Front lines

At a Unesco forum, Matthew Reisz hears about the hunger for libraries, corporate creep, and what should and should not be archived on the net

June 23, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

Every link in the chain between writers and readers has been called into question by the vast technological changes rippling around the world, argued Milagros del Corral, former director of the National Library of Spain.

"Will people be willing to pay for e-content?" she asked. "What is the role of publishers and booksellers at a time when, some argue, they no longer add value? What will be the core activities of libraries? And does copyright still provide the best legal framework (to reconcile the interests of publishers, writers and readers)?".

Del Corral was the chair of the scientific committee responsible for Focus 2011, a forum on The Book Tomorrow: The Future of the Written Word organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation and the Italian government in collaboration with the Lombardy region.

The three-day event brought together some 200 people at the Villa Reale near the city of Monza. Participants included academics and activists; a bookseller from Mali; a publisher specialising in reprints of 19th-century erotica; a national librarian from Chile; representatives of Ethiopian and Brazilian associations for the blind, of major technology companies and of the national publishing industries of Lebanon and South Korea. Sessions focused on everything from the e-book economy and authors' rights to the digital library.

Although the international range was often stimulating, cultural clashes were frequent. It did not seem to occur to an Indonesian delegate that an Englishwoman might not appreciate being told she looked like Susan Boyle. More seriously, the gathering highlighted how Western worries and utopian dreams can sound trivial when compared with the reality of what is happening elsewhere.

Janet Murray, a professor on the graduate programme in digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told a panel on the "future of reading and writing" that "we have exhausted our ability to say all we know about the world through print alone. Yet current e-books are lame and frustrating because they don't incorporate colour, video or any other digital possibilities. New media of representation will force us to think radically and to create new genres."

Yet Boubacar Diop, a writer from Senegal, reminded the audience that "in Africa reading hardly exists. Technology only displaces the problem without solving it." A woman from the same country pointed out that "students lay siege to the university library because they have little access to the internet at home". Support, however, was hard to come by. The library had an application for aid rejected recently by the Gates Foundation because it is not a "public library" - even though it is the nearest thing to one in Senegal, where public libraries do not exist.

In introducing a session on "The digital library", Scottish journalist Alan Taylor looked back to the time when he had started work in a local library 40 years ago and "old boys would come in to dry their socks, read the racing pages and occasionally borrow a pornographic novel". He then moved on to a reference library, where staff prided themselves on answering even the most obscure questions within three minutes, which had forced him to become "an early (human) version of Google".

Several members of the panel were eloquent in defending the continuing value of libraries. Sue Sutherland, acting chief executive and national librarian at the National Library of New Zealand, called them "one of the last bastions of public civic spaces". After the earthquake in Christchurch in February, she noted, they were very often the places where "people came together to meet and make sense of what was happening".

A session on "preserving digital memory" heard from Kristine Hanna of the Internet Archive in San Francisco about projects to store everything from Balinese poetry written on palm leaves to the spontaneous responses to events such as the recent unrest in North Africa. And Joseph Branin, director of libraries at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, described the challenges of building a library for faculty and students in the Saudi desert near Jeddah.

Given the impossibility of storing everything, some delegates argued that international standards were needed to define what counts as heritage and what is of "long-lasting significance". Others suggested that as we could never tell what would interest researchers of the future, it would be wise for different archives to adopt different policies so that collections did not all hold - and exclude - the same sorts of material.

Despite a plenary and three separate workshops on authors' rights, genuine authors were pretty thin on the ground. The Canadian essayist John Ralston Saul, who now serves as president of PEN International, said he felt as if he had stepped into a discussion about "What are you going to do with us?" and "How can you make money out of us?"

The stranglehold of corporations came under fire from Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation. He embarrassed the Italian moderator of a session on "Copyright versus Copy-left" by suggesting that Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, should have his media empire broken up and perhaps even be put in jail. Stallman also distributed a flyer in which it was argued that e-books curtailed liberty because, unlike printed books, they were difficult to buy anonymously and required purchasers to sign licences and employ "user-restricting software". The pamphlet declared: "We must reject e-books until they respect our freedom."

Although not hostile to new technology for the transmission of information, the Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta - whose novel El Cartero de Neruda (Neruda's Postman) became the Academy Award-winning film Il Postino - said he hoped that "paper will remain the privileged medium for the non-utilitarian imagination". He feared, however, that the failure of copyright law to keep up might return authors to "romantic bohemian poverty". But e-books did have the advantage that one cannot throw them against the wall in anger, as one of his Dutch critics had wanted to do.

Skármeta also described how he had become a writer "while listening to a terrible series on the radio with (his) grandmother while she was knitting after lunch". When there was a power cut, he was expected to dream up and elaborate plot developments on his own. On one occasion, however, the radio happened to be working, but his grandmother said: "It's better if you tell the story."

For an aspiring author, added Skármeta, such an accolade was worth far more than a PhD from Harvard in creative writing.

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