How IFLA Fixes the World: FAIFE, Hope, and Charity

Posted Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 14:38

“How to Fix the World” was the provocative and cheeky title of a Sunday program sponsored by the Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) during the IFLA conference this week in Puerto Rico. Presentations by delegates from Egypt and Norway left many in the audience in tears as they heard about the heroes who surrounded the Library of Alexandria (Bibliotheca Alexandrina) during the uprising that began January 25 and about the innocent lives lost on July 22 in the anti-Muslim bombing in Oslo, Norway, and the massacre several hours later on a nearby island.

Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria, showed film footage and photographs of the Egyptian uprising and students defending the vulnerable library, while 10 blocks away a government building was set ablaze. The library became “the eye of the storm,” he said—a calm and safe haven. Why did the young people protect the library? Sergeldin said that the library is already an Egyptian landmark of which people are proud, but he also felt that eight years of hard work had paid off—work with the 80,000-student university campus nearby. Some of those students were children when the library opened eight years ago, he said, and are already library “veterans.” Serageldin noted that the library was never designed to be simply an archive; rather, it opened with an “activist” agenda “dedicated to knowledge and rationality.” The library’s outreach has gone as far as establishing a TV studio.

“But above all,” Serageldin said, “we defend certain values.” The Alexandria Declaration (PDF file) became a touchstone document in the revolution, he said, defending freedom of expression. It was all the more remarkable that the library never came to symbolize government authority, even though Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne were heavily involved in its establishment, he added.

“No army can defeat an idea whose time has come,” Serageldin said. The revolution was crushed for now in Bahrain and Yemen, he noted, and in Syria it is ongoing; in Libya “who knows where that is going to end?” He quipped that he had found quite remarkable images that came into Egypt from Wisconsin during the pro-union protests there in February, which showed people carrying signs saying things like “Egypt, Help Us!” “What am I going to tell them?” he asked rhetorically, adding that the answer in Egypt was always with the users and patrons, the people who surrounded and protected the Library of Alexandria. “Long live the library!” the Egyptian protesters would chant as they passed by the building, Serageldin said, “and we waved. The library became the symbol of free expression, a validation by the young people themselves. The kids got the message all right!” In closing, Serageldin said he believed the growing gap between poverty and great wealth is one of biggest threats to democracy.

Amro Ghareeb, believed to be the only librarian who died during Egyptian protests in JanuaryShawky Salem, also of Egypt, asked for a moment of silence for Amro Ghareeb, a librarian who was killed in the uprising. Then he showed remarkable images of bravery and determination in Cairo’s Tahrir Square: photos of citizens confronting Mubarak’s security forces, Christians protecting praying Muslims from the police, horrifying images of police running into people with their armored cars in the Battle of Qasr al-Nil Bridge.

Both Serageldin and Salem characterized the Egyptian revolution as a matter of Facebook versus men on camels with sabers. “And who is the winner?” they asked. Clearly the big winner was social media, but so was the Library of Alexandria, where, after all, these films and images and stories will live on when they have dropped from the radar of Twitter and Facebook.

Nowegian IFLA delegate Anne Hustad, a past president of the Norwegian Library Association, talked about the massacre in Oslo. “Usually, Norway is a very peaceful place,” she said, but on July 22, it was shaken by a bomb and that same afternoon by shootings in the summer camp on the small island of Utøya. A lot of people were hurt, she said, and 77 were killed. “Norway is a small country, so everyone is affected by this tragedy,” Hustad said, showing photos of the camp. “This is a sad action and an action against democracy. This was an extremist, a mass murderer, a terrorist. He attacked and killed the future leaders of our society.” Hustad said that the whole nation is grieving, “but we are not in a crisis, we do not want revenge. . . . This was an attack on freedom of expression and our democracy; the Norwegian answer is more openness and more democracy.” Hustad added that libraries all over the country responded by expanding their hours and offering programs and exhibitions on how to cope with sorrow and grief, especially how to talk to children.

Keeping the FAIFE

During the FAIFE program, Steen Bille Larsen of Denmark’s Royal Library also shared images and stories; his were about the library’s exhibition on the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Museum of Danish Cartoon Art in the Royal Library holds some 250,000 cartoons from Danish newspapers. Larsen talked about the 2005 controversy over Danish cartoon images of Muhammed that angered the Muslim world and caused what he called “the biggest diplomatic crisis for Denmark since World War II.”

Barbara Jones, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), began the FAIFE program by examining the implications for libraries of WikiLeaks. She talked about the Library of Congress restricting access to WikiLeaks on library computers. “It was a very confusing situation,” she said. “Everybody in the United States was blindsided by this action, and within a few days it was reopened.” She also noted that because the documents were on the internet, “you could always go across the street to Starbucks” and get them. Jones observed that a December 16, 2010, congressional hearing on WikiLeaks was “really amazing” and demonstrated to her this is a “gray area” for OIF because it involves the security of dissidents and government transparency. “We don’t know enough yet,” she said, “and don’t want to be precipitous.” Jones did observe, however, that the system for the declassification of government documents “is dysfunctional and that is the real problem.”

The entire FAIFE session did much to de-trivialize the work of librarians. This is something that IFLA has become much better at doing in recent years, by connecting the role of libraries to world events. As Ismail Serageldin quipped, just the number of Suez Canal records recently digitized at the Library of Alexandria is roughly equal to all the documents released by WikiLeaks.