They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Indifference and neutrality

Indifference and neutrality

By Edgardo Civallero

With a beer between us (and my pipe fully helping in the intoxication of my senses), I chatted, days ago, with a colleague –by the way, much older than me– about the role of librarians in Argentinean and Latin American societies.

As a good father giving advices to his young son, my colleague told me that, according to his opinion, I should forget my ideas of social change and improvement, and should dedicate my days and my hours to the much simpler technical work, leaving behind my deliriums and wanderings. With my attitude, he told me, I'd get just problems.

After a couple of hours of this "wise conversation" (whose contents I've listened lots of times before), my good friend left me alone in front of a beer and my pipe. And inside my brain –in the middle of the steams of alcohol and tobacco– a single, silly question appeared: "Maybe the world works as it works because it's full of persons like this one?"

I'm still thinking about it. And now, I am sober.

I don't believe my opinion to be the correct one. I didn't buy "reason" in a supermarket, neither an archangel came down from Heavens to put The Truth in my hands. But throughout my short –yet intense– professional life, I realized the power a book has for changing people's lives. It accompanies old people, it opens new worlds to children, it informs, it gives possibilities and opportunities, it provides leisure, it educates... And much more: wisely used, it breaks chains, it opens closed mouths and it takes off bandages from eyes and corks from ears.

I live in a complex world, in a painful reality. Sometimes it looks like Hell, but I cannot anesthesiate myself by ignoring what's going on around me, what's happening with my family, my people, my society, my country... I'm a part of all this. I am one more of all these millions doomed to live a life that, normally, shows injustices on a daily basis. I am not pessimistic: I love life and I admire it challenges. But I am realistic: there are more problems than solutions around here.

To be indifferent, to believe that everything happening here is not my business... it's not my way. I cannot do it. Because what's happening around me is huge, it's brutal, it's cruel, it hurts me a lot, and I should be very blind or very coward to look away and stop feeling it. Maybe I am too young (I am 32... Am I young? Or maybe my head is full of birds?). Maybe this young mind pushes me to commit to things that older people prefer to avoid.

But I have found such indifferent opinions in the mouth of teenagers. And I wonder... "what's going on here?"

After finishing my career at the university and feeling that I had a little chance in my hands for changing even a little aspect of reality, I cannot cross my arms over my chest and say to myself "I am neutral. My work is just technical". It's simple: I have got a higher education (in this continent, that's an honor), so I am morally/ethically compelled to put into practice, outside the classrooms, what I learnt inside them. I know that, with my knowledge, I can change the life of someone –or a lot of lives, who knows?– and this pushes me to struggle, to do it.

We read about the power of education, about the value of information, about the role of libraries in the development of societies, in the preservation of identities and memories... We hear these ideas in hundreds of conferences, congresses, meetings, seminars and workshops. We know about all the problems that lack of information can cause. So, honestly speaking... what are we waiting for? What's the use of all these "important meetings" and "brilliant ideas and papers" if we finally show a total indifference about the same ideas we have clapped two minutes before? Are we leaving the real action to the crazy idealists? Are we talking the talk but don't walking the walk?

The concept of library neutrality scares me. During my 32 years, I never witnessed real neutrality. Hmmm... maybe I am being terribly radical (black or white) and I don't understand "grays". Anyway, in my opinion, neutral positions don't exist in libraries: people who declare themselves neutral are just avoiding take a position. And, as far as I know, we can't: we, librarians, are all the time making important decisions (and, therefore, taking positions). Which books do we include in the collection? Who is allowed to use the library? Are photocopies allowed or not? What use will we give to the (usually scarce) economic resources? These are just a few of the decisions (=positions) we take weekly. And, behind all of them, there are reasons: philosophical, ethical, ideological, personal...

We are not neutral. We can't. But many colleagues are indifferent, a pretty different thing. They are indifferent to what's happening outside (or even inside) the walls of their libraries. I don't know if such an attitude is a good or a bad thing (the fact that I don't agree with it doesn't allow me to judge... even if this text is just that... buh). What I do know is that we cannot disguise indifference under neutrality. And I know that we have an ethical duty, as professionals, regarding our users and the services we must provide.

Out there, all around the world, things happen ― things with no relationship with UDC and AACR2R. Out there, tons of hands and minds are needed. Ok, we'll not change our reality in a couple of days (maybe we'll never change it). But sometimes, a simple gesture is enough for helping a person. A single smile can change a life. Mine was changed years ago by a little, single tear. It turned me into what I am right now (yes, I know, a lot of people are regretting it...). And I know that, with my work, I've changed a couple of the thousands lives I've touched.

It's necessary to commit to something, even if it looks tiny, or silly. It's necessary to give a little step to find that our profession isn't so insipid, that we are not so invisible as the stupid stereotypes we suffer, that we are not neutral or simple book carriers, and that our work is terribly important. It's necessary to put indifference and mutism aside... and to go on.

Sometimes, it's necessary to open heart and mind, and to forget logic and technicisms. To look for the hands in need of help. And to do it with passion. Our profession has a terribly strong social side, and nobody is teaching it at LIS schools. Let's forget indifference, neutrality... or whatever. Let's commit to our social (and natural!) environment. The payment will be... probably zero. Maybe a smile? But you can be sure that this little payment will last forever, inside there, in the little corner of the heart where we keep all things that were really worth the pain.