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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 18. 10. Libraries Contribution to Solidarity and Social Justice in a World of Neo-liberal Globalisation

By John Pateman

Libraries contribution to solidarity and social justice can take many forms. It could be a twinning link between two libraries. It could be the support offered by one library service to another. It could be via a professional organisation. In my view, a library, library service or library organisation can be assessed by the degree to which it addresses issues of solidarity and social justice. A library, library service or organisation which has issues of solidarity and social justice at its heart (and not at the margins) is likely to be a progressive and radical organisation. Official organisations in capitalist countries rarely take on these characteristics. They are more concerned with domestic issues and maintaining the status quo. This leads to the development of quasi official organisations, which take on the role of providing solidarity and social justice. I would like to illustrate my paper with two examples of these organisations from the UK: Information for Social Change and the Cuban Library Support Group.

Information for Social Change

ISC grew from international activity between progressive librarians in the UK and comrades in Africa. From its inception ISC has taken an internationalist outlook and many articles in "Information for Social Change" feature library developments outside the UK. The founding members of ISC were actively involved with Operation Namibia and the Library and Information Workers Organisation of South Africa.

ISC was formed in 1994 at a time when the Conservative government had been in power for fifteen years. The climate was not ripe for founding a progressive and radical organisation. The labour movement was under attack, workers rights had been removed and several powerful trade unions, including the miners and printers, had been crushed. Debate was stifled. Greed and individualism were encouraged. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said "Greed is good" and "There is no such thing as society". These attitudes, which blighted a whole generation, affected the world of libraries and information. Libraries were no longer a common or public good. Their continued existence now had to be justified and they were encouraged to become economic, efficient and effective. They were not subject to Compulsory Competitive Tendering (a device to shift public services into the private sector) but they were encouraged to become more businesslike. Fees and charges were introduced or increased. This happened against the backdrop of the Reagan/Thatcher alliance which saw rampant capitalism at home and aggressive imperialism abroad.

ISC set out to challenge these paradigms and to provide an outlet for views which were not covered by the mainstream professional press. The opening statement of the first issue of ISC (ISC, No.1, Winter 1994) was: "It is a truism to say that information in all its forms is now a commodity, to be packaged and sold, along with all the other products of our age, in the high street superstores. As this commodification increases, so it is increasingly easy to forget that information has value far beyond the commercial world. It has a value as an agent for social change, for development, as it introduces people to ideas, creates forums for debate and speaks of the possibilities that are open to us were we only permitted to know of them."

Since that first issue we have produced a further 15 issues. Some issues of ISC have been on a theme: social class (ISC, No. 10, Winter 1999); race and ethnic diversity (ISC, No.11, Summer 2000); and sexuality (ISC No. 12, Winter 2000). But our most ambitious and successful issue has been that on Globalisation and Information (ISC No.14, Winter 2001). This issue was produced and edited by Ruth Rikowski, who is an expert on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and its impact on library and information services.

The subject of globalisation has been continued in the last three issues of ISC and has become a permanent theme. I have bought some hard copies of ISC to this conference, and you can access full text versions via our website at As from our latest issue (ISC No. 17, Summer 2003), ISC is to become an electronic journal and no further hard copies will be produced. But hard copies can be downloaded and printed from the website. Our next issue of ISC (No. 18, January 2004) will include a report back and papers from this conference.

ISC has held conferences with our sister organisation, Link, a network for North-South Library Development. Our first conference, "Better Read than Dead" (1996) looked at the achievements of libraries in the Socialist countries of Cuba, China, North Korea and Vietnam. Our second conference, "Libraries and Social and Political Exclusion" (1999) examined issues of exclusion from an international perspective, with reference to case studies in Chile, Tanzania and Russia.

ISC is part of an international network of progressive library and information organisations. In particular, we work very closely with the Progressive Librarians Guild (USA) and BIS (Sweden). In 2001 ISC submitted a statement to the American Library Association (ALA) International Relations Committee and to ALA Council on the issue of the so-called "independent libraries movement" in Cuba. The ISC position is that these are neither "independent" or "libraries" and that they are part of the US government's continual attempt to undermine and destabilise Cuba's political, economic and social systems.

