They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Infodiversity, utopia and a trip to Mexico

Infodiversity, utopia and a trip to Mexico

Y andarse con pies de plomo...

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

While you are reading these lines, I am on my way to Guadalajara, Jalisco capital city, Mexico... lands and towns that, even without being known by many of us, sound familiar thanks to popular songs coming from this region (among many other things, of course). Guadalajara is a big city placed in Atemajac Valley; and is the second place most populated of Mexico, with more than 1.5 million people. As it is said, it is well known for its traditions, gastronomy and cultural and recreational attractions; among the last ones, the International Fair Book of Guadalajara (FIL) is a very good example. It is the biggest in Hispano-America –according to the number of publishers and visitors attending to it–, and the second worldwide, after Frankfurt Fair Book. At the same time the Fair takes place, the XIV International Librarians Symposium ('Info diversity: library as multicultural center') will be celebrate. I have been invited to participate in it with a workshop on 'Infodiversity and libraries role' from the 26th to the 28th of November.

If you already have noticed that 'infodiversity' (translated from Spanish 'infodiversidad') means 'information diversity' or better 'information in a plural world, culturally speaking', congratulations on your shrewdness, which is admirable. It was not so clear to me, thus, before giving an affirmative answer to my Mexican colleagues, I made the decision of studying the term in detail to be certain that the subject I was supposed to deal with, was within my knowledge field and, therefore, if I was going to be able to give a workshop –or any other similar activity– with the seriousness that it deserves.

While studying, I came across some valuable documents written by the Mexican Estela Morales Campos that allowed me to find out that –considering my working experience– I would be able to give a workshop on the subject. Basically, the term –and the concept behind– recovers the importance of diversity and human plurality, perfectly embodied in all the information produced by the many different cultures around the world (understanding 'culture' in its widest sense). The workshop that I will give in Guadalajara will focus on showing the role that libraries may (and/or should) play in a world where 'info diversity' is threatened all the time.

Threats? Yes, definitely so many. On the one hand, the enormous pressure of dominant languages and cultures, which leads to 96% of the planet speaking only 4% of the existing idioms and 90% of the world languages underrepresented on the Internet. In these circumstances, 'digital revolution' and 'knowledge society' (and its great influence on the contemporary world) are a potential threat to local minority cultures survival. 'Global' culture –that is to say, dominant nation's culture– is literally smashing regional cultures. If you do not believe me, make the attempt to find out, for example, how many different web pages there are in Quechua language (spoken by hundreds of thousands people in South America) on the Internet... or how many songs, tales, customs, and traditional stories of Castile (the Old)... or how much music played with 'gaita' and 'chicote' from Colombia you can download... or how many recipes from the Chiloé Island (Chile) or from northern Paraguay you can find... You only have to compare these findings with the examples representing the dominant culture on the Internet

Of course, these means and technologies can be used in favor of less represented groups (since they are the ones that endow our culture with its wide diversity; without them we will be a world quite homogeneous and grey). On how to use such instruments –this is the question– there is nothing resolved yet, and will be necessary to design plans and strategies in advance.

On the other hand, digital divides continue to grow and widen. It does not have only to do with the fact that still there are regions in our planet where a computer cannot work because there is not electricity supply, or there is not telephone line, or simply there is no money to buy the computer. Mainly it has to do with information illiteracy, with how inappropriate it seems to make use of these elements by a great part of our planet. Other barriers also turn into threats: copyright is a good example.

Once again, these walls can be slowly pulled down. They do not have necessarily to be threats. Maybe they can become opportunities. Nevertheless, up to the present moment, the progress done in such 'erasing' has been slow.

More threats? Urban cultures (and information) measuring their strength against the rural ones, and many other 'cultural battles': 'politically correct' against 'alternative', the 'stronger sex' against the 'weaker', working age people against children and elders, 'official' history against 'non-official'... All these fragments under pressure belong to our identity, they make us be what we are. If they disappeared, one part of us will go with them.

What can a library do? It can offer its space to let all voices sound; to recover, organize and disseminate them. For urban punks and peasants to be equally present; for anarchist and official leaflets to have the same informative value; for indigenous and western knowledge to be accessed in identical conditions, for different languages from the official to not be a part of 'special collections'...

My workshop will deal with these issues and I hope that, with the proposed activities, we be able to recover experiences, opinions and ideas that develop participants' awareness of the power they have in their hands.

