Meet The Woman Who Used Social Media To Build Free Libraries In KL

How one woman set in motion a movement for Malaysia's first train station library

It's rush hour at the Ampang Park LRT station. I walk towards the exit leading out to the Intercontinental hotel. There, in the corner of the station, is the Books On The Move Library.

People rush pass the library taking curious glances at the three diesel barrels upcycled into bookshelves; blue, red, yellow, the colours of Malaysia. 

LRT Ampang Park library
The library in Ampang Park LRT

As I stand there browsing the books on display, a commuter approaches with a bag. She fishes two books out of her bag and places them on the shelf. Both novels, both bearing the BOTM sticker.

It reads, "#TakeReadReturn" along with addresses for BOTM's various social media channels. The library was already in use, barely a week after it was complete. 

On the shelf, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight mingles with Salvador Dali's Hidden Faces. I wonder for a moment if the books in the library were curated. Then I wonder who places the stickers on all the books. I also notice only four of six shelves had books in them.

The idea of a free public library running on trust in the public alone didn't sit well with the cynic in me, yet here it was, books free for the taking – and the returning. 

This library, named Circles of Unity, is also an art installation with a quote by Malaysian author Tan Tuan Eng

I meet Carol, the founder of Books On The Move Malaysia here. She has a large grey bag around one shoulder and a handbag in the other. We exchange pleasantries and she proceeds to check the books on the shelves.

She tells me all the shelves were full in the beginning and now they're sparse. I tell her someone dropped off two books and she smiles, happy that the library is being put to use. 

"I'm checking every library every day to see if there's enough books. I thought I could do it just once a week, but I've been coming here every day since last week," she says.

I ask her if it's her full-time job; it's not. On top of her regular day job, she takes time out of her day to visit the library. Well, if we're being pedantic, she's taken hours out of her day, days out of her weekends, and a year out of her life to make reading available to all, one train station at a time. 

Social Media On The Move

Some of you may remember this video of Hermione Emma Watson hiding books in the New York subway in 2017. What you may not know is that she had similarly hid books in the London Underground as part of the Books on the Underground (BOTU) movement in 2016 to promote feminism.

The BOTU movement subsequently evolved into the Books on the Move (BOTM) movement that promotes reading in public transports around the globe which now has over 20 branches in 14 countries. 

Carol tells us that she was inspired by the video of Emma Watson hiding books in the London Underground and thought that Malaysians needed this. The name was also inspired by the Arts on the Move initiative by Think City and Rapid KL who wanted to revitalise public spaces with arts and culture. 

The first three train stations that have the public library are: Ampang Park, Pasar Seni, and KL Sentral. In both Ampang Park and KL Sentral station, the library is located within the gates (you don't have to tag out of the station) but at Pasar Seni, you have to tag out of the station. All three have been uniquely designed using recycled materials and are art pieces in their own right. 

As a passion project, Carol could only do so much. After first getting the green light from BOTM Global, she proceeded to print the first batch of stickers. Social media played a role even in picking out the design of the sticker at this point.

"From the beginning, I started with social media channels and I printed lots of stickers that said 'FREE BOOKS ON THE MOVE' and I distributed the stickers to volunteers and to people who were interested to share their books.

"I call them book ninjas: they get the stickers, put it on books and hide their books somewhere; in a cafe or train station and share the photo of the hidden book online. Then we used the hashtag #takereadreturn to keep the movement going," says Carol. 

Using the hashtag, Carol was able to track what books had been donated, and what books had been found by happy readers around Malaysia. From Kota Kinabalu to Penang, her little sticker and the hashtag was making its rounds, and a small community of book lovers was rallying around her. 

At this time, Carol was not only printing the stickers; she was receiving book donations, tagging them, hiding them, and also planning the next phase for BOTM all on her own.

She wanted a book swap area in train stations, but as a non-profit, she couldn't rely on her money alone to get the project off the ground. A few sponsors had helped her with the cost of printing the stickers along the way, one being CzipLee who printed the first few batches of stickers, and KAMI Design Co who designed the second batch of stickers and changed the format of the stickers from a circle to a square. 

Carol suspects that her online movement is now responsible for at least 1,000 books out in the wild ready to be found. 

Teamwork Makes The Dream Work 

Pasar Seni
The Pasar Seni Library is the only outdoor library open to the public.

In July 2017, Carol applied for a grant from Think City, an organisation that has worked on rejuvenation projects in cities across Malaysia.

If you've been to Art Printing Works in Bangsar, you would have noticed pockets of parks around the campus. That was a collaboration with Think City as a part of Projek Poket Pokok

"I do realise that to do something of this scale, I really needed to pull in different partners, not just industrial partners, but people like Think City who are experienced in urban regeneration. So they helped me in terms of an advisory role to tell me what they think will work and what won't and also getting the community involved.

"So I'll say [my role is that] I'm driving the project and driving different parts of the community to be part of it. So that it eventually will become a project by the community for the community," says Carol. 

After securing the seed fund and support from Think City, the project moved on to prototyping of the library.

"We started doing lots of workshops with students to get students involved in the design."

students names
All three libraries have all the names of the students involved in building them

She got in touch with Biji Biji to be a partner for the project. Biji Biji is a social enterprise with a mission of reducing waste – that's why all of the libraries were designed using recycled materials.

