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Librarianship and Human Rights

Human genius – lights and shadows of a changeable spirit – is able to produce the most overwhelming and the most degrading actions. It is either able for creation or for destruction. Memoricide is an example of the last one. But from shadows and darkness, light and new hopes can be created. The crisis and falls, the big defeats and the most miserable situations can turn into generative factors – despite all – of the greatest opportunities. The destruction – intentional or not – of the documental heritage of a nation clearly demonstrates the fragility of the materials chosen for the conservation of the human memory throughout time, and the instability of elements of such an importance for peoples’ identity. The history of any society, its best intellectual products, its glories and failures, its heroes and villains, its greatest discoveries, everything is currently kept on the shelves of libraries and archives. The power of this cultural heritage surpasses the highest standards. It is the most valuable treasure owned by humankind: it includes its memories, its desires and the solutions for those problems arisen along the path walked by the previous generations through the past centuries. All this power, all this valuable experience, is placed right now in the hands of librarians.

Librarianship cannot be understood as a simple technical profession anymore. At present, librarians are memory  managers; their active role at war times, being aware of the existence of serious disagreements, hatred, violence and many different conflicts (political, ethnic, etc.) is fundamental and strategic for the future preservation of any people’s cultural heritage. Upon the decisions and actions of librarians depends identity survival: they have the key to allow children and young people be able to know their roots, their past, the place they come from and the dreams they should pursue and accordingly guide their steps to make them true. Librarians are not expected to face the violence, bombings, injustices and summary executions featuring war and vandal acts in a direct way. Nor are they to risk their lives and self-security in order to defend and protect the heritage they manage. To ask for such a thing would be unrealistic. However,
if they are conscious of their role in the conservation of their community’s memory, they should take preventive actions and implement new policies in order to secure their collections in case of disaster and avoid a possible loss of them. The responsibility assumed for possessing power must be considered at the same level, realizing of its magnitude, the same as the power itself. A great power – the one associated with information – involves a great responsibility – the one of protecting information in order to assure everybody of the possibility of its present and future use. Perhaps one of the most precautionary measures to achieve the aim of safeguarding from loss or damage any heritage is its reproduction in safe copies and its widespread diffusion. By allowing the biggest bibliographic treasures to spread over a wide area, copying their information in a different way, duplicating them and assuring their open and free access, librarians could guarantee that their community will continue being the owner of their memory. In this way, violence still could damage a valuable masterpiece or a historic document, but such violence will neither be able to kill ideas nor to destroy the knowledge collected as it has been done until now. The community, the people, will own its memory forever. In order to achieve this goal, librarians should put aside the idea that the library is a museum, a closed place consisting of several shelves in a line, and four walls jealously protecting the books placed on them, from any kind of external contact. The library must be kept alive and should have the opportunity to breathe like a living creature, to grow, expanded and become greater not only in size or number but in importance within the society which gives sense to its existence. Librarians must (re)produce knowledge and spread it, they must help their users to be conscious of the high value of the
knowledge they handle, share and enjoy, teaching them to be responsible and to protect their own history and their own culture, in many cases collected in books and documents. Just by changing libraries’ policies and librarians’ attitudes, trying to set those repositories free from their bonds and succeeding in joining them to their community, the knowledge accumulated inside their walls will belong to everybody. Only then, we will be certain that there will not be any chance to eliminate our cultural heritage, not even by making use of the most terrible acts of violence.

Umberto Eco (2003) spoke at the newly opened Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Cairo, Egypt and said:

 “Libraries, over the centuries, have been the most important way of keeping our collective wisdom. They were and still are a sort of universal brain where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know. If you will allow me to use such a metaphor, a library is the best possible imitation, by human beings, of a divine mind, where the whole universe is viewed and understood at the same time. A person able to store in his or her mind the information provided by a great library would emulate in some way the mind of God. In other words, we have invented libraries because we try to do our best to imitate them (p.1).”

The worst enemy of Libraries is the fanaticism of either or both of the warring parties, especially if one of the goals of the conflict is to rid a country of objectionable religious or cultural material or thinking. Another is a lack of vision of individuals or a government. Added to this is the general feeling that Libraries are not a high priority in times of war, despite the 1954 UNESCO convention for the protection of cultural property. The final blow to Libraries occurs during “The fog of war” when niceties are put aside and all hell breaks loose.

Human rights information is like other forms of information in that it must be well organized, cataloged, and managed if it is to benefit the greatest number of persons. But whereas human rights information might, in some regards, necessitate the same maintenance and organizational treatment as other forms of information, one must not fail to recognize that human rights information differs from other genres of information for the simple fact that it is much more critical. Human rights information — in specific contexts and during crucial moments — holds the potential to save lives, prevent murder, stop state-sponsored terrorism, and generally further the cause of human rights. It is for this reason that librarians and other information workers — as experts in information organization, delivery, and promotion — should be front and center in the fight for distribution of sousveillance media, for the dissemination of information from the poor to the rich, and for advancing mechanisms and technologies that promote freedom of expression in political environments that favor censorship. It is because of the very importance of human rights information that information
workers should not wait until funds have been established, a vision has been crafted, and a proper job description constructed before putting their skills to use. To be sure, the efforts of information scientists and librarians are sorely
needed in the struggle for human rights and the time to act is now.

source: Information for Social Change Issue 25

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