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.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A library... what for?

A library... what for?

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

Many Australian aboriginal communities that live in the Torres Strait Islands, an inlet that separates the great country from (quite unknown and isolated) Papua New Guinea, make themselves this question... This is also an excellent question for librarians to think about, since we use to provide standard answers (drawn upon the book we have read and the theory classes we have attended) and, sometimes, those explanations are not very convincing... even for ourselves.

Through my field work in northern Argentina I have come up against this question, also within indigenous communities, and even in many of the workshops I have taught in Latin America and most of the conferences I have given here and there. The question is repeated in many places and every time I find more and more reasons for thinking it twice (or more times if necessary) before giving an answer.

Through my research work on library services in rural areas and indigenous communities, also through this weblog and through many discussion spaces on library and social issues, I have managed to earn many colleagues' friendship worldwide. Those people work in very different places, from University teachers and freelance researchers, to State Library Systems managers and colleagues behind a reference desk. Perhaps, because of my own nature, I maintain a more fluid relationship with those ones working in rural areas, with very scarce resources and in such situations that almost nobody would love to replace them in their jobs. A handful of them work in the islands named above, and are of aboriginal origin, Melanesian to say it properly. They are called Torres Strait Islanders, and have been subjected to secular persecution by colonizing forces (British, in that part of the planet) and have suffered the pressure of successive Australian governments until recent times, when the so–called "reconciliation acts" attempted to minimize the damage caused and aimed at reaching peace, balance and equity.

From a conciliatory and multicultural perspective, State Libraries, such as the one placed in Queensland State (NE Australia, to which straits islands belong), have proposed policies, strategies and services –very well designed, by the way– directed toward the achievement of offering information access to local aboriginal communities. The State Library of Queensland (SLQ), particularly, has developed an excellent network of Indigenous Knowledge Centers (IKCs), which have been placed within aboriginal communities in order to serve not only as a library but also as a meeting point and cultural house.

Some librarians, working in the IKCs situated in the [remote] islands of the Torres Strait, are some of the colleagues whom I share my ideas and friendship (when the Internet allows us to do it, of course).

The fundamental approach of this Australian proposal is fantastic, and I really want to celebrate the experience. However, behind those good initiatives and wishes, an overwhelming reality appears: the potential users seem to strive to continue being just the same: potential. They do not visit the library. According to initial evaluations, they do not find in it anything that may be useful (in spite of the good number of photographs that show them reading and enjoying the warm library atmosphere), and keep on considering it as "whites' stuff". From time to time, they make use of the Internet, but the access to this means of communications turns difficult and expensive in those regions, what demonstrates, once more, that the Digital Divide does not only exist between North and South. And people responsible for those units –who are human resources recruited and trained within the community itself– find little support. In fact, one of the most ambitious projects of the SLQ that aimed at providing continuous education suggested sending graduated librarians to those communities for a period of about six months in order to support local staff through training work. Only a dozen of volunteers turned up, and none of them stayed longer than four or six working weeks.

These comments do not try to criticize a library system that I believe, alongside New Zeeland, the best worldwide regarding indigenous services. I just attempt to express the need for a serious thought, which allow me to understand why it is so difficult to find a satisfactory answer, when it comes to the question so many times raised by those I have encountered in my way over the last years, especially when I speak about rural, indigenous or disadvantaged populations (of which Latin America has a good number of examples).

"A library... What for?"

"For reading, for finding information, for gaining knowledge, culture, for learning about yourselves and about the world" I answer.

"The information that is placed in those bookshelves or on the Internet does nothing to do with us; neither is it in our language, nor helps us with anything. So, a library... What for?"

"For supporting children schooling, for maintaining your own culture in a bilingual way, for promoting interculturality" I answer.

"In the school and in the library, our children face acculturation and constant pressure, as it happens to us in the streets and in our working places. Multiculturality is a tale: it has high quantities of dominant culture plus a light touch of minorities' culture in order to be 'politically correct'. And, anyway, we and our culture are not represented in books or on the Internet. At least, we are not well represented. So, a library... What for?"

"For promoting literacy campaigns, for learning how to read and write..." I keep on trying.

"And who is going to teach us how to read and write? Librarians, who hardly manages to deal with other tasks? Volunteers, who come and leave as quickly as they can, as if we stink out or pass on poverty? And... about teaching us, are they going to teach me the language of the country, mine, both or none of them? The library has not taught us anything. So, a library... What for?"

"For having a good time?" I try timidly.

This last attempt of answer pays me back with a smile, a sad smile, perhaps ironic in a way: nothing else and nothing less.

I end up feeling very tired of so many reasons, which I know that are true, though I must also acknowledge that they can hardly be certain every time and everywhere. Regretfully enough, those examples of libraries that work out in spite of the "complex" populations they give services to are a few ones.

In the meanwhile, in my inbox, I receive a lot of emails from friends and colleagues who, maybe without attempting to, help me to understand that the reason for my impossibility of finding an appropriate answer to such a difficult question can be in the disconnection existing between the official and theoretical library on the one side, and the real users on the other. In those emails I read about virtual libraries, which have been scheduled for populations that cannot read or do not have electricity; books sent to aboriginal communities that are written by non-aboriginal for non-aboriginal persons; librarians who do not know the features of the community they are going to serve through the library activities and who, with their attitudes, perpetuate discrimination and exclusion; tale hours during which only are read Perrault's classical tales and the self traditional stories are set aside...

There is a dreadful disconnection between the theoretical / official ideas and projects, and the reality. And it is clear to me that reality continues turning down proposals that sound strange to it and do not respond to what it is searching for. That is way people worldwide keep on raising the very same question I am dogged by.

"A library... What for?"

It will be necessary to find a convincing and realistic answer soon, although a great deal will be demanded of us on this issue: breaking our obsolete mental and professional structures and building new ones. At least, I believe that such step has to be taken if we want to achieve the success that would deserve our efforts and proposals.