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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

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ISC 20. The Library in Crisis, 2002: Introduction to Julian Samuel's documentary film

Press Release

The Library in Crisis (46 minutes, 2002) is a documentary on libraries; historic and contemporary bibliocides; literacy and the French Revolution; libraries morphing into centers of E-commerce; the impact of copyright and the digitization of texts; the Khmer Rouge's catalogues of people killed; and the World Trade Organization's concern for democracy.

The film includes interviews with:

Brian Campbell, Past-chair, Canadian Library Association, Information Policy Committee and Founding President, Vancouver Community Network

Donald Gutstein , Senior Lecturer, Communication, Simon Fraser University and Author of E.Con: How the Internet Undermines Democracy

Fred Lerner, Author of The Story of Libraries, From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age

Ian McLachlan , Chair of Cultural Studies, Trent University

Manal Stamboulie , Head Librarian, Lakefield College School

Martin Dowding, Assistant Professor, School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies, University of British Columbia

Peter F. McNally, Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, McGill University

Sumaiya Hamdani, Islamic Historian, George Mason University

Film-maker and writer Julian Samuel has made a four-hour documentary on Orientalism and has published a novel, Passage to Lahore, [De Lahore à Montréal].

Julian Samuel can be contacted at jjsamuelat


The Library in Crisis: Introduction by Vinita Ramani

In the recent past there has been much furor surrounding the meetings of institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The corresponding clout of protestors has been aided by the ubiquitous presence of the Internet, which has acted as a useful tool in decentralized cooperative organization. So much attention has fallen upon this medium of communication and information acquisition, that little has been said about how its predecessor and still existing sibling - the library - figures into the larger equation. Filmmaker, writer and visual artist Julian Samuel has undertaken the project of tracing the birth and current trajectory of this public service institution par excellence. 'The Library in Crisis' follows The Raft of the Medusa; Into the European Mirror; and City of the Dead and World Exhibitions (1993 -1995). The trilogy largely concerned itself with the nuances of colonialism and imperialism, bringing the articulations of history into the realm of documentary filmmaking. Since the library is the institution in question here, the concern with history has not been abandoned. In a recent interview, noted writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali observed that it is as if history has increasingly become too subversive because the past has too much knowledge embedded in it. How historiography has shifted over time can be aptly charted by following the progress and function of writing and libraries. This is the core articulation of the documentary.

The video consists of interviews with eight academics, historians, and librarians, who offer a kind of collective genealogy of the library, from the advent of writing and universities to its use as a tool for disseminating information by the state. This is connected to present concerns regarding the digitization of texts, copyright laws and how the privatization of a public domain amounts to an infringement on civil liberties. As Donald Gutstein aptly notes in the film, the library is in many ways the foundation of a democratic society. The full gravity of this statement is articulated as the documentary moves towards considering bibliocide - euphemistically described as "de-accessioning" books.

Tracing the beginnings of writing, Fred Lerner and Ian McLachlan note how it oscillated between several roles, with the information function and wisdom embodiment function of writing often caught in a proverbial tussle. This tension between contradictory forces manifests most pointedly in the shape of the library as an institution that served both purposes.

Depending on the nature of the historical context, the roles played by libraries varied considerably. Samuel uses understated juxtapositions to convey this tension through the documentary. The images are not always inter-cut with each other, thereby occupying full screen presence. Instead, he repeats his preference for split screens, previously utilized in his trilogy. The camera roves across the spines of aged books on the shelves, while one of the interviewees speaks in a smaller frame - a screen within a screen. Similarly, pages awash in sepia-toned light share space with flashes of computer screens, where a search for Nalanda University yields a digital image of the building. Thus, attention is constantly drawn to the contrast between fragments of digitized information with their immediacy, and the organization of texts, which necessarily require more time and patience.

Islamic historian Sumaiya Hamdani offers an important critical perspective on libraries as purveyors of information dissemination. There is particular relevance to her observation that the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the nation state required and invented homogeneity. This was embodied in education, libraries and state propaganda. The alignment of education and libraries with state propaganda is one shift in the interpretation of libraries that is astutely explored. No surprise then, that Peter McNally refers to the underground network of publications written during the French Revolution. Rather than censorship, a more effective means of suppressing dissent was provided by creating middle-class values of morality through mass literacy. This point is visually complemented by website images of Khmer Rouge victims, perhaps hinting at the point that creating a mass culture also allowed for the elimination of a nameless mass. Libraries therefore, were increasingly used as repositories of detailed information on genocide, and the propagation of state ideology.

Manal Stamboulie, Donald Gutstein and Brian Campbell further the multiple interpretations of libraries presented in the documentary by highlighting how they have now become centers of E-commerce. The inclusion of software into the copyright act in 1976 has raised crucial questions about corporate take-over of information. While efforts are being made to copyright and commodify information, libraries increasingly become the carriers of electronic information - in itself incomplete and frequently less widely accessible than one presumes. Much of the fuss around information technology has revolved around issues of availability and the curtailment of file sharing and free access. However, Gutstein's point that institutions in the information technology field are more concerned with how to charge for information rather than how to increase access acts as an important connective to previous definitions of libraries. What was previously a public service now faces infringements from the private sector and institutions such as the World Trade Organization play a role as participants in support of this corporate orientation. Thankfully, Samuel avoids any conclusive remarks about these dramatic shifts. The threat to free access and the marginalisation of a library's role in questioning and creating ideas are assertively put forward. But the various perspectives avoid being prescriptive, therefore allowing room for debate.

Overall, the questions considered in this documentary have wide applicability inside and outside classrooms. Its considerations of how writing and ideas have developed through time make it a relevant tool in fields such as history, cultural theory and media studies, especially if one considers the library as a core institution within the academy. Perhaps more significantly, it handles the phenomena of globalization without stating the obvious or re-playing the now-popular trope of protestors who constitute the "anti-globalization" movement - itself an inaccurate summing up of a diverse movement. Rather, by delving into the historically shifting function of libraries and current developments involving corporate presence, it draws attention to how globalization concretely threatens intellectual freedom as well as political and economic liberties. By raising the idea of a library as a community whose reading rooms provide presence, distance and a space to engage in debates, it implicitly compels us to question how we understand the growing presence of web-based communities and what limits will be imposed upon this method of social activism.


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