I find too many colleagues –and no colleagues– who think that facing up to dominant streams –those that have been presented above as 'threats' to diversity and plurality– is nothing less than a 'utopia'. I really love that word, but I feel tired of listening that anything attempted against the establishment is a sort of delusion. If we make the decision of throwing in the towel and chose to stand there doing nothing with a challenge, and if we believe that it is not worthy to swing against the tide because it is useless or tiring... then, we will live in a world of destruction and forgetfulness. A world where USA administration and his allies will continue to lay waste with everything that lie in their path, devastating countries, killing civilians with impunity (because, who will oppose them?); where we will end up speaking a language that is not the language we learnt at home (because 'everybody speaks it, and it is the best way of communicating with each other'); where we will read, learn and do whatever someone else tell us to do (because 'that is what is correct'); where to be different from the standard will be as if someone had put a course on us; where to be a woman, a child, an elder, a poor, a black, a Latino, an Arab, a peasant, an indigenous or many more things, will sentence us to survive behind the line (the very same line that separates so many things and so many people)...

If we keep on considering that facing those things is 'impossible', then, let's put our arms down and start to run like lambs of a flock, waiting for the time when we had to present our neck to the slaughter man's knife. The time will come as it happened to many unlucky people before us. Or perhaps we decide to adapt to such 'non-existence' that means to become something that we did not chose to be and do not like to be.

On my part, I prefer to believe that a plural world is possible and defend it with what I do. I prefer to stop thinking of 'utopias' as dreams and turn them into 'possibilities': chances that are worth fighting for, at least if we want them to have the opportunity to come true.

With these ideas in my mind I set out for Mexico. A huge hug from Argentina...

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

To throw in the towel

To throw in the towel

By Sara Plaza

A few days ago I came across the brilliant answer that the Cuban writer Leonardo Padora offered in an interview conducted by the journalist Mauricio Vicent for "El País" newspaper: "If one throws in the towel, s/he can only throw it over his/her head, and that is not an option." I liked it so much that I was putting the idea the right side out and turning it back in my head for a while, since I had always thought that if at any moment I decided to throw in the towel, I would do it over somebody else's head, never over mine. So, I spent some time thinking in Padura's answer and started to understand that maybe the Cuban author was right and, sure enough, when someone throws in the towel, the only thing s/he does is to cover his/her face with it. And of course, this is not an option. How is it going to be an option to hidden? Because, what else would we be doing by covering our face with a towel but stop to see? What else would we hope but try to get others could not see us?

The problem –there is always one– is that we are the worst judge of ourselves and we cannot deceive ourselves (neither am I sure whether others are so easily fooled, although some attempts have been more than successful through history). I do not know whether you remember your parents, or to your grandparents, telling you something like "a lie has very short legs" or maybe like "you will catch earlier a liar than a lame person", when you were children. I heard my parents saying both of them many times and, little by little, I saw for myself how certain they were. However, since in life nothing is what seems to be and almost everything looks like something else, I also learned that lies have subtle ways of stretching their legs, and that liars can move quickly in this reality that so many times invites us to throw in the towel.

But no, a lie is neither an option, nor is it deception; forgetfulness was never an option either and silence won't be. They are no options because following their footprints we will find nothing but our own defeat. And nobody likes to lose, especially when our life is at stake. I am not saying that to walk those paths is right or wrong, I am only stating that they take you to nowhere. I believe that most of the people choose to tread one of those paths at a certain moment in our life. Human beings are never satisfied with others' experiences; we want to walk the way, to come up against our own problems a thousand times if necessary, and overcome them as many. That's why, when we realize that we are going nowhere, that we are stuck (something that is not simple and does not happen so quickly), we go round and round looking for the way out.

We can cover our faces and pretend that there is no exit, but we would be finding one already: to give up. Or we can cool it down with fresh water, blink a few times and look further. The last one seems to me an option and, no doubt, the best way out: to keep on moving. What for? Which reasons? Which proposes? Perhaps we cannot find them at the beginning, but it is convenient to think that there are some valuable ones, that they are there though we cannot see them, and that they are certainly worth the effort. Above all, it is advisable to seek them in the very simple things, in what we most love, what is important for us, what we like, what we can do, what we can manage to learn and, in case we are still in doubt, we can always remember what we don't love, what is not important for us, what we don't like, what we don't know and what we don't want to learn either. It is not easy, but neither is it too difficult. Love can't cope with everything, but don't be mistaken: money does not talk either.

