A Commitment to Community

In the introduction to a recent special issue of the journal Library Trends, the guest editors simply state that “libraries are part of the fabric of society.” That kicks off the discussion of “Libraries in the Political Process,” the topic of the Fall 2016 issue edited by Christine Stilwell, Peter Johan Lor, and Raphaëlle Bats.

Lor, an extraordinary professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria who also serves on the journal's Editorial Board, and Bats, a conservateur de bibliothèque at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Sciences de L’information (ENSSIB), in Lyon, France, also provided essays for the issue. The print publication grew out an open session called “Libraries in the Political Process: Benefits and Risks of Political Visibility, ” part of the Library Theory and Research (LTR) section of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) World Library and Information Congress in Lyon, France, in August 2014.

Stilmann, a professor emeritus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa, joined the editorial team during the process of putting the issue together. The three guest editors participated in a Q&A about the topic of the issue and the overall theme of libraries in the political process across the world.

The special issue came out of a 2014 IFLA open session. How did the topic evolve between that time and publication?

Peter Lor: As is usual, the presenters had to convert their papers to articles. Some did not see their way clear to do this, due to other commitments, and of course some authors adapted their papers a bit. Because of the attrition we also called for some supplementary papers to help round the topic out. The result was that the topic was broadened out quite a bit to deal with the interaction of politics and libraries more generally, whereas for the IFLA session we had envisaged a session focusing on more immediate and "dramatic" threats and responses.

Raphaëlle Bats: I would like to add that the IFLA session was in France, in 2014, but we asked colleagues to send their papers in 2015, between the 2 attacks we had in January and November. The French authors (there are 3) had to think about this question of libraries in the political process and “dramatic” threats and responses in a way that wasn’t expected in 2014. Thinking about politics was more necessary than ever, but more, we had this emergency to consider, which is not usual.

Christine Stilwell: Peter and I knew each other as colleagues and he approached me to assist him and Raphaelle and another co-editor who later dropped out. I did not attend the IFLA session where the papers were presented so had some catching up to do.

I joined the process when Peter was preparing follow-up letters to the participants. I was interested to participate as the overarching theme embraced an area of interest of mine i.e. libraries in the political process.

I also had had experience in editing a journal having co-edited a few issues of the local journal Innovation: journal of appropriate librarianship and information work in Southern Africa. I was a founder member of this journal in 1990. It sought to give a voice to oppositional issues (to the apartheid state and more mainstream library and information work) but has a practical as well as theoretical and critical nature.

I agree with Raphaelle that the events in France were an important influence on our issue of LT as they made some core questions very real and urgent. This aspect was also enhanced by the participation of Raphaelle and of Prof. Denis Merklen and his work on the destruction of libraries in France, especially as two of us (as South Africans), were grappling with the issues of the destruction of public libraries in the 22 year old South African ‘democracy’.

How important are the diverse backgrounds of the people involved in the issue?

PL: This, I think, was key to making this a successful LT issue. We gained perspectives from a range of countries and from authors with different professional and theoretical backgrounds. I think this offers the LT readers something to get their teeth into.

RB: I think it is very useful to consider libraries to be multidisciplinary or to encourage interdisciplinarity. We need different approaches and backgrounds to think of libraries not as a technical tool, but as an actor or agent of society.  

CS: I agree that the diverse backgrounds were important especially as we in LIS seem to be divided by language camps in terms of what we read and think, and how we think and express ourselves in spoken and written language. This was quite surprising in a way given international fora such as IFLA.

I enjoyed the sense of the common threads emerging from the diversity – like the issues around the political process in the French papers, the interesting concepts from that context like laïcité, and how democracy in that context linked to the literature on community librarianship and information services in the U.K. and U.S., in particular. Alistair was very hands-on as an editor in terms of quality and ideas (but relaxed about letting the article take its natural course which I valued), and he added to these insights in an extremely useful way.

It was also challenging and I found myself needing to learn so much more, for instance, about the  political history of Turkey to enable me to serve as a useful editor of the article about library development in that country. I really enjoyed the methods Raphaelle used to collect her data and think she provides a fresh approach, based in the social media, and one that can be used by other researchers in situations of urgency.

