today

I will begin by discussing the renting libraries that still exist, then talk about the various autonomous reading gardens, and finish by discussing the government support and government statistics. From the historical overview, I have shown how the name "reading garden" was first applied to for-profit stores that rented out books, and how this has developed into free lending libraries. However, renting libraries still exist, although probably a lot fewer in number than in their heydays. There are very few written...

To continue reading