I prefer commitment, willingness, and determination. I certainly go for joy. All of them are good tools in order to try it once more, to not throw in the towel. I am addressing to all those men and women who work to stop reality being as it is, to change what does not work, to redress a number of imbalances, to make distance smaller, to stop different divides getting bigger and bigger; all those men and women who hope to get everybody can find their own place in the world, can say their own words and listen to other's. I only hope to give you a gently prod with these lines, for every one continues doing their best in such direction. Any time we feel tired, and we are going to be exhausted on many occasions (to swing against the tide is really tiring, however, it does not mean we are wrong), is advisable to sit down for a while, to get our breath back and to keep on working for what we believe is worthy, for whatever we defend. And it is recommended to do so alongside those who believe and defend something similar, though they do not think exactly the same, though on many occasions we do not agree. There is not a single way of doing anything, neither is it clear that a particular manner will be always better than other: let's allow us not to be true at certain times and to listen to others; let's give us permission for being wrong and for finding out how others did it right...

It is a great success to have tried it, but it "tastes" much better to continue doing it. And, of course, from time to time, it is important to achieve what we had previously set out. So, if we agree that to throw in the towel is not an option, the best thing to do next, is to use the towel for drying our face after cooling it down, and keep on moving, managing to keep our spirits up, let's say at the same height we should always place our heart...

"We have to keep our heart up for it never sinks, for it never goes away, and in order not to go to pieces oneself."

María Zambrano

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

A library... what for?

A library... what for?

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

Many Australian aboriginal communities that live in the Torres Strait Islands, an inlet that separates the great country from (quite unknown and isolated) Papua New Guinea, make themselves this question... This is also an excellent question for librarians to think about, since we use to provide standard answers (drawn upon the book we have read and the theory classes we have attended) and, sometimes, those explanations are not very convincing... even for ourselves.

Through my field work in northern Argentina I have come up against this question, also within indigenous communities, and even in many of the workshops I have taught in Latin America and most of the conferences I have given here and there. The question is repeated in many places and every time I find more and more reasons for thinking it twice (or more times if necessary) before giving an answer.

Through my research work on library services in rural areas and indigenous communities, also through this weblog and through many discussion spaces on library and social issues, I have managed to earn many colleagues' friendship worldwide. Those people work in very different places, from University teachers and freelance researchers, to State Library Systems managers and colleagues behind a reference desk. Perhaps, because of my own nature, I maintain a more fluid relationship with those ones working in rural areas, with very scarce resources and in such situations that almost nobody would love to replace them in their jobs. A handful of them work in the islands named above, and are of aboriginal origin, Melanesian to say it properly. They are called Torres Strait Islanders, and have been subjected to secular persecution by colonizing forces (British, in that part of the planet) and have suffered the pressure of successive Australian governments until recent times, when the so–called "reconciliation acts" attempted to minimize the damage caused and aimed at reaching peace, balance and equity.

From a conciliatory and multicultural perspective, State Libraries, such as the one placed in Queensland State (NE Australia, to which straits islands belong), have proposed policies, strategies and services –very well designed, by the way– directed toward the achievement of offering information access to local aboriginal communities. The State Library of Queensland (SLQ), particularly, has developed an excellent network of Indigenous Knowledge Centers (IKCs), which have been placed within aboriginal communities in order to serve not only as a library but also as a meeting point and cultural house.

Some librarians, working in the IKCs situated in the [remote] islands of the Torres Strait, are some of the colleagues whom I share my ideas and friendship (when the Internet allows us to do it, of course).

The fundamental approach of this Australian proposal is fantastic, and I really want to celebrate the experience. However, behind those good initiatives and wishes, an overwhelming reality appears: the potential users seem to strive to continue being just the same: potential. They do not visit the library. According to initial evaluations, they do not find in it anything that may be useful (in spite of the good number of photographs that show them reading and enjoying the warm library atmosphere), and keep on considering it as "whites' stuff". From time to time, they make use of the Internet, but the access to this means of communications turns difficult and expensive in those regions, what demonstrates, once more, that the Digital Divide does not only exist between North and South. And people responsible for those units –who are human resources recruited and trained within the community itself– find little support. In fact, one of the most ambitious projects of the SLQ that aimed at providing continuous education suggested sending graduated librarians to those communities for a period of about six months in order to support local staff through training work. Only a dozen of volunteers turned up, and none of them stayed longer than four or six working weeks.

