The sympathetic world spirit of librarians is still alive

Announcement of a discussion on the theme “For Ukraine, facts and freedom of speech” at Oslo Public Library one Monday at 15h.

By Mikael Böök

Since I last wrote here in the blog about what librarians (and a few others) are saying about the war in Ukraine, a lot of water has flowed under Kiev’s bridges. If Russian forces manage to take Kiev, or if the Russian military leadership, as we hope, decides to break the siege because a ceasefire has been reached, the war will reach an important turning point.

The purpose of this blog post, however, is not to report on the course of the war, but to continue to reference and comment on what librarians in various quarters are saying about it.

Generally speaking, librarians, like most others, think war is wrong and unjust. But I also claim that there is something particularly peaceful about the library as an institution and about the nature of librarianship. What librarians have said so far about the ongoing Ukrainian war has not shaken this conviction of mine. In the following lines I try to explain why I still believe that the ‘sympathetic world spirit’ (an expression that I brought up in my first blog about the librarians and the war) is still alive among librarians despite the tense world situation.

Appeals of the Polish librarians’ association and reactions to them

On 1 March, the Polish Librarians’ Association (PLA) posted the following appeal on its website (I have had the appeal translated from Polish by DeepL):

The Polish Librarians’ Association stands in solidarity with the Ukrainian nation in its struggle against the aggressor who is destroying the country and the achievements of generations and killing innocent people. The PLA main board is trying to establish contact with the Ukrainian Library Association. In the correspondence sent, we expressed our support for the heroic efforts of the Ukrainian community in the struggle for independence, order and political and social order. We assured them that we would not leave our solidarity with the Ukrainian people without concrete statements. We want to help as much as we can. We await information on the nature and extent of the support needed, and we ask our colleagues, members of the Polish Librarians’ Association throughout the country, to join in the efforts to help and support the Ukrainian people who have arrived in your area in recent days. As far as possible, prepare proposals in the libraries where you work on access to literature, necessary information, organization of activities for children who have been deprived of the opportunity to play or learn, and participate in other activities, e.g. by cooperating with local authorities, aid institutions, local associations and foundations.We also ask you to share your knowledge, experience and lessons learned from the last few days – what is the situation in your area? Are there people in your area who need help, are there librarians we can support? On the SBP portal, we are preparing a bookmark #ZBIBLIOTEKARZAMIUKRAINY, where we will post your reports.

Dr Barbara Budyńska Acting President of the Polish Librarians’ Association.

Logo of the Polish Library Association

Considering that Poland borders Ukraine and that the Polish nation shares many historical experiences with the Ukrainian one, it is more than understandable that Polish librarians want to help and support their Ukrainian colleagues in the current situation. However, another appeal, this time addressed by the PLA to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), has sparked a lively controversy. In this appeal, which appeared on IFLA’s own email list on 4 March, the PLA joins its Ukrainian sister organisation’s call (which I quoted in my previous blog) for all Russian librarians’ organisations and institutions to be expelled from IFLA:

We cannot ignore this terrible violation of both international law and social norms by Russia. For this reason, we support the appeal of the Ukrainian Library Association and call to exclude the membership of all institutions of Russia from IFLA members. We believe that Russian librarians, whom we have met at congresses, symposiums, and discussion forums, will find a lot of strength and determination to express their opposition to the violation of the principles and norms adopted in civilized countries in the 21st century. On behalf of the PLA General Board dr Barbara Budyńska PLA President.”

Peter Lor 2005

As mentioned above, this appeal led to an animated debate in which a wide range of internationally active librarians including former IFLA top leaders sent in their views and opinions for and against the Polish wish. Since the IFLA email list and its web archive are of an internal nature, I suppose I should not mention any names or quote directly. Nevertheless, I will disclose that Peter Lor from South Africa (IFLA Secretary General 2005-2008) was among those who did not support the exclusion of the Russian librarians’ organisations from the International Librarians’ Organisation. He wrote: “Sanctioning Russian colleagues would take us down a slippery slope.” Lor concluded his message as follows: “We believe that the free flow of information and knowledge promotes understanding, tolerance, and, ultimately, peace. Maybe that’s naive and foolish, but that’s worth holding onto. It motivates my own long-term commitment to international librarianship. Peace! Peter.” (Quoted with permission from the author.)

Professor Sue Ann Gardner, University Librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (USA) was one of the participants in this debate who believed that the Russians should be sanctioned. Gardner wrote: “Regarding the credibility of IFLA in appearing to take sides on this issue, I believe the organization’s credibility is more at risk if they do not make a strong statement in solidarity with the Polish and Ukrainian librarians and against the Russians at this time. This position should be narrow and directed at the current situation only and its maintenance predicated on the lack of a statement from our Russian peers against the military assault of their neighbour and the targeting of civilians.” (Quoted with permission from the author.)

