So, the war started… what does the librarian say?

The ruins of the Catholic University Library in Louvain that German soldiers burned down the night between 25th and 26th August 1914. Photo: Wikipedia.

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Does the librarian say something special and unique when there is a war? Is the librarian’s mind different from the rest of us? Or does a little librarian live in each of us? Hunters and warriors we all are, but are we not also collectors and caretakers?

By Mikael Böök

In December 1936, the British writer Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pseudonym George Orwell, travelled from his homeland to Spain with the intention of enlisting as a soldier on the Republican side in the ongoing civil war. On the way, he stopped off in Paris. There he dined with the famous author of the novel The Tropic of Cancer and the  novella Quiet Days in Clichy. The meeting with fellow writer Henry Miller made a strong impression on Orwell. He returned to it later, for example in his essay ‘Inside the Whale’, about what it would be like to live like the prophet Jonah inside the belly of the whale. This was, in fact, something that Henry Miller suggested George Orwell would rather do. Miller told Orwell that his plan to fight in the Spanish civil war was idiotic. And Orwell had to grudgingly agree with him. 

“For the fact is that being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought. The historical Jonah, if he can be so called, was glad enough to escape, but in imagination, in day- dream, countless people have envied him. It is, of course, quite obvious why. The whale’s belly is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no mattermwhat happens”,  

Orwell later mused in his above mentioned essay. Orwell also thought a lot about the common man who, in his view, was decent and did not want to make war. But he himself went to war.

I don’t blame Orwell for that. On the contrary, I want to praise him for continuing to admire Miller as a writer and for his courage to examine his own contradictions.

The professional librarian, on the other hand,  is destined to oppose war. In short, the librarian is a pacifist. Erasmus of Rotterdam would certainly have agreed with this statement. As would Tolstoy. The librarian does not even have to be a Christian …

… like the these two to stay inside the whale and continue collecting and arranging the books and everything that  the media fills our minds with. The information! For example, the knowledge that the whale is not a fish but a mammal.

The newspapers, radio, TV, websites, blogs and social media are a different story.  All media are social, by the way. But the media and their professional group, the journalists, are warmongers and thus complicit in the outbreak of wars. They incite our minds to war hysteria, a collective war psychosis, where “we” are Good and “they” are Evil. A Finnish journalist called Mauno Saari, who used to be the editor-in-chief of a big tabloid paper,  recently described this deplorable feature of the media and the profession of journalismin  a piece called “The media, the warmongers” (Media, sodanlietsoja). Here is an essential part of it:

“The media must be put on forced leave. I know it’s a utopian idea, but think about it! The media have always benefited from war and bloody clothes, but now it is about something else – nuclear pollution, ash and the end of our civilisation. 

Newspapers and TV news have been able to create and maintain around them a halo of sacred truth. Most readers and viewers of the news have the impression that they are close to the truth, and that they are getting reliable news from a sincere and truthful journalism. It is as if the editors of newspapers possessed a knowledge that transcends all else.

They don’t! They depend on what they are given. Newspapers receive articles and “information” from various channels, including news agencies… Which receive information from various channels, including the propaganda departments of states.” 

The Catholic University Library in Louvain was rebuilt during the interwar period but destroyed again during World War II. Here rebuilt once again on a photograph from the year 2011. Photo Michielverbeek Wikipedia.

The library and librarians, on the other hand do not incite war. You can criticise librarians, libraries, librarians’ associations and their international organisation IFLA for many faults, but on this point librarians are so much better than our journalists and not only our journalists but also our politicians.

Of course there are exceptions. Mohandas Gandhi, for example, was an exception though a politician he was. The Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuściński, was not a warmonger. Of course, among our journalists and politicians there are several individuals who would find my sweeping generalisation hurtful. I hope so! Surely there have also been some warmongering librarians, just as there have been doctors who have deliberately harmed their patients rather than trying to alleviate their suffering. But the majority of librarians have stuck to their peaceful calling.

A cherished example is librarian George F Bowerman’s speech “How Far Should the Library Aid the Peace Movement and Similar Propaganda?” delivered at the American Library Association’s national conference in Berkeley, California, in 1915, i.e. during the First World War. Allow me to quote a few passages from the speech, first from the introduction:

“Living in an atmosphere of peace and good will and enlisted in the work of spreading enlightenment, joined by many strong ties with our professional colleagues in other lands, we had assessed the spirit of the world to be in harmony with the spirit of our profession and with the American spirit, strong for universal peace, and had thought that the world had become sufficiently civilized so that war, or at least a great continental war, involving the most advanced European peoples, was no longer possible. Even now it hardly seems comprehensible that many of the European libraries are either closed or are running shorthanded because librarians are serving with armies in the field where they are fighting their professional colleagues of other nations […] Almost incredible also is it that the great library of the university of Louvain should have been destroyed in the twntieth century. It is all so bewildering as almost to defy belief”

Bowerman did not hesitate to urge librarians to help and support the peace movement and the “advocates of internationalism” who want to establish an international court and a world federation to abolish wars. But he concluded by pointing out how difficult it will be to keep such a federation together or to ensure that the rulings of the international tribunal are followed when crises arise:

“In order to be successful, behind the world organization and the international court there must be a sympathetic world spirit. This can only be secured by education, in which the library should have an increasingly large part”.

If Bowerman’s talk of a world spirit in harmony with the spirit of librarians sounds outdated, unrealistic, idealistic, utopian and so on, one only has to look a little closer at the current situation at the end of February 2022 to realise that the situation today seems even worse than it was in 1915.

“We face the threat of ecological collapse and nuclear war. It is time to wake up and do our best for the survival of humanity,” reads the open letter to our fellow human beings that I helped formulate in the weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine where the war is now ongoing.  The letter is  in Swedish and Finnish and it says that Finland and Sweden should stay outside NATO and pursue a policy of peace. It has been  signed by a number of more or less well-known Finnish and  Swedish citizens.  You may read an English translation of the letter here.  (The Finnish text, with signatures,  is found here;  the Swedish here.)

George F. Bowerman (1868 – 1960)

Does what the letter says still apply after Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine?  My answer is yes, it still applies.

But what can librarians do about it? How could librarians help the peace movement “and similar propaganda”  in the spirit of Bowerman?

Well, librarians in different countries could, for example, urge their national associations to urge their international organisation, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), to partner with the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). ICAN should already be well known to librarians and the general public as the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded ICAN the Peace Prize in 2017. In addition, the United Nations Convention on the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons has been ratified by 59 states [number corrected on Feb, 27] and has become international law. Furthermore, these states will hold their first meeting in Vienna in a few weeks to consider the way forward. The matter is therefore not out of date, if anyone thought so.

ICAN has condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine and called on people to go out and demonstrate against it. I would not, however, call on the library associations or IFLA to issue any condemnations. But in the face of the existential threats to the human species and the rest of life on earth, even  the librarians must no longer “maintain an attitude of total indifference, whatever happens”.

At present, pacifism is the only ism worth anything. Perhaps, as Finnish President Sauli Niinistö pointed out at the press conference the day after the Russian attack on Ukraine, the present situation shows that the nuclear balance of terror is working. But for how long? The longer it drags on, the faster the ecological disaster approaches.

7 Responses to “So, the war started… what does the librarian say?”

  1. The American Library Association:
    ALA stands with Ukrainian library community


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