These comments do not try to criticize a library system that I believe, alongside New Zeeland, the best worldwide regarding indigenous services. I just attempt to express the need for a serious thought, which allow me to understand why it is so difficult to find a satisfactory answer, when it comes to the question so many times raised by those I have encountered in my way over the last years, especially when I speak about rural, indigenous or disadvantaged populations (of which Latin America has a good number of examples).

"A library... What for?"

"For reading, for finding information, for gaining knowledge, culture, for learning about yourselves and about the world" I answer.

"The information that is placed in those bookshelves or on the Internet does nothing to do with us; neither is it in our language, nor helps us with anything. So, a library... What for?"

"For supporting children schooling, for maintaining your own culture in a bilingual way, for promoting interculturality" I answer.

"In the school and in the library, our children face acculturation and constant pressure, as it happens to us in the streets and in our working places. Multiculturality is a tale: it has high quantities of dominant culture plus a light touch of minorities' culture in order to be 'politically correct'. And, anyway, we and our culture are not represented in books or on the Internet. At least, we are not well represented. So, a library... What for?"

"For promoting literacy campaigns, for learning how to read and write..." I keep on trying.

"And who is going to teach us how to read and write? Librarians, who hardly manages to deal with other tasks? Volunteers, who come and leave as quickly as they can, as if we stink out or pass on poverty? And... about teaching us, are they going to teach me the language of the country, mine, both or none of them? The library has not taught us anything. So, a library... What for?"

"For having a good time?" I try timidly.

This last attempt of answer pays me back with a smile, a sad smile, perhaps ironic in a way: nothing else and nothing less.

I end up feeling very tired of so many reasons, which I know that are true, though I must also acknowledge that they can hardly be certain every time and everywhere. Regretfully enough, those examples of libraries that work out in spite of the "complex" populations they give services to are a few ones.

In the meanwhile, in my inbox, I receive a lot of emails from friends and colleagues who, maybe without attempting to, help me to understand that the reason for my impossibility of finding an appropriate answer to such a difficult question can be in the disconnection existing between the official and theoretical library on the one side, and the real users on the other. In those emails I read about virtual libraries, which have been scheduled for populations that cannot read or do not have electricity; books sent to aboriginal communities that are written by non-aboriginal for non-aboriginal persons; librarians who do not know the features of the community they are going to serve through the library activities and who, with their attitudes, perpetuate discrimination and exclusion; tale hours during which only are read Perrault's classical tales and the self traditional stories are set aside...

There is a dreadful disconnection between the theoretical / official ideas and projects, and the reality. And it is clear to me that reality continues turning down proposals that sound strange to it and do not respond to what it is searching for. That is way people worldwide keep on raising the very same question I am dogged by.

"A library... What for?"

It will be necessary to find a convincing and realistic answer soon, although a great deal will be demanded of us on this issue: breaking our obsolete mental and professional structures and building new ones. At least, I believe that such step has to be taken if we want to achieve the success that would deserve our efforts and proposals.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Uses and abuses in the name of the language

Uses and abuses in the name of the language

By Sara Plaza

"It is badly expressed", "you cannot say it that way", "this is not Castilian"... these are a few ways in which a good number of teachers sanction (for it does not seem to me that this is the way in which someone "corrects" anything) the manner through which their students make questions, give answers, try to explain themselves, intend to tell something, give examples, make any comments... I listened to them when I was a child, while I went to primary school in my little village; I repeated them when I was in my teens in order to criticize the spoken language of my parents; I suffered them when I was a young woman in my twenties and, being with some friends of mine who have grown up in the city, they laughed at my "vulgar", "from the country" way of speaking.

Because no matter how much my elementary and high schools teachers did penalized the linguistic marks that featured the spoken language of my community, my family and myself, I have never been able to get rid of them completely and, in many moments of my daily life, when I am in a relaxed atmosphere and take part in casual conversations, they are part of my way of saying, telling, thinking, interpreting... Precisely because of this, for they are the marks where on I first rested in order to communicate with my parents, with my grandparents, with my schoolmates, and with the shopkeepers of my village.