The introduction to the issue says that a unifying theme is neglect. How can these discussions help to change that situation?

PL: It's an ongoing challenge. At least part of the answer is demonstrating relevance to the communities libraries serve. Not marketing (OK, marketing can help too) but getting involved, engaging with communities. When a library is threatened, the community should be up in arms, ideally. "Relevance" and "engaging with communities" can be empty slogans and the challenge is to give substance to them. One implication is that librarians can't shelter behind library neutrality. That too needs to be unpacked.

RB: It seems to me that something is common to all authors of this issue: the true faith in engagement. We could do a history of political vocation of librarians. For me, the new management, specifically in the 1990s and 2000s, push librarians away from their original vocation that was very political. After attacks, but also after all the movements of occupied squares in the world, I really believe that the necessity of having political engagement will again become one of the fundamentals of librarianship. And with political engagement, I don’t mean being involved in a political party or a trade union, but having a true commitment to our community, our city, not only being there, but being part of it.

CS: The theme of neglect is a common thread throughout the issue and a depressing one, although it was not a surprising one. I think what was striking was the contrast between the fine conceptions of libraries and public libraries emerging in the articles on the one hand and the gross neglect or seeming malevolence of the state on the other. Hence the theme of engagement that emerged was engaging.

The communities should be up in arms and protective of libraries and their contents as Peter says, as in the case of those who formed the human chain to protect the Library of Alexandria in 2011, but this aspect did not emerge strongly, especially in the South African case. I recently read Joshua Hammer’s marvellous book The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, and there one archivist, Abdel Kader Haidara, mobilises a community network in 2012 to save the precious Timbuktu manuscripts that reflect ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts from the region. The librarians should be up in arms, too, and in the French cases at least the profession seemed to have experienced a shift away from an uncritical neutrality.

I enjoyed the discussion of the neutrality issue, exploring it once again and seeking to redefine what is desirable in the context of the present time with the French examples as motivating cases. As pointed out in our Introduction “in conditions of social injustice, traditional library neutrality is effectively and endorsement of the status quo. A more critical stance and greater engagement with issues of social justice on the part of librarians can augment the visibility and relevance of libraries albeit not without risk”.

What did you learn during the process of putting the issue together?

PL: I have a lot of experience as a reviewer, but this was my first time as an editor of a top-ranking journal. I learned that working with authors from different countries, speaking different languages and writing in a second language, can be time-consuming. Authors from different language areas or cultures come not only with different linguistic backgrounds but also with different research traditions and conceptual schemes. Both editors and authors have to be patient. We were fortunate to have authors who did not get uptight when repeatedly asked to clarify and reformulate what they had written. This was challenging, but also a great learning experience and very rewarding. I found being able to speak French helpful, because it made it easier for me to see what our French authors were getting at.   

We were very impressed with the dedication of the editor, Alistair Black, who was very hands-on, and by the professionalism, patience and courtesy of the editorial office. 

RB: I do not have the experience of Peter. I had been a reviewer, but more often of professional papers. It was very interesting for me to build something coherent and consistent with different research papers, with different theoretical backgrounds. I was not very helpful for the corrections, because English is not my first language, but I helped more with French papers, and specifically for the translation (or no translation) of French key concepts, like laïcité, république, etc. that have a very French meaning. As said Peter, I was impressed by the work of Alistair. 

CS: I learned a lot from editing an issue of this top international journal. It was very difficult at times working on the translated articles, sensing even with my poor French, that the translation did not capture what the original article had expressed and trying to get a better version. Peter’s French was a huge help and Raphaelle a patient go between. Alistair was also involved in these aspects and contributed meaningfully. The articles from France seemed to take the discussion to a higher theoretical and sociological level and I enjoyed that and we hope the issue offers that aspect to readers.

The authors on the whole were long-suffering about having several rounds of email to clarify and/or add content. I enjoyed the interactions with many of them and with the LT in-house staff, and Cindy Ashwill, in particular.

It was very hard work and time-consuming and took much longer than I expected. I liked working with Peter and Raphaelle, and Alistair, and learned from them. I especially valued the high standard of the written articles that Alistair expected and having to find ways to achieve this level with material of, at times, considerable complexity.