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.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Procrustean bed

Procrustean bed

By Edgardo Civallero

This Procrustes was a peculiar guy. He lived in those ancient times when humankind's imagination was still populated by evil giants and defeating heroes. Perhaps they were just fantastic characters representing, under human disguises, the vices and the brightness of human soul.

Well... Procrustes was the star of several classical Greek stories. By their fireplaces, old people and bards used to tell that this giant was actually named Damastes, although others said that his true name was Polipemo. Anyway, the main point here is that his Greek nickname, "o Prokroustis", meant "the stretcher". The legend told that he had an iron bedstead, on which he used to tie all travelers who fell into his hands. If they were shorter than the bed, he stretched their limbs to make them fit in; if they were longer than the bed, he cut off a portion.

According to the classic tales, Theseus –the lucky hero who escaped alive out of the Minotaur's labyrinth– caught Procrustes and forced him to enjoy his comfortable bed. Due to the giant's stature, the methods and the results can be imagined.

This legend always makes me think on some (own and others') social behaviors. I have witnessed so many times how, in order to reach some pre-established goals, things are terribly deformed or mutilated, losing their own original nature. This uses to happen very often with some projects, whose results are totally destroyed to make them fit into pre-selected targets.

I have even seen a lot of people modeling reality in order to make it fit in their personal patterns or their intellectual, ethical or moral conveniences.

Inside libraries, the "Procrustean bed" model is frequently used. Information units usually don't meet the real needs and realities of the society they must serve (we should remember that libraries provide "services", a word derived from the verb "to serve"). They use to follow some pre-designed policies and generally expect the users to get adapted to them, somehow. Perhaps by being stretched. Perhaps by being cut.

Thus, our institutions become inflexible steel-beds of a determined size, and the so-called "served" community becomes the unlucky traveler forced to fit in its dimensions.

The saddest part of the story is that, in order to achieve such an "adaptation", it becomes necessary to cut members. A lot of them.

Perhaps I am using too many metaphors and my words are not being understood, so I will stop a moment for analyzing reality. Public libraries working inside disadvantaged societies that forbid the access to "poor" children because "they smell bad", "they disorder everything" or "they make a lot of noise" are classic and real examples that illustrate my metaphor. No, you shouldn't freak out: such libraries do exist, I know them, I have been there, I have seen these behaviors with my own eyes. Maybe we shut up or we look away when we see these things, but you and I know that they exist. In these cases, the bedstead is short, very short, as much as the minds of these libraries' leaders (discrimination and exclusion are undeniable marks belonging to poor spirits). And the "traveler" –a society with a lot of disadvantaged sectors– is really big. Unfortunately, when adapting such a big "body" to such a short bed, the "cut" always hit the same point: the poor ones, the excluded ones, the forgotten ones, the "dirty ones", the homeless...

Some weeks ago, several colleagues explained to me that, due to the budgetary shortage that public libraries stand in Argentina, it isn't possible to offer services for everybody, and that this is the reason of the "cut".

I answered them that if services are offered to middle-class, "clean" and "well-dressed" children, they can be also provided to the rest. As far as I know, they read the same books. If there is a shortage, it affects everybody; if there are materials, they are for everybody.

Other colleagues told me that, as librarians, it wasn't their obligation to be responsible of a crowd of dirty kids flooding the library with bad habits and behaviors, disordering everything, soiling everything. They explained to me that they weren't teachers: they were librarians.

And I wondered –forgetting the "bad behavior" issue– which ones were their obligations as librarians. Because, as far as I know, librarians are educators, channels to knowledge, teachers if necessary. And a kid must be educated, at home and outside. That's our work: we are not just "book-shelvers". Books are there for being read, and we are there for supporting the discovery of those little universes full of pages. If children shout or if they are dirty is a different issue, and we can chat about it later. The point here is that the libraries' doors should never be closed to its community.

But curiously, the most currently used library planning method –the one I would call "Procrustean"– responds to a simple structure: a well-known model is taken (generally a European, urban and "developed" one) and it is implemented in a certain community (university, city, locality, town, social group, etc.). Initial evaluations allowing such a model to flexibly adapt to the community's real situation is usually forgotten. Normally it is expected that users adapt themselves to the implemented model, something that rarely happens. By this way, a lot of people is left out of the library, for different reasons: because they can't read (and nobody is in charge to teach them), because they don't know what a book is (and nobody is in charge to tell them), because they don't know how to enjoy reading (and nobody serves as a mediator or trainer), because they are scared of the library (and nobody wipes these fears), because they don't know the library (and nobody cares about making it well-known to them), because they don't find in it what they look for (and nobody cares about it), because their main communication means are different (e.g. oral ones, and orality is always outside the library), because local culture isn't represented in the shelves (and nobody thinks about including it) and a long list of other reasons that could be written down in a beautiful book that could be entitled "Why people do not step on the threshold of my library?"

[Perhaps for the same reason that Greek travelers avoided to cross the lands of the "monster of the bed"?]

If we don't want our libraries to become the torture beds of legendary villains, we should start accepting that our work is to give a service. So, we should adapt ourselves (and our institution) to the problems and needs of our users (expressed in all the points written down in the previous paragraph). We should answer them with imagination, good will, high spirit, creativity... And don't tell me about shortages and little resources because I have created many libraries in lost spots of my country with used sheets of paper, ten old books and a couple of cassettes. The children who discovered reading with those old books and those leaves are now great readers.

We should realize that library is like water: it can be adapted to any container without changes in its nature. And it can even change and become travelling steam or solid ice standing strikes... still being what it always was: water.

I know: children are not our only users. But they are those who worst suffer the "cut". And they are the future of our world and our people. Anyway, the "cut" can become extensive to adults in rural communities, minority groups, periurban populations, marginalized districts... Few colleagues venture to provide services for those groups, and when they do it, they always use, unfailingly, a Procrustean bed.

With this text I have brought the dead giant back to life. Maybe he never died after all, and he always lived hidden inside many aspects of our social lives. Perhaps the solution that ancient Greeks provided for the Procrustean problem –even if cruel– should be used today: to make those who limit and cut to prove a little bit of the medicine that they so prodigally administer to others. They will quickly notice how terrible is to be adapted, by force, to a situation that does not respond to their expectations. Maybe through this radical method libraries would lose some iron structures that they never should have had.

Because library is like water: a free and adaptable traveler, eternally overcoming challenges and limits.