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     Volume 4 Issue 40 | April 1, 2005 |

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Access America

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

It seems that everyone these days has an opinion about the United States. Some people are negatively inclined while others have a positive outlook. However, the truth is that many people make their opinions according to hearsay rather than actually finding proper information and reading up on it. And while everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, it is always important to base one's views on factual and unbiased information.

This is one of the reasons the American Centre, an offset of the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh, is geared towards disseminating information about the United States to Bangladeshis. On Monday, March 14, the American Centre held a launching ceremony of its newly renovated and improved library, the Information Resource Centre (IRC). Present at the ceremony were 2004 Pulitzer Prize Winner, Edward P. Jones, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Harry K. Thomas and Education Minister, Dr. Osman Farooque.

The IRC, located on Road 27 in Banani, started its journey as the USIS (United States Information Service) in Bangladesh in October of 1951, in a two-story rented house in Hat-khola. It then moved to Topkhana Road in 1953, after which the number of books in the library grew to an amazing 60,000. Unfortunately, due to the cost-cutting measures and the fact that libraries are not as vital as they were in the past, the collection went down to 1,000 books by September 2004. They had six branches outside Dhaka in Rangpur, Rajshahi, Barisal, Sylhet, Chittagong and Mymensingh, each of which closed in the 1970s. It then moved to Dhanmondi before relocating to Banani in 1997.

"The branch we had in Dhanmondi was the library that people remember the most," says Mahtab Uddin Ahmad, Director of IRC, who has been working with the American Centre for the last 20 years. "However, the truth is that even when we opened in 1951, we had a good impact on the reading population in Bangladesh. Our library was the first free-access, open shelf library in the country."

The new IRC has now expanded its collection to 3,000 books. The resources in the library are geared mostly towards students and other people who are curious about the U.S. They will be able to access information about either going abroad for higher studies or learning more about life in the United States. The IRC and the U.S. Department of State have jointly organised and sponsored a programme, which granted English language scholarships to 40 different madrassas around Bangladesh. It is also hoping to host a number of events, such as movie nights twice a month following a theme and on various different public figures including Nathaniel Kahn, son of Louis Kahn.

The library uses a barcode system, which makes borrowing easier. It also introduces the users to a number of online databases such as Lexis Nexis and GaleNet. Eight of the computers in the IRC will have internet access. There is a children's corner where the Deputy Director of the American Centre, Michelle Jones, hopes to hold readings of the varied collection of storybooks available. Apart from storybooks and novels, the IRC has reference books available with information about ESL (English as a Second Language), Business Management and Computers. It is open Sunday through Tuesday from 10 am to 4 pm and will be open until 7 pm on Wednesdays. Membership costs an annual fee of Tk. 500.

"The new IRC is actually an information network of the U.S. in Bangladesh," says Jones. "It is important for South Asians to have real information about the U.S. in order to understand Americans better. There are so many misconceived notions about the U.S. due to the current situation around the world. What we want is for people to come here, read many different sources so that they can get information from many different perspectives."

"We Americans have to do a better job with informing people about our country," says Jones. "Rather than believe all the bad and not know any of the good, we would rather that people have access to our information so that they can learn more about the United States and make up their own minds," he concludes. We can only hope that students as well as people interested in America and its culture flocks to the newly geared American Centre.

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