Books on the Move

21 September 2017

In Malaysia, several grassroots movements are working hard to improve the local community. Buku Jalanan is one such movement, which has spawned several chapters around the country and even abroad.

Why bring people to libraries, when you can bring libraries to people?

That’s the central idea behind Buku Jalanan, a Malaysian movement to bring together people, free books, and public spaces. What started off as an idea from a few university students has blossomed into 92 chapters worldwide, and increasingly bigger cultural projects and collaborations.

Ahmad Fahmi Fadzil, a Buku Jalanan librarian and one of its earliest members, met the founders while they were undergraduates at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) in 2011.

“We bonded over our love of books,” says Fahmi.

The idea to bring libraries to people came from reading Che Guevara’s Guerilla Warfare, which discussed reclaiming the public spaces of the masses. The young team wanted to create an alternative structure for accessing books.

“As we all know, the stereotype of Malaysians not liking to read is quite prevalent,” says Fahmi. “So we wanted to counter that, by bringing books to the masses.”

Just like that, the team began to bring their own personal collection of books to a park in Shah Alam every Saturday. Now, there are 11 librarians for the Shah Alam chapter. The books are free to borrow indefinitely, as long as the borrower provides their phone number.

“If people don’t return the books, we don’t see it as stealing,” Fahmi says, “we see it as you didn’t finish reading it.” So far, he estimates the rate of return for books has been seven out of ten.

It wasn’t long before the small book-borrowing event began to evolve and gain more traction.

“We added four core principles: books, arts, culture and activism. Buku Jalanan for us, is not an organisation or a collective. For us it is an idea, we want other people to relate to things, and take it to their community, and do it however they want,” explains Fahmi.

Five years after the first Shah Alam chapter, there are a recorded 92 chapters of Buku Jalanan. They’ve sprouted in universities around the country as well as overseas in the UK, US, Australia, Korea and the Middle East. 

Each Buku Jalanan chapter has its own structure and focus. Some maintain the original structure of giving out free books; some chapters, like Buku Jalanan Chow Kit, focus on providing free education to children in poverty. Others, like Buku Jalanan Titi, run free arts events and classes for the public.

Buku Jalanan Chow Kit focuses on providing free education to underprivileged children.

Mohd Hafizuddin Perewa, or Hafiz, runs the Buku Jalanan Titi chapter, which holds sessions once a month in Titiwangsa Lake Gardens. After attending a Buku Jalanan event in Shah Alam, Hafiz started the group in 2012 with Edry Faizal.

“We saw that there was a Buku Jalanan in Sarawak, but there was nothing in KL yet. So we started a chapter in KL, and we found our members through Twitter,” shares Hafiz.

The core of Buku Jalanan Titi is the same: free books. But every month they select a theme and run a corresponding event. This might be a lecture or a workshop run by academics, artists, and activists. In the past, they’ve run free classes in drawing, music, and theatre, as well as held poetry readings. This year, Buku Jalanan ran a Book Camp, a weekend retreat with workshops, discussions, and book swaps.

“We look for ideas that will inspire the public,” says Hafiz.

One of the highlights of Buku Jalanan Titi is Little Street Library. In 2015, the chapter received a grant from CIMB Foundation and worked with Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur to build three free book stations around Lake Titiwangsa, from which the public can take or donate books. The shelves are packed with books in Malay and English, and Hafiz occasionally comes around to check that the books are in decent condition.

“We’re trying to promote awareness of books and of public spaces. A lot of people are scared of doing things in public spaces,” says Hafiz, “but you can, you can do street theatre, and music, and so much more.”

Buku Jalanan has also started to work with other movements and NGOs, transforming into a platform of sorts for cultural workers and organisers. For the past several years, Buku Jalanan Titi has been working with Balai Seni Negara to run free forums on art and literature. In 2015, Buku Jalanan began co-organising Festival Idearaya, a festival celebrating culture and ideas. And in 2016, members initiated a cultural mapping of literature in Kuala Lumpur called LiteraCity.

But in the midst of all this change and growth, Buku Jalanan continues to remain true to its original, humble mission.

“Honestly, for me, I just want people to have a positive view of books,” Fahmi says with a smile.

Learn more about Buku Jalanan at

By Lily Jamaluddin
Photos and video by Teoh Eng Hooi

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