But to take it further, and involve the community, Carol had to get Youth Made Malaysia and the Malaysian Institue of Art on board. YMM is part of Youth Made Initiative whose mission is to bring creativity and practical skills to students while MIA is a non-profit organisation that trains creative professionals. 

Students from a number of partner schools volunteered their weekends to attend design workshops hosted at a partner company, ME.REKA Makerspace (Who are also partnering with BOTM to collect and sort books). 

Students worked in groups to visualise their ideas using a range of different methods including sketching and scale models, whilst understanding more about the design process and issues of sustainability.

Their ideas and prototypes were later showcased at the World Urban Forum in KL that was held earlier this year. You'll recall that the WUF9 was the reason why the blue bicycle lanes were implemented. 

"Once we had the prototypes, we brought the prototypes to different events and festivals just to promote the campaign and crowdsource opinions on the movement," Carol says.

This meant lots of weekends tied to the library for Carol. If you are the festival loving type you would have seen them in Riuh in the city at APW sometime in the last year. 

Now that she had the right partners and the right design for the library, Carol needed to find a space to actually build the library – and train station real estate doesn't come cheap. 

The Library On The Move

KL Sentral LRT
The library at KL Sentral brings together the old and the new

Carol had to get in the good books of Prasarana, the government-linked company that runs public transportation in Malaysia, to acquire spaces in three train stations: Ampang Park, Pasar Seni, and KL Sentral.

Together with Think City, Carol was able to obtain the spaces for six months. And construction began early August 2018, almost a year after she first birthed the idea of a book swap area in train stations. 

"I have always been very passionate about cities. I grew up in the city and work in the city and I felt that there's this vibe to the city that is so lively. So I was always thinking 'How can I do a project that could also contribute to that?'" says Carol. 

"Personally, I commute to the city every day to work and I just felt like it would be so nice if there were things going on like Books On The Move that would inspire me to want to wake up in the morning to go all the way to the city to work – not just going to work every day but on the way, there would be something interesting as well to see.

"These past two days I've been going to the library a lot to check and observe and I've been overhearing lots of conversations from people who drop by. They talk about reading and books and I'm really happy to hear that. Without this [the library], we would probably be talking about other things and not books. 
"But I'm so happy to hear things like 'Do you have a favourite book?' as they walk by. So that kind of thing is important to create awareness around reading," she adds.

Coincidentally, there is a campaign by Education Minister Dr. Maszlee Malik with the hashtag #MalaysiaMembaca. On his Instagram page, Dr. Maszlee shares his top 10 books and encourages other readers to do the same with the hashtag. The plans are to turn Malaysia into a reading nation by 2030.

An Open Book 

not for sale book
Each book is stamped with a "NOT FOR SALE" sign

I mentioned earlier my cynicism regarding a free public library in Malaysia. As you know, there are many reasons why Malaysians can't have nice things. Just look at public toilets, playgrounds, and community halls. There is a collective apathy and irreverence in our culture that is hard to break. Already an announcement was made on @booksonthemove that certain rules had to be implemented to make the library sustainable. 

With that in mind, I asked her about the driving force behind the movement. Why is it so important for people to pick up reading? Why push back against a culture that is often irresponsible in treating public spaces? 

"I started reading from a very young age. My parents used to bring me to the library every weekend. So I guess that made me a 'nerd' since young. As I grew older I started reading more 'serious' genres, and I started reading books by Middle Eastern women who were suppressed. I read about their experience and it really gave me a different perspective and I think at different stages of my life, through the books that I read, it shaped me into who I am today. 
"During my teenage years when I started reading books about gender inequality, it made me a stronger woman. I started feeling like a person who should voice out her opinions; I felt like I should be in a leading role more despite being a woman. [Reading] kind of instilled that kind of thinking in me. And because I feel like I benifited from reading so much, I really hope that more Malaysians especially, will see that the benefits of reading is so much more than just language, but it's about opening up your mind to new ideas. So I hope through these activities, we can change our culture somehow," she says. 
Change our culture to what?
"To be more open in terms of reading. I think you've probably realised that Malaysians don't read much. We shop for books quite a lot but in terms of reading, we're still lacking in comparison to cities like London or Japan especially. I hope in the future we will start reading more, especially in trains, instead of just looking at our smartphones," she answers. 

Even though the library is already up, the project is still only a six-month pilot project. The beginning of a journey that could see a library in every single train station in KL. But it's going to take a community to raise the library.

The next six months will determine if Prasarana will continue to provide the space for Carol to continue Books On The Move and she will need all the support she can get. 

If you have books, think about donating them at ME.REKA space in Publika. If you go by the library often, help Carol out by keeping the place clean, and making sure no one abuses the books.

Most important of all, take, read, and return a book yourself and share it on Instagram with the hashtag #takereadreturn. After all, none of this would have happened without social media. 

Carol BOTM

Carol brings a bag of books every day to refill libraries that are running low on books

Carol would like to thank Think City, Prasarana, British High Commission KL and KLBACA

For designing the library installations, Biji-biji Initiative, Me.Reka Makerspace, students who participated in the Youth Made Malaysia Programme and students from the Malaysian Institute of Art.

For designing and printing stickers KAMI Design 

Finally special thanks to the community, publishers and booksellers for books donation and support towards the movement.

Follow her books on the move
@booksonthemove on Instagram and @booksonthemoveMY on Facebook