The Library as Publisher in the Whole Wide World

This is a translation from Swedish of yesterday’s blog post by Mikael Böök on the library as publisher. Mikael is among other things involved in LibPub, IFLA’s special group in the field. The group places its main emphasis on publishing of academic texts by higher education and research libraries, even though they also visit public libraries. Mikael comments below on a recent webinar under the auspices of the special group, but asks why does not IFLA’s own extensive advocacy, especially with regard to the UN’s sustainability goals, count as publication? And why don’t librarians publish their support for the UN agreement on a ban on nuclear weapons? (that in fact won a big victory last night: «UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons reaches 50 ratifications needed for entry into force»).

The word is Mikael’s:

This sommer I joined the international umbrella organisation of librarians, IFLA. You can become a personal member there if you consider yourself able to afford the membership fee (77 euro).

As a background to my membership, a couple of years ago I decided to participate in the relatively new IFLA Special Interest Group on library publishing (LibPub). 

The group held a webinar a few days ago (16 October) which I missed. But now I have watched the more than two hour long recording of this event via Youtube. The purpose of the webinar seems to have been to involve librarians from a larger part of the world than North America and Europe in the LibPub group. Thus, speakers had been invited from the Philippines, Russia, Nigeria and Turkey (see the program).

Those who do not have time to take part in the entire webinar can go directly to James “Jim” O’Donnell’s elegant concluding comments at 1:59.

Library publishing is usually given a rather narrow definition; …

it is explicitly about scholarly publishing. In other words, the term most closely covers the publishing, curated by librarians, of academic and scientific literature, and especially the publishing of learned journals. This is also the starting point for IFLA’s LibPub-group. At the same time, there is an awareness of the multifaceted nature of publishing and the library as publisher.

Thus, the Turkish webinar-speaker reported on a kind of research project run by a city library in the city of Bursa, which has resulted in a long list of historical, sociological, geographical, etc. books about the city of Bursa. 

For the Russian participant library publishing was instead a question of how the Russian libraries support and promote their own activities through the publication of books and journals about, for instance, library history and library science; in short, it was to a great extent a question of library advocacy.

What the Russian representative said they are doing is probably something that all librarians in all countries do, although not everywhere in such an organized and serious manner as in Russia.

From the session of the webinar with the Turkish public library representative

If we did not have corona times now, I might have participated in a “physical” conference and in that way probably got more out of the event than of the webinar film from which I have related some fragments above . But the film was also rewarding. Through it I was led into a new path of thought for me.

These days I am trying to form an opinion about IFLA’s commitment to the United Nations’ Agenda 2030, which as you know is about a sustainable development. And then it strikes me how much Agenda 2030 provides IFLA with an opportunity to promote not only the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but also the libraries as such. According to IFLA, the governments and the tax payers must understand that they need to guarantee, expand and finance the libraries because of their major contribution to the achievement of the SDGs (see the page Libraries, Development and the United Nations 2030 Agenda at IFLA’s website).

I also believe that the libraries contribute positively in many ways to the further development of both the industralised countries and and the developing countries. How sustainable this development actually is, can and should of course be discussed.

But, I ask, is not library advocacy also a form of library publishing? The answer is undoubtedly yes. The library has to speak for itself and is happy to do so. Then the library can’t help but publish about itself. 

And IFLA does energetically publish its involvement in the development agenda of the United Nations: declarations are being addressed to the UN member states, and posters printed to be hang up on library walls; brochures are being edited, expert studies commissioned and reports are being published. 

IFLA also understands itself and the librarians as one of several stakeholders in the UN cooperation towards fulfilling the sustainable development goals. Representatives are being sent to Agenda 2030-related meetings and conferences. The above mentioned publishing is combined with direct influencing and political practice. 

