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Exports and imports

The United States has been exporting librarianship to developing countries for about a half century. With the recent approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and with the creation of new international policies in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), rationalization of export/import practice has been much talked about. But I have seen no parallel attention in library literature to our venerable approaches to trade among nations. It seems that what we in the U.S. have been doing is what we will continue to do, without evident thought about the underlying principles. Possibly it will be useful to put some ideas on this matter into print, for the consideration of the international library community.

First a few historical guideposts: in June 1942 the American Library Association created its International Relations Board (IRB), a membership group intended to “have direct supervision of the Association’s international activities involving library cooperation with Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the Orient.” The IRB (which became the International Relations Committee in June 1956) set up a staff unit in ALA, under the name of International Relations Office (IRQ). Exporting of American ideas began with “technical assistance projects” to library schools and libraries in Latin America, mostly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Although the notion of a “two–way flow of information from library groups in other countries to library groups in this, and vice versa” was stated as a desideratum by Ralph Shaw, when he reviewed the ALA programs in a report issued in 1943, it is difficult to think of any substantive imports that matched the extensive U.S. export efforts. And in the case of relations between the U.S. and the libraries of the Third World, I would say that the flow has remained one–way rather than two–way.

It may be that the analogy with commercial trade is inappropriate; after all nations that trade among themselves seek a sort of balance in exports and imports, and each country tries to tilt that balance slightly in its favor. Nations, like individuals, hope to gain from transactions. There is no one–way trade in the commercial sector; goods and services are transferred from one country to another only for other goods and services—or for payment. The only kind of export without a balancing import or payment is philanthropy. Is philanthropy then the right name, and right structure, for library cooperation between the U.S. and the less advanced nations? That does seem to be what we have now.

To help us decide whether our trade balance is as it should be, let us think af what librarians have to export. Of course they have themselves, as srofessional persons who go from one country to another to work. In this sense, :he U.S. does import more than it exports, for there are thousands of immigrant ibrarians in American libraries, and very few American librarians who have ?one to live and work abroad. But this immigration is not a trade function — we do not send any product or payment to China — for example — in order to bring Chinese librarians (or students who will become librarians) to America. The immigration is better seen in the context of population movement generally, which tends to go from poorer countries to wealthier ones with greater opportunities; or from any country to those that have particular educational programs.

One of the IRO directors, Ray Swank, enumerated six characteristics of American librarianship that he regarded as exportable:

  1. the conception of the library as an organization of books;
  2. the evolution of a library profession;
  3. the attitude of service;
  4. the function of the library as an educational institution;
  5. the role of the library in the advancement of intellectual freedom;
  6. the conception of organized information as a public resource and responsibility.

Swank’s successor as IRO director, Lester Asheim, discussed those characteristics in his seminal book Librarianship in the Developing Countries (1966), concluding that “American librarianship does have that which is useful and adaptable to the developing nations.”

In these 50 years of exporting, what have Americans sent to the Third World? The need for a library profession, with a range of activities similar to those of the ALA, seems to have traveled well. We may fairly credit American advisers and example for the widespread establishment of library associations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The other Swank characteristics have not transferred effectively. Libraries are recognized as organizations of books, but Swank was thinking of books organized for ready use — not a situation found frequently in the developing world. As for the attitude of service, it seems to be and not to be. How many Third World libraries have functional reference departments? Functional interlibrary loan?

Is the library an educational institution? Assuming that the library of a school or university has an educational role, we can apply the question to the public library. In U.S. public libraries, users may pursue self–education in virtually any field, because books and materials are chosen for that purpose. I think we may not have been too successful in exporting that concept.

Whether or not libraries have a clear role in the area of intellectual freedom (freedom to read, freedom to view) depends on the situation of each country. Although the U.S. has endeavored to export its own democratic system of government, with considerable success, many countries have preferred other systems, in which the library “freedoms” are inappropriate. Considering the familiar social problems that appear to accompany democracy, it may be fairly said that the debate about the best form of government is not conclusive.

