Founding a Library
- another report from the World Social Forum in Nairobi
by Mikael Böök < email@example.com >, April 2007
Note: An earlier and shorter Swedish version of this article appeared in BiS 1/2007. The author wants to thank those who have helped him to improve the self-made translation and the contents of the text.
We, who founded www.wsflibrary.org , were seventy East African librarians plus some non-librarians, such as myself, who is a library activist.
One of the seventy has already passed away. His name was Samuel. I cannot say that I knew him. He wrote: “ Dear Mikael, I support the revised version of classification, because it is clear; easy to follow and easy to understand. However, I am of the opinion that in order work to look orderly, there is need to arrange the 21 actionable themes in alphabetical order. Thank You”. I wish I could have continued the discussion about the classification of the activities of the WSF with Samuel. Peace to his memory!
Founding a library has been the dream of many a great statesman. But have the people ever founded a library?
Is the public library [ folkbiblioteket - the Swedish word for the public library - literally means 'the people's library - transl.] the library of the people? If so, can the public library be viewed as a populist library?
Most of the seventy East African librarians in the pilot project were university librarians. To be a university librarian is significantly different from being a public librarian [ folkbibliotekarie ]. The employer of the university librarian is the university whilst the employers of the public librarian are the people.
We wanted to document how a world society is being born at the World Social Forum.
Is it being born?
Evidently so. The documentation is already at hand. What is the globalization phenomenon if not the birth of the world society?
The World Social Forum is a document (a proof), which shows that globalization has entered a decisive phase.
A document (in a restricted sense) is the Charter of Principles (2001) of the WSF. This new Magna Carta, written by the John Lackland of our times (also known by the name of The Global Justice Movement) declares that the WSF is ”an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism“ .
An Open Space. However, Tony Blair is not allowed to enter the space of the WSF, because he is the incarnation of Neoliberalism and Imperialism. Nicolas Sarkozy would probably not be allowed to participate in the WSF, either. The Web page What is the Social Forum? ( www.wsflibrary.org/index.php/Social_Forum ) provides links to sites and pages with general information about the World Social Forum.
Some time ago, a City Library in Finland opened a shelf for flyers, brochures and pamphlets about the social forum. There it stands now, the WSF shelf, beneath the the EU shelf (which carries material about the European Union) of the Foreign Ministry!
Fine. Last autumn I contacted the Head Librarian with a new demand. Would it also be possible for the Library to host a web-library for the documentation of the social forum ?
The Head Librarian did not say no right away. She said that she wanted to find out what the city authorities thought about the matter.
When spring was drawing near, the answer came by email:
“...the webpages of the library form part of the publication system of the city, and we in the library cannot make different technical solutions without permission from the editor-in-chief of the homepages of the city, or at least not without his knowledge. And if we would have something else done on the homepages than what one is allowed to do within the present system, then we would have to order it from Wissen Lifebelt [this is not the real name of the company in question] , and that would cost a lot of money. Our library only maintains a purely informative service on the web. For instance, it is not possible to login to our site, nor do we have any discussion forums...”
The process of the social forum is worldwide (World Social Forum), continental or regional (Latin American Social Forum, Indian Social Forum, US Social Forum, European Social Forum), country-specific (Finnish Social Forum, Kenya Social Forum), local (Uppsala Social Forum)... The documentation of the process must also be wide-spread over the library networks. As the example of the above-mentioned Finnish City Library shows, initial difficulties with the linking up to the libraries are sometimes to be expected.
How to proceed with www.wsflibrary.org ? - The background story of this documentation project is told at length in Information for Social Change , Winter Issue 2006-2007 [ www.libr.org/isc , accessed 28.4.2007]. The Finnish Embassy in Nairobi supported the pilot project with funding before and during the WSF in Nairobi. But the future of the project, which is still very much only in its beginning stage, is not yet secured. We must continue to analyze, classify and process the materials we collected at the WSF. Further training of the participating librarians in Wiki-techniques is also needed in order to to improve the Web site (which is based on MediaWiki , the open source software which is used in Wikipedia). During the workshops which preceded activities during the WSF, we often constated the need to “re-package” the documents for presentation and dissemination to different groups - this, in particular, remains to be done. Henceforward, the pilot project must tackle the underlying question about creating a relevant public library service in Africa . To secure the financing of these activities we shall approach The Digital Solidarity Fund in Geneva and/or other potential funders.
These activities have a goal and a purpose. We aim at at creating permanent links between Library and Social Forum (the institutions) and between the librarians and the citizens of the emerging world society (the agents). Obviously, much is needed for this to happen. It might feel like an overwhelming task, but it has to be done nevertheless. And remember that we are not planning to do something terrible like starting a war on the other side of the globe in order to secure our control over the oil resources. We are only founding a library!
What is documention? Until not very long ago document, documentation and documenting, and the profession of the documentalist were a big concern to the library community. This proposition can easily be documented. Study, for instance, the famous booklet Qu'est ce que la documentation? (1951) by the French librarian Suzanne Briet, a work marked by an unmistakable, progressive enthusiasm. In Briet's vision, the librarian appears in the role of a creative intellectual, who cooperates with and supports the scientific researchers through a professional activity, which she calls 'documentation'. [About Briet, see http://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/~buckland/briet.html , accessed 21.4.2007]
One might think that the librarian who works in the public library should also be an intellectual, who cooperates with and supports all the truth-seekers and reality-researchers who come there, even if not all of them are particularly scientific (and precisely therefore). However, it seems that during the later half of the Twentieth and the beginning of the Twenty-First Centuries the librarians have almost completely shelved the role of active and creative documentation and concentrated exclusively on the passive ordering and systematizing of the information, in addition to the daily job behind the charging desk.
