Beyond Article 19: Libraries and Social and Cultural Rights

Julie Biando Edwards and Stephan P. Edwards, eds. Duluth, Minnesota: Library Juice Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-936117-19-2.

This short collection of critical librarianship essays, edited by Julie Biando Edwards and Stephan P. Edwards (library and human rights scholars at the University of Montana in Missoula), centers around the role and importance of libraries as a means of self-determination of all peoples. Using the relationship of libraries with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), this volume explores how the ideological assertions of library diversity and inclusion that appear in the mandates and mission statements of many libraries reflect tensions between individual rights and community traditions, standards, and values (i.e., collective or cultural rights). With a forward by Toni Samek (author of Librarianship and Human Rights: A Twenty-first Century Guide), the authors of essays in this volume include Julie Biando Edwards on the symbolic possibilities of libraries not only as pillars of the rights of the individual set out in Article 19 of the UDHR, but also of the principles set forth in Article 27 related to collective cultural rights; Natalia Taylor Poppeliers on cultural rights in sub-Saharan Africa, where libraries were historically developed around Western and colonial traditions; Frans Albarillo on language and cultural rights and how they relate to our understandings of multiculturalism in libraries; and Loriene Roy and Kristen Hogan on the struggles and sensitivities at play in indigenous peoples’ use and visions of libraries as places where cultural rights can be ranked above those of the individual.

Together these authors stress how human rights are interdependent and indivisible, and as Samek notes in the forward, they also point to the “ongoing lack of understanding about orality and literacy and about status quo and dominant cultures of information exchange that serve to perpetuate misunderstandings about various contributors to traditional knowledge and knowledge activism (e.g., elders, priests, midwives, storytellers, and oral historians), including within library teachings” (viii). This collection urges the reader to recognize that libraries, as they are commonly understood, were built on Western notions of literacy and learning, with the rights of the individual in mind. Library discourse generally does not move beyond this Western ideological framework, yet libraries in varying forms have long existed in non-Western cultures, and contemporary multicultural realities mean that the library as it is commonly understood must adapt to be relevant to all. If libraries are to be true bastions and promoters of human rights, diversity, and multiculturalism, then library educators and stakeholders must recognize that literacy and knowledge creation and dissemination are culture-specific. Library developments in sub-Saharan Africa and in indigenous communities, for example, introduce ways of knowing that are considerably different from Anglo-American culturally situated codes of librarianship.

As Edwards points out in her contribution to this volume, “If libraries are truly to be of the community, their promotion of the various cultures that make up the community is essential” (37). But as she and other contributors stress, this means more than acquiring a shelf of foreign language titles. Such titles will serve little purpose if they do not meet the needs of the cultures that make up the community the library serves. Collectively, these essays make a strong case for building truly diverse, unique library collections, to consider libraries as places where knowledge exchange is possible beyond books, and to move away from the homogenization of libraries and library education.

Aimed at the subcommunities of librarianship and broader cultural networks, including storytellers, archivists, documentalists, and librarians, Beyond Article 19 makes a strong case for global library citizenship and urges libraries and their stakeholders to think outside Anglo American cultural approaches to the discipline and practice of librarianship. This text deserves a place on the reading lists of library schools, but as Samek cynically (but quite correctly) points out, the contributors to this volume are a minority of their own field’s making—they are outnumbered by bureaucratized, corporatized, and militarized library and information workers and discourses. Let’s hope that this book, and the important ideas it expresses and challenges the profession to consider, will not be limited by the tyranny of the majority.

Dr. Brendan F. R. Edwards is the author of Paper Talk: a history of libraries, print culture, and Aboriginal peoples in Canada before 1960.