The core of IFLA’s message to the countries and peoples is the concept of access to information as a necessary condition for a sustainable development. The role of the library is to secure and improve the access to information. If I read the information from IFLA correctly, there was also a lot of effort behind the fact that “the access to information” was included as target number 16.10 in the resolution about the 17 SDGs that the General Assembly of the UN adopted on September 25, 2015.

In the LibPub-group of IFLA we tend to downplay the importance of this kind of publishing and practice which aims at the public sphere of the countries and peoples. The group focuses, in my opinion, a bit one-sidedly on the growing role of librarians in the publishing of learned publications aimed at academic communities. 

All publishing activities, including the scientific one, include elements of an emphasis (assertion, proclamation, promotion, confession…) of oneself or one’s own group, institution, university, party, religious community, motherland, etc. Whatever the purpose of the publication – justification or financial gain, warning of dangers or diverting attention from them, in short, promoting the public good or safeguarding the self-interest – it can never be a purely objective or neutral operation. Conversely, publishing is always an ethico-political project, regardless of how esoteric it seems to be or if it is hidden in academic ivory towers high above all suspicion of selfish, biased or other problematic motives, or if it is habitually perceived as more or less harmless news coverage, gossip, or entertainment.

* * *

Why does an organization that resolutely supports the UN Agenda 2030 hesitate to get involved in the international campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons?

IFLA is happy to publish its contribution to sustainable development. And the commonly agreed development agenda of all the member states of the United Nations undoubtedly deserves the contribution of the librarians. 

But is a sustainable development compatible with the permanent threat from nuclear weapons system on the ground, in the air, in the seas and in space? How does the enormous waste of resources, which the maintenance and the ongoing further development (!) of these systems entail, go together with a sustainable economic and social development? Can global warming be curbed without the dismantling of the nuclear doomsday machinery ?

I refuse to believe that the librarians want to keep the nuclear weapons systems. The library certainly exists in order to keep something but that something is as surely not nuclear weapons. Rather it’s “humanity’s only reliable memory” (Schopenhauer) . 

The library also exists to change the world by abolishing various undesirable conditions, including ignorance. Then why not also the nuclear threat? Why does the library community hesitate to take a stand on the nuclear issue? Do librarians prefer to abide by the dictates of the nuclear states?

IFLA ought to publish the wish of the librarians that has not yet been expressed, the unpublished wish to get rid of the nuclear weapons systems. This would be an extremely effective measure of library advocacy which would further increase the good reputation of the libraries and the librarians among the peoples of the whole world. Because the peoples of the world really also want to get rid of the nuclear weapons systems. 

Today’s good news is that the Norwegian Library Association has taken up the case. It has decided to support the motion to the upcoming IFLA General Assembly (at The Hague 5 November) to become a partner in the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). By joining the partners of ICAN, IFLA would at the same time mark its support for the UN Treaty On the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which will enter into force at the beginning of next year because the number of states that have ratified the TPNW grew to the necessary 50 on UN Day, 24 October. 

So now IFLA could show off yet another important side of the library and have a poster printed with the inscription THIS LIBRARY SUPPORTS THE UN TREATY ON THE PROHIBITION OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS to be hanged up on library walls, and produce a brochure on the need to get rid of the nuclear weapons systems in order to achieve sustainable development..

Today’s bad news is that the motion in question does not show up on the agenda of the general assembly, at least it is not on the version of the agenda which the members of IFLA have received by email. As one of those who submitted the motion I have to add that up til today the IFLA secretariat has not even acknowledged receipt of the motion.

Finally. Scholarly publishing is a very commendable activity. However, there are probably some areas that deserve closer scrutiny. On its website, ICAN links to a critical study called Schools of Mass Destruction. This is a study of the involvement of universities in the military-industrial complex of the United States. “Nearly 50 U.S. universities are involved in the research and design of U.S. nuclear weapons, largely in secret and in contradiction of their mission statements. Students and faculty must demand their universities stop helping to build weapons of mass destruction”, it says. Which roles do the university libraries play in this context?


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