[AIB]  Associazione italiana biblioteche. BollettinoAIB 2009 n. 2 p. 135-138
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IFLA 1929-2009:
Libraries between crisis and opportunity

On 15 June 1929 the First World Congress of Libraries and Bibliography (Primo congresso mondiale delle biblioteche e di bibliografia) opened in Rome; it is rightly considered the first IFLA conference.1 In fact, during this conference, 1300 librarians from 40 countries inaugurated the newly created International Library Federation after a long period of gestation which had resulted two years earlier in Edinburgh in the agreement for its constitution. It was an exceptional event which stood out for its varied and ambitious program. The sessions were divided between three cities: from Rome, the initial location, the congress moved on to Florence, and it finished in Venice on 30 June. The legitimate satisfaction at this first successful event of the new association, the familiarity created among the participants during the two-week conference, and the tour through the most famous Italian cities of art at the height of the Mediterranean summer - as often happens in similar circumstances - gave birth to a sense of enthusiasm and hope for the future. Those who attended the congress, as they said goodbye that Sunday afternoon on the Grand Canal, exchanging congratulations and addresses, could hardly have foreseen that within a few months, in the freest and most productive country in the world, the greatest economic crisis of the century would begin, which would eventually spread to Europe and the entire world.

In a strange twist of fate the 80th anniversary of that first congress, which will be celebrated in August in Milan with IFLA 2009, coincides with another serious economic crisis, perhaps the most vast and wide-reaching of its kind in all of human history, a crisis that has inflicted worry and suffering on billions of people all over the world, with particularly harsh consequences for the weaker social classes and the poorer countries. As with the others that have preceded it, the current crisis will have a beginning and an end; the point is how long it will last and how it will end. History shows that similar catastrophes can result in a better model for development, one more in harmony with the real needs and the profound hopes of human beings; or, as a result of drastic measures, can lead to an unknown future, one now difficult to imagine. Much depends on the sense of responsibility and the capability of governments to rise above selfishness and prejudice and demonstrate a spirit of solidarity between peoples. One of the most comforting aspects of the American democracy is the fact that, in periods of crisis, it has always found great leaders2.
One thinks first of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his tireless work aimed at overcoming the crisis through the social policies and economic interventions that marked the New Deal. When at the end of the 1930s the Great Depression had largely passed, the country had changed; the measures taken to combat the crisis had established new mechanisms for development that completely transformed the social and economic life of America. The programs created by Roosevelt, and the new energies that they produced, demonstrated that long-term choices can be made even under the pressure of events and countless temporary adversities. In precisely that period, in fact, the role of the modern public library as a reference point for the local community took on new strength and vigor, in part due to the beneficial influence of the federal agencies established to re-launch the economy. In spite of the enormous difficulties faced, during the period of the Great Depression 765 new libraries were founded in 48 of the 50 states and territories of the United States.3 The drastic spending cuts made, above all in the first phase of the Depression, did not discourage librarians, who worked feverishly to satisfy the extraordinary need for services, forming strong bonds of solidarity with the population. «In my opinion, the public library as a civic center in a neighborhood is second to none. The children go there to do their school work in the evening in preference to doing it at home. It is quiet there and the librarian is always ready to help,» wrote a New York Times reader in 1936, facing the threat of reduced opening hours for libraries. In fact during the Depression New York, governed by mayor Fiorello La Guardia, was able to keep libraries open all seven days of the week:4 «The Mayor and his cabinet have accepted the premise that it is uneconomical to let an institution fall too far behind because of the depression.» Library attendance in those years showed an unexpected increase in almost every state: «The use of public libraries has grown the past year beyond all precedent. Reading rooms have been crowded,» the Annual Reports of Massachussetts Board of Library Commissioners emphasized, «The number of books borrowed in 1932 exceeded 31 million volumes, nearly 8.1 % more then in 1930.»5
Men and women of all ages, students, the unemployed, intellectuals reduced to misery, even vagabonds found themselves in library reading rooms daily. «A library was a good place to be when you had nothing to drink or to eat, and the landlady was looking for you and for the back rent money.» So Charles Bukowski remembered his most desperate days passed in the Los Angeles public library; but immediately his corrosive cynicism gives way to the beginnings of intellectual curiosity and the pleasure of research that the atmosphere of the library instils: «I kept on walking around the big room, pulling the books off the shelves, reading a few lines, a few pages, then putting them back.» Finally, the enthusiasm of discovery: «Then one day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was. I stood for a moment reading. Then like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table. The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow.» The book, which had a decisive influence on Bukowski's work, was Ask the Dust by John Fante;6 the great author, a child of Italian immigrants, wrote his literary masterpieces in the tumultuous climate of those years.

