Librarians Are Public Diplomats
- I remember the tragic loss to an information-starved world when the libraries of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) were closed. People from Marrakech to Moscow, Bangkok to Jakarta had used them as if they were local public libraries. They did more to sustain peace and world understanding than could be achieved from all the surveillance of library users by other agencies of our government.Dear ColleaguesI am pleased to enclose an interesting editorial by John N. Berry III, Editor-in-Chief of the Library Journal, 07/15/2003 for your use, please.Thank youMuhammad Asif
Librarians Are Public Diplomats
John N. Berry III, Editor-in-Chief,Library Journal -- 7/15/2003 USIA libraries did more for peace than all the current surveillance
This painful memory was triggered by the recent visit to LJ of ten State Department librarians, each from an Information Resource Center (IRC) in a U.S. embassy. About 450 librarians staff 170 IRCs in our embassies around the world. At their best, they are tools of public diplomacy, the effort to communicate face to face with people of other nations.
Also in town that day was Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, advocating that kind of public diplomacy to the participants in the conference of the Special Libraries Association.
The USIA libraries were one of America's most enlightened attempts to communicate with the people of the world. Controversial at home and abroad, for a time they openly offered the full range of information and entertainment material from the United States, whether or not it supported U.S. policy. The libraries drew the censorious attention of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and were put off-limits by regimes that feared free access to U.S. books. Yet the USIA libraries presented America honestly, in all of its diversity, inequity, and political disagreement. Many at home and abroad thought they were shut down to quiet that honesty about America.
The State Department IRCs make a valiant effort to continue USIA-style work around the world, but they lack sufficient support and resources to meet the demand for information from and about America. Their mission is exactly the kind of public diplomacy championed by Albright. The visiting IRC librarians cited studies by the Heritage Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations supporting face-to-face contact among people from every nation.
The IRCs reach out to local universities, nongovernmental agencies, and local citizens. They maintain web pages and intranets for the embassies as well. Their staffs translate information into local languages, including files from Washington to be given to local journalists. They are digitally sophisticated and deliver a great deal of information from databases over networks, on which they spend $1 million annually for licenses. This is important since most were moved into embassies in 1999 and have limited space for physical collections. They conduct programs, bring experts to discuss important topics, and use videoconferencing as well. In many ways they, too, act like public libraries.
The IRCs face many problems beyond their need for resources. Because of the growing danger, open access has disappeared in many places. New security measures have meant diminished local use. Frequently governments intervene; for example, both China and Myanmar have limited IRC use by some citizens.
Still, in Zimbabwe, where the government has cracked down on protesters, people queue up to use the IRC. Because it is the best resource for information in Monrovia, Liberia, the IRC there is used by 40 to 50 people a day. In many developing countries, people come for the circulating collections. In Bosnia there is great interest in how U.S. libraries raise funds and market their services.
The fear and misunderstanding created by recent terrorism and violence have made it much more important to listen to and learn from the views of people from other cultures. Peace in the world can't be sustained without understanding at that level.
Our government would be well advised to spend less money and effort trying to use libraries for surveillance at home and many more resources on making sure that IRCs and other U.S. libraries can reach out with the full story of all the cultures with which we share this troubled world.