This passive attitude to the function of documentation also becomes clearly visible in the relationship between the library and the internet. The library adapts to the net, but does not assume responsibility; it hides behind the national government, the authorities of the city or the university; it plays the role of the nice girl; it capitulates with Google Inc... Yet Internet = Library. The Internet is a library of a new kind, but a library nevertheless, which needs librarians.
The library is a growing organism, stated Ranganathan, the Indian mathematician and philosopher. And in some periods the library grows by by leaps and bonds. But the Ranganathanian insight about the internet and the growth of the library has been delayed.
In Africa it is easier than in the Nordic countries to find an understanding for the need to (re)found the library. There, founding a library can feel like a step towards the world society beyond Blair and Bush and Putin. But here, in the Nordic countries, the libraries and the librarians have let themselves be frightened into silence. They do not dare to host the social forum on their own homepages! They are afraid of actively documenting and contributing to the coming of the world society.
Thus we ask the question... how to avoid starting from scratch each year , or each second year, when the world social forum comes together? Chico Whitaker, one of the WSF's founders has said: "In fact, the biggest challenge for the organizers of the World Social Forum does not consist in defining new and better contents that could lead to even more concrete proposals, but to guarantee the continuity of the form the Forum was given - a case in which the means are determinant for the aim to be reached."
Consider the open social forum, and the global democracy. How do we guarantee their continuity? This is the question we should like to find reliable answers to.
The librarian can certainly do a lot in this field: go and participate, gather the information from the social forum events, document the activities of the social forums, preserve, re-package and present this information and these activities to the different user groups of the library. Obviously, this is a very demanding task, but the Library, in turn, is an immense institution and organisation, one of the oldest and biggest mankind has founded. Thus taking on and solving this big task of being the library of the WSF should not be impossible. It is first and foremost a question of the will of the librarians to play a more active role in this world.
The activities of the WSF are being classified under 'actionable themes'. A number of such themes - 21 to be precise - were introduced at the Nairobi WSF. This classification might become a more or less permanent common point of reference. At least, it is now in use within the multicultural, North-South International Council (IC) of the WSF, which consists of representatives from ca 150 transnational civic organisations and networks. Here is the list:
- Political institutions and democracy;
- Peace and war;
- Housing and human habitat;
- Gender issues and women's struggles;
- Dignity, human being diversity, discriminations;
- Human rights;
- Food sovereignty, peasants and land reform;
- Labor and workers;
- Environment and energy;
- Knowledge, information and communication;
- Taxation, debt and public finance;
- Trade and transportation;
- Transnational Corporations;
- Alternative economies.
Note: See http://www.wsflibrary.org/index.php/Actionable_themes for a comparison and discussion of versions of the list.
To each 'actionable theme' its own librarians! - Indeed, each single 'activity' of the world social forum should have its own librarian. By 'an activity' is currently meant a meeting, conference, seminar, workshop etc. which is part of a social forum event. The problem which each 'activity' has to solve is how to transform itself from an event into a process. Here, librarians could evidently play a mediating role - i.e. if they went on to build and maintain Information Services for, and together with, members of the involved networks and organisations. Mediators, who are not too closely connected to any particular organisation or group are, in fact, badly needed. The public library, ideally, makes all information available without delay to all people. Let the process of the social forum be guided by this principle.
The scale of the task of the library at the WSF is illustrated by the fact that something like one thousand such 'activities' were arranged during the four days of the WSF in Nairobi (20-24 January 2007). This sounds like a big number. However, the European Bureau of Library and Documentation Associations (EBLIDA) represents over 95.000 libraries throughout Europe alone. [See http://www.eblida.org/uploads/eblida/19/1167691481.pdf , accessed 22.4.2007]. So if there is a will on the side of the libraries and the librarians to participate in the WSF and to create the public library service that the global civil society deserves, then it can perhaps be done. Another library and another world may be possible.
The list of the 'actionable themes' of the WSF looks almost like the list of ministries of a National Government. This listing of broad areas of human action is, obviously, also one to which any kind of world government would have to pay special attention. But the solutions and actions are different depending on the range of the perspective - national or world. Professional librarians, like the members of other professions, are faced with choices between loyalties towards national governments and solidarities with the common causes of mankind. The time has come for the Library to become conscious of its nature as a univeral institution, which cannot accept subordination to the national interest. Librarians and Social Forum: Unite!
Eurocentrism? Logocentrism? No. The Library, as has been stated many times before, is not a European invention. On the contrary, the library was invented in the land of Sumer long before the Phoenician princess Europa was abducted by the Greek god Zeus (in bull form) and brought to Crete. We may ask how many libraries did we have in Norden when Ibn Battuta travelled to Timbuctu and visited its libraries? Nothing much to speak of. Objections and accusations pointing to logocentrism or the exclusive culture of literacy of the library must also be repudiated. Do you seriously think that the republic and the democracy can be built on analphabetism and illiteracy? It cannot. Nor is it possible to replace and substitute reading by audio and video. Not to admit that literacy is one of the predicaments of mankind is postmodern hypocrisy.
Last, but not least: the republic and the democracy can no longer be maintained and further developed within the present political world system. We need a new political system with a new division of powers where the Library has more sovereignty and more say than it has today.
During 2006 and January 2007 librarians from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania prepared themselves for participation in the Nairobi WSF 20-24 january 2007. The picture shows participants in their workshop in Kasarani (Nairobi) 19 january: Sitting on chairs (from left to right): Kenya Library Association Chair Ms Rosemary Gitachu, Mikael Böök, the author Ruth Makotsi from East African Book Development Association, and Peter Weche from the central university library of Nairobi. - Esther Obachi from KLA took the photo.