IFLA’s Russian and American member organisations. A thought experiment

If I have counted correctly in the IFLA membership directory, which can be studied at, the Russian members of IFLA are 13 in number, Among them, of course, is the Russian State Library (RSL), which, according to the RSL website in English, is “the largest library in Russia, the second largest library in the world”. The Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Библиотека Российской академии наук (БАН) in St Petersburg is also a member of IFLA, as is the Russian National Public Library for Science and Technology and the M.I. Rudomino All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature (VGBIL) in Moscow. A closer look at the web pages of the latter library suggests that the contribution of Russian libraries to IFLA has been, and perhaps still is, more than just the membership fee.

What the Russian Library Association has said so far about the ongoing war I have quoted in my previous blog.

Less than twenty years ago, a large country in the Far West set out to crush a smaller country in the Middle East with its military might. The bloodshed and suffering in that smaller country was enormous and refugees and migrants have poured out of it in droves. Imagine if the Iraqi Association for Information, Libraries and Documentation Specialists (ILDS), the IFLA member in Iraq, had demanded the expulsion of all librarians’ associations and library institutions in the United States from IFLA! Surely their demand would have been quite understandable? But should IFLA then have heeded the ILDS demand and expelled all US members from IFLA along with their representatives on the IFLA governing body?

Did anyone think of expulsion in that case?

Those were just some rhetorical questions. But let me, in order to awaken the reader’s imagination to do the thought experiment herself, invite the reader to glance at the list of IFLA’s 84 members in the vast and somewhat remote country of the West. Download the full list of members here! On it you will find among the IFLA members of the United States not only the world-famous Library of Congress and the New York Public Library but also, for example, my own favourites in the American library world, namely the Internet Archive and the Library Publishing Coalition.

Incidentally, the American Library Association (ALA) has also spoken out about the war in Ukraine. I should like to quote the ALA press release from Chicago, dated 1 March:

The American Library Association and its divisions support our Ukrainian colleagues and will work with the global library community to answer the appeal from the Ukrainian Library Association to provide accurate information as a means to support democracy and freedom of expression.ALA has adopted into its policies Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”ALA continues to encourage our members to help raise public consciousness regarding the many ways in which disinformation and media manipulation are used to mislead public opinion in all spheres of life, and further encourages librarians to facilitate this awareness with collection development, library programming and public outreach that draws the public’s attention to those alternative sources of information dedicated to countering and revealing the disinformation.

And what do I say to that? I say: I like that! It’s a diplomatic statement and I, with so many others, am all for diplomacy. Preferably what is known as citizen diplomacy, or diplomacy from below. A diplomacy that rises from the people upwards to the governments. (If somebody asked me about the meaning of citizen diplomacy, I would refer her to, for instance, this report.)

The sympathetic spirit of the world is still on the move

Seneca, part of double-herma of Socrates and Seneca in Antikensammlung Berlin. Wikipedia
CC BY-SA 3.0

In these troubled, not to say perilous, times, I try to be particularly careful to follow at least some of my old habits. These do not include starting the day with newspaper reading or radio news. In my opinion, the power of warmongering, which is abundant in our media, is to mix truth and lies in appropriate doses. It is precisely this concoction that I want to avoid, at least at morning coffee. I prefer to spend a few moments reading a scripture or quoting an old philosopher or historian. This morning I was thinking about a sentence that Seneca the Younger is said to have written: ‘When we have done all that greed dictates, we shall possess much; but once we possessed the whole earth.’ That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But I wasn’t quite sure of the translation, so I decided to look up the original. In a previous blog, I praised the DeepL translator that allows us to behold the Tower of Babel rising anew from its ruins. Other great stuff (tools) on the internet help those who want to do so to pull out a Seneca quote in Latin already during breakfast: Cum omnia fecerimus, multum habebimus; universum habebamus. (Sen. Ep. 90.39) See, the original is shorter, simpler and pithier! ‘When we have done everything, we will have much, but we had the universe,’ a literal translation would read. It is clear from the context that Seneca is here lamenting greed (avaritia, later one of the seven Catholic deadly sins). In the quotation he also sums up his criticism, or depreciation, of technological invention (inventio). However, one may well ask whether Seneca was not turning the real situation on its head. After all, it was not we who owned the universe, but rather it was the universe that owned us, wasn’t it? At that time, during the “golden age” of humankind, we were one with the universe. Together with the other creatures of the earth, the oceans and the air, we were part of our great world, but today we hardly ever think we are anymore.

Le monde est ce qu’il est, c’est-à-dire peu de chose, wrote the modern author Albert Camus on the day after Hiroshima. We have turned the world into a small ball in the universe. Camus’s not too often quoted article is available here in an English translation by Mark K. Jensen, Associate Professor of French. (The text in the original language is included in Albert Camus: Actuelles. Écrits politiques. Ed. Gallimard.)

Librarian George F. Bowerman referred to ‘a sympathetic world spirit’ in his adress at the American Library Association National Conference in Berkeley, California, 1915. See How Far Should the Library Aid the Peace Movement and Similar Propaganda? in
Rory Litwin (ed.): Library Daylight. Tracings of Modern Librarianship, 1874-1922, Library Juice
Press 2006.

Does ‘a sympathetic world spirit’ have any value any more? Or has Russia’s war against Ukraine made it obsolete?