Cuban Libraries Support Group

The Cuban Libraries Support Group (CLSG) was established in July 1999 to support: Cuban libraries, librarians, library and information workers and the Cuban Library Association (ASCUBI); Cuba's free and comprehensive education system and high literacy levels; the Cuban people's right to self determination and to choose the social, political and economic systems which support their library service.

CLSG works in partnership with a number of organisations including Book Aid International, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Link, Information for Social Change, the Progressive Librarians Guild, BIS and the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association.

CLSG activities include: working with partners and other agencies to disseminate information about the Cuban library system; producing articles for publication and arranging meetings to discuss the Cuban education and library systems; supporting the Cuban National Programme for the Development of Reading; and organising study tours to Cuba to visit libraries and meet with Cuban librarians and library and information workers. The first of these study tours is planned for February 2004 to coincide with the Havana Book Fair. They are being organised in partnership with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and Capitolio Travel Ltd.

CLSG responded to the report on Cuban libraries produced by the intellectual freedom committee (FAIFE) of IFLA in 1999. Much of the mis-information in this report was supplied by Robert Kent and the so-called "Friends of Cuban Libraries". This group is, in fact, funded by the US government. The group leader, Robert Kent, has taken books and pamphlets to Cuba for Freedom House and the Centre for a Free Cuba, both of which are funded by the US Agency for International Development. On three occasions his travel expenses were paid by Freedom House or the Centre for a Free Cuba.

CLSG has placed letters and articles in the professional press, the "Morning Star" daily newspaper, and "Cuba Si" (journal of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign) countering the lies and propaganda being circulated by Robert Kent. In April 2000 members of CLSG visited a so-called "independent library" in Havana and exposed it as a front for counter revolutionary activity. CLSG issued a discussion paper about this visit, along with articles by Rhonda L. Neugebauer (Cuban Libraries: challenges and achievements) and Larry R. Oberg (Cuba Today, tomorrow, forever).

Robert Kent continues to spread his propaganda and lies, despite the fact that his arguments have been rejected by IFLA and the ALA, both of whom have signed cooperation agreements with the Cuban Library Association. Despite this, the IFLA Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression produced a media release on Intellectual Freedom in Cuba on 8 May 2003: "Once again, IFLA urges the Cuban government to eliminate obstacles to access to information imposed by its policies", said the Chair of the IFLA/FAIFE Committee Mr Alex Byrne.

CLSG responded to this statement by pointing out that the biggest "obstacle to access to information", and access to many other goods and services, was the illegal US blockade of Cuba. CLSG also circulated a briefing paper giving "background information pertaining to recent events in Cuba". This was with regard to the 65 so-called "dissidents", including some "independent librarians" who were arrested, tried and imprisoned in April 2003. They were charged and convicted of conducting "mercenary activity in the pay of a foreign enemy power". They were found guilty of receiving sustained financial assistance, gifts and equipment and of having been recruited by the head of the US Interests Section in Havana, James Cason, to carry out counter-revolutionary activities.

CLSG continues to campaign against the US blockade of Cuba and for the release of the five Cuban patriots who have been imprisoned in America for exposing the US terrorist threat to Cuba. CLSG also seeks to influence UK and European Union policy on Cuba, on issues such as Cuba's application to join the Cotonou Agreement regulating economic cooperation relations between the EU and the 79 countries that make up the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group (ACP). Cuba withdrew their application to join when Spain and Britain attempted to establish additional and discriminatory requirements for Cuba.

Even as I put the finishing touches to this paper (5 June 2003), I have just received a "press release" by email from Robert Kent headed "Nat Hentoff Blasts ALA Persecution of Librarians in Cuba". And so the constant struggle goes on to defend and develop the Cuban library system and the Cuban Revolution.


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