Swank’s final point, about information as a public resource, is related to the freedom issues and thus to the question of form of government.

Thus we have a mixed result in terms of exporting librarianship. But if the philanthropy model — in this context it would be foreign aid — is the right one, it may not matter that all the goals are not achieved; after all, the recipients in that model give nothing in return, so should be satisfied with what they get. Still, there is something unsatisfying in all of this, is there not?

Let us make a fresh start, seeking, like Descartes, a few clear and distinct ideas. Our proper exports to any country, whatever its form of government, seem to be covered by two fundamental principles:

  1. librarianship is a profession;
  2. libraries are service centers (rather than storage depots), serving the communities that support them.

I feel safe in referring to these basic ideas as principles, since they are universal: applicable in any country, in any situation. The problems begin when we flesh out those principles with definitions and explanations. For example, if librarianship is a profession, does it necessarily follow that each country should have library associations, post–graduate education for librarians, standards of practice, a code of ethics, a research literature, etc.? If libraries are service centers, does it necessarily follow that they serve in a modern “scientific” way, with formal planning, open stack collections, organization structures, new technologies, etc.? Opinions may well differ on these points, if not on the principles from which they come. And it may be that in exporting principles, we try to export a set of definitions and explanations along with them. While the principles are solid, the subsidiary definitions are really beliefs: theories to be tested. Which takes us to the balancing imports.

It seems to me that the U.S. (and other exporting countries) are not really philanthropical. We do in fact receive important returns for what we send to our less advantaged colleagues. What we get back are clarifications and corrections of the way we define and explain our principles, the very ideas we are exporting, pleased with our successes in librarianship, we in the U.S. may have been strrcken with hubris — an excess of pride that blinds us to our defects. For example, I asked whether a profession requires a code of ethics, which would be a set of guidelines for conduct by its practitioners. Indeed the American Library Association has written such a code, although it is much criticized these days and is generally little observed. But most library associations do not have a code of ethics, and appear to be untroubled by disorderly behavior of their members. So we could draw the lesson — a lesson from “comparative librarianship” — that a code of ethics is all right but not essential. And we might drop that idea from our export list. “Planning,” which to Americans is required for service to be effective, is another curiosity. We may believe that formal long–range plans are essential if a library is to be successful, but of course most successful libraries have not had formal planning. A certain kind of planning is there, but not necessarily the textbook, scientific variety. Thus we may wish to modify what we export in the realm of planning — and indeed modify our own ideas about it.

From the Third World, specifically, we in the U.S. may learn that good service does not require all that we think it does, in every situation. Stacks do not have to be open to users; indeed this tenet of American librarianship is not observed in our own national libraries nor in many of our great research libraries. Librarians do not have to have post–graduate degrees to be effective; most of the world’s librarians do not have them. And so it goes: the more we see and think about the kaleidoscopic universe of libraries, the more we sense that our principles are put into action by beliefs that are always to be tested and modified.

Asheim said of American librarians that “we must listen as well as tell, learn as well as teach, receive as well as give” in order “to carry on the exchange from which we both might benefit so much.” What Americans will get from that exchange was not specified by Asheim, but I think his idea was close to mine. We get —we import— the information, experience, and thoughts that make possible the shaping of true, universal principles of our profession. In this trade matrix, our imports are probably worth more than our exports. But it does not matter which way the balance tips: these are transactions in which everyone wins.

My first academic life was in the field of musicology, a profession about as old as librarianship, and one that is at present reassessing its principles. In a recent article I found some phrases that could be easily transferred to a library context, and will close my meditation with them:

We need to make central to our studies not only the most familiar musics we come across but also those that seem to us stranger, less tractable ... . We need, in other words, to think hard about what we do as we bring cultural others into our line of vision: how can we construct ways of seeing them that do not aggressively familiarize (colonize, terrorize) them?

©1993 Guy A. Marco.



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