The management of the Bicocca University in Milan invited a literary scholar named Paolo Nori to animate four sessions on Dostoevsky. The first was to have taken place on 2 March. But the day before, Nori received an email informing him that his talks on Dostoyevsky had been cancelled “to avoid any form of polemic, especially internal, as the situation is very tense.”

Nori wrote on Instagram: “I think what is happening in Ukraine is terrible and I want to cry just thinking about it. But what’s happening in Italy today, these things, are ridiculous: censoring a course is ridiculous. It is not only a crime to be a living Russian in Italy today, but it is also a crime to be a dead Russian who, when he was alive in 1849, was sentenced to death for reading something forbidden. That an Italian university would ban a course on a writer like Dostoyevsky is something I cannot believe to be true.”

What happened next? Well, there was a scandal and many people wanted to support Nori. (I base my account of this episode on the Italian news agency AGI’s article. ) Paolo Nori was invited by other universities to hold the Dostoyevsky sessions at their premises. Italy’s Culture Minister Maria Cristina Messa assured that her ministry wants to “promote the fundamental role of universities as a meeting place and common growth, especially in a situation as sensitive as this one”. Apparently, the sympathetic world spirit is not quite dead yet. In Italy, at least, it still seems to be on the move.

The Italian Minister of Culture’s expression luogo di confronto, which I have translated as ‘meeting place’, makes me think of two things. Firstly, for some time now it has been fashionable to describe the library as a meeting place. This description does not only refer to the encounter between a reader and an author that can occur when the reader reads and understands what the author, let us say Dostoyevsky, has written into the library. It also suggests that the library should become a place for the confrontation of ideas and opinions in conversations between living people. In Norway (and perhaps in other countries as well) they have gone so far as to write that The public libraries shall be an independent meeting place and arena for public discussion and debate (“Folkebibliotekene skal være en uavhengig møteplass og arena for offentlig samtale og debatt”) into the Public Libraries Act.

Secondly, I associate this with what the British Minister for Culture, Nadine Dorries, said on television five days ago, namely that culture is ‘the third front in the Ukrainian war’. She added: “I continue to push for organisations to exile Putin’s Russia from their ranks.”

But ‘a sympathetic world spirit’ has, it seems to me, little chance of survival if culture is perceived as a ‘third war front.’ (What the other two fronts are supposed to be is not entirely clear, but my guess is the political and economic fronts.)

It must be made clear that a sympathetic world spirit is something that exists – or does not exist – in our thoughts and feelings. In other words, it exists – if it is not already dead – in our souls and bodies. Some philosophers think of it as a light given to us by God, and that is not a wholly unreasonable assumption. But I think it is rather something we have invented, as we have invented the nuclear weapons systems.

Camus was right. Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have to choose between the nuclear weapons systems and the little spark of light that we have managed to ignite within us.

What will become of the internet?

Let’s assume that our world remains despite the adventurous invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin and his government. But major changes are clearly underway in relations between the major powers and between North and South, and thus in all corners of the internet. “The Russian internet began shrinking rapidly when the country’s troops poured across Ukraine’s border in February,” we read in the news. “The shutdowns-some imposed by the Russian government, others by foreign-based corporations-are unlikely to ease up soon. “Now every day something new is being shut down,” says Anastasia Ermolaeva, a teacher in Moscow. “I’m worried a lot about being completely cut off from the rest of the global internet.”

So far, I haven’t seen the librarians of the world discussing what will happen to the internet.

From the homepage of the JNC.

What do we want to happen to the internet?

What is the internet?

The internet is a place that does not exist, wrote the Danish science journalist Tor Nørretranders in his book Stedet som ikke er, 1997.

“There are many visions of what the Net can become: a universal library where any book is available electronically and instantly to anyone anytime anywhere; an on-line community, where people can stay in touch with friends and neighbours around the world; an electronic democracy, where a vote or a poll on an important issue can be taken immediately; a digital shopping mall, where people can buy unusual goods at great prices in specialized shops all over the world”,

wrote Mark Stefik in the book The Internet Edge Social, Legal, and Technological Challenges for a Networked World (The MIT Press 1999).

Today, just to see if the internet still works, I checked if that Stefik book is in the online catalogue of the Russian Library of Foreign Literature (LFL).

Sure. Those devils have that book!

No. Not those devils. Our colleagues. Our brothers. Our sisters.

post scriptum

Greetings from Finland! The distance from my home west of Loviisa (Finland) to the Russian border is 130 kilometers. How far is the Russian border from where you live? Do you have iodine tablets where you live? Here in Finland the iodine tablets are sold out. People are really scared. But “don’t worry, it will never work out!” (Gösta Ågren)

4 Responses to “The sympathetic world spirit of librarians is still alive”

  1. R.L.A. is a part of Putin’s propaganda, and Russian librarians are responsible for it.

    The Russian National Library has opened exhibits dedicated to “fascism in Ukraine” with no factual support. Meanwhile, smaller libraries within Russia compete with each other in trying to vindicate Russian aggression and war crimes in Ukraine. By doing so, they have betrayed all professional and all human decency standards.
    All Russian misinformation should be banned.

    It’s a shame that IFLA didn’t support the Ukrainian Library Association’s call to exclude the Russian Library Association and Russian libraries from IFLA members.


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