If I do not concern myself about it, I mean, if I am not much aware of this fact, those marks slip through my formal writing, my explanations, my most elaborated opinions. So, I spend most of the time with a dictionary in my hands and I always doubt about the correct form of saying this or that... This makes me feel a bit sad and quite disappointed, much to my regret: not because I have to use the dictionary all the time, that is a very good exercise, but considering what makes me I feel much sorry: the fact that through the education I received in the classroom I only learnt that some of the things that I said (and the way I said them) were right and some others were definitely wrong. In the class, neither there was space, time or opportunity to find anything out about the different linguistic varieties that exist of any language, nor to understand that all of them are valid, valuable and necessary, and that its true extent of rightness will depend on the moment and the situation; on what we are trying to say and whom we are talking to; on the circumstances, on the purpose... We can continue and make this list longer, however, the idea is always the same: there is not one unique, right and true manner of speaking in our language, but a wonderful diversity of different ways of communication through it.

Concerning my own linguistic marks, and the good number of smiles that they are drawn on my interlocutors' face through the years, I must make it clear that the pass of the time has smoothed the bitterness of the sort of grimace that I discovered in the lips of my urban friends when I was younger, and has let my eyes find others much more beautiful in Edgardo's mouth. Now, it is wonderful to see his sheer joy in the curve of his lips, when I let slip a saying of my land, and I should admit with absolute delight, that I have also come across very funny smiles on many elders' faces, who recognize in my marks the linguistic variety of that Castilla (Castile) named "la Vieja" (the old)... Undoubtedly, it has been the joyfulness of all of them what has allowed me to value my identity (and not only the linguistic one), what has made me turn my face and look back with a lot of tender love, and even with certain pride, to the place where I was born and to my childhood in a rural area.

In addition, as time has passed, I have been more and more conscious that the goings and comings between my village and the city during my teens and my twenties, allow me now to move freely from one place to another and to "get on" quite well with both contexts. Fortunately, in the last few years, I have increased this ability to establish a constructive dialogue between different (sometimes even opposite) realities thanks to having lived in more than one country. I know how lucky I am of having let my eyes become able to see different sunrises; of having listening to the grass rustling under my feet, sometimes making an army of crickets fell silent, and awaking a handful of toads bigger than my hand others; of having turn my palms red after clapping in delight to show how much I had enjoyed the music of those many instruments that I was not able to name when I first met them...

It is not strange that being far away –and I do not only refer to the amount of space between two places– we understand better the value of what had been close to us up to that moment. Sooner than later, the life is in charge of making us know about this fact. However, I believe that it is a shame that school does not teach it to us much earlier. I consider that it is highly regrettable that such institution continues to deny –still on too many occasions– our identity and keeps on sanctioning our way of speaking, penalizing those linguistic marks that distance any variety of a language from the standard. .

I thought about all these things a few days ago, while I was reading "Hacia una educación intercultural en el aula" [1] (Towards an intercultural education in the classroom) publisthed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology of Argentina. On several occasions I turned back the page I read the lines written in the chapter number four by a teacher named María Mercedes Sosa. I would like to finish with her thoughts, since I have found in them all that I would have been delighted to discover a long, long time ago...

... It is true that school is the place where the teaching of the standard language should take place, since its knowledge will allow students to become involved in situations that may require formality. Nevertheless, to attain this goal does not mean to consider unworthy or devaluate the dialect of our children; to intend to achieve this aim does nothing to do with "erase" from the child the linguistic marks that feature his/her place of origin: of birth, of age, of social class, of sense of belonging.

To reject their variety, is the same as rejecting their identity. The mother tongue, the language that the child first heard from his/her parents, from his/her grandparents, from his/her elder brothers and sisters, from his/her community, is used as a communication and emotion tool. Through it, the child learnt to build his/her world. The word "mother" linked him/her to the world; the popular song, the prayers, the chants, the stories, the jokes, the silences, made him/her gradually become a human being and connected him/her with the community.

Then, what should we do? Basically we have to show respect for our children and for ourselves, assume that teachers also have a social and cultural background and, because of it, we have linguistic marks as well. [...]

Teaching language is not the same as teaching how to speak; the child already knows how to do it when s/he arrives at the school. Teaching language is not the same as giving mechanical and functional rules; teaching language is to contribute towards the language development, to help creativity; is to make available to the child all the possibilities that the language offers in order to communicate with each other in different situations.

Teaching language should not show a red card all the time: if we do this, nobody will want to play –in this case to express him/herself– for fear of being wrong.

[1] Lasala, M. y Sosa, M. M. "Hacia una educación intercultural en el aula". Buenos Aires: Ministerio de Educación, Ciencia y Tecnología, 2006.

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