In Italy budget cuts affected the cultural sector some time before the crisis brought on by the bursting of the financial bubble. Already in May 2008 the government decided to subtract conspicuous amounts of funding from the arts and culture sector; in June these cuts were followed by even more drastic measures, aimed at reducing the arts and culture budget in the three-year period 2009-2011 by nearly a billion euro. These measures, according to experts, will inflict «a mortal blow to an administration already in severe difficulties for the lack of resources.»7 At the same time a drastic reduction of the budget for the public school system was announced, in the form of a controversial reform of the primary schools - the most advanced part of the Italian educational system, according to international evaluations which place the Italian primary schools among those at the highest levels of performance. Meanwhile, the restrictions placed on public spending caused serious difficulties for local governments, the source of the largest part of social and cultural services, including public libraries. In addition, further cuts were applied to the already meager budget for research, for years among the lowest levels of the industrialized nations. In reality these measures worsened a situation which was already critical, with numerous universities in their death throes and an increase in the phenomenon of intellectual emigration. For nearly twenty years Italy has exported thousands of young researchers, trained in our universities, to other advanced countries. The effective freeze on hiring in place almost uninterruptedly for nearly a quarter of a century has reduced by half the staff of libraries and state archives, leaving generations of young graduates on the sidelines, in a state of perennial precarity. The obstruction of the generational change-over is the most obtuse and devastating choice that could be made for this sector in the face of the challenges imposed by the new information economy. One of the primary causes is the deeply-rooted political insensitivity widespread in the ruling élites, which is fed by the profound conviction that culture and research are luxuries. This behavior is absolutely incomprehensible in a country which contains more than half of humanity's cultural heritage, and which therefore should be a reference point for the entire world for the valorization of these resources. Nevertheless, in spite of investments much inferior to those of the libraries of the more advanced European countries, in the last decade, significant progress has been made, primarily in the sectors of university and public libraries, thanks to the dedication of some local administrations and, above all, to the rise of a new professionalism, based on a modern service ethic, among librarians. This renewal would not have been possible without the examples of other countries and the exchanges which have intensified with the help of the international programs of the AIB and the technology projects of the EU. This development has lessened (although certainly not cancelled) the distance between Italy and the other advanced countries; there is still, however, a serious gap between the north and south of the country. This combination of excellence and mediocrity reflects the complex socioeconomic reality of Italy, with its historically unresolved problems, its numerous contradictions, and its difficulty in finding an equilibrium between the challenges of modernity and the responsibility of a great cultural tradition. It is a society increasingly disoriented, when facing the problems of globalization and the invasive media, and one with a great need for knowledge and learning, a great need to locate the spaces for intercultural dialogue which only the institutions of learning, appropriately revitalized, can provide.

Eighty years do not reflect the enormous distance which separates us from that far-off 1929: the Fascist regime was getting stronger, the wounds of the war had not yet healed and already on the Old Continent the shadows of a new and even more terrible conflict were lengthening. Not even in their wildest dreams could the participants of that first congress have imagined that twenty years later the foundations would be laid for a great political project which would give Europe a new face and a new role in the world: the European Union, a political and economic reality which today unites 27 democratic countries inhabited by 498 million people with diverse languages and cultures; a message of hope for the future that is realistic in the measure in which it is supported by the commitment to work in the present for the development of a more just and equitable society, capable of guaranteeing equal opportunities for the access to knowledge and the free development of critical thinking. These are also the founding values of IFLA in which the librarians and information professionals from 150 countries who will come to Milan for the 75
th Annual Conference find inspiration. The Bollettino AIB offers them a warm welcome and wishes them a happy stay in Italy.

Tommaso Giordano


[1] More precisely, the program started the day before the official opening of the Conference, with the plenary session of the International Library and Bibliographical Committee. See: Simonetta Buttò - Alberto Petrucciani, IFLA & Italy, a long-lasting legacy, <http://www.ifla2009.it/web/ifla/ifla_italia.htm>.

[2] Alan Nevins - Henry Steele Commager, The pocket history of the United States, New York: Pocket Book, 1951.

[3] Charles A. Seavy, The American public library during the Great Depression, «Library Review», 52 (2003), n. 8, p. 273-278.

[4] <http://www.nypl.org/blogs/2009/03/11/open-doors-open-minds-new-york-public-library-during-great-depression-and-today>.

[5] <http://mblc.state.ma.us/grants/state_aid/blog/statistics/what-happened-to-public-libraries-during-the-great-depression/>.

[6] John Fante, Ask the dust, Introduction by Charles Bukowski, Edinburgh: Canongate, 1998.

[7] Salvatore Settis, Beni culturali in liquidazione, «Il Sole 24 Ore», 4 July 2008.

N.B. An Italian version of this article is also available.
Copyright AIB 2009-07-29, a cura di Antonella Iacono
URL: http://www.aib.it/aib/boll/2009/0902135.htm

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