Reading the world through libraries

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Last week I had the great honour of delivering the 26th Annual Mortenson Distinguished lecture at the University of Illinois in the US. The Mortenson Center was founded through the generosity of C. Walter and Gerda B. Mortenson, who believed that librarians sharing information is one of the shortest and surest roads to world peace.

Since 1991, the organisation has provided training to 1,300 librarians from more than 90 countries. It has also raised $2.5m-worth of grants to strengthen skills and modernize libraries. So you can imagine my delight at being asked to contribute to the final celebrations marking its first quarter-century.

The visit turned out to be much more than just a speaking engagement. Shortly after I landed at Urbana-Champaign, I found myself sitting with a group of librarians in a Chinese restaurant. They had been attending a workshop on global studies and were full of ideas

The next morning, following a jog round campus and a brief spell going over my notes, I was picked up by Rebecca from the centre and taken to the library in which the Mortenson Center is housed.

Although the no-gun signs on the doors felt forbidding, the library was anything but. I was delighted to see a large number of students enjoying the space in the subterranean building – built that way so as not to overshadow a historic experimental corn field, one of the first of its kind.

I particularly liked the board of questions posted up for graduate researchers to answer, featuring a query as to whether Jack and Rose would both have fitted on the floating door in the film Titanic. This, along with several others, was addressed in great detail.

There was no time to ascertain the answer, however, as Rebecca whisked me off to the Mortenson Center, a small but intriguing space filled with gifts brought by many of the librarians who have visited over the years. A string of prayer flags hung over the sofa area, while a cabinet by the door of director Clara M. Chu’s office boasted ranks of trinkets, dolls, ornaments and mementos.

After lunch, the first of my events was a Chai Wai (or public dialogue) with former Mortenson Center director and author Marianna Tax Choldin. Her latest book, Garden of Broken Statues: Exploring Censorship in Russia, is a compelling and moving account of her decades-long fascination with the Soviet Union and Russia, which she has visited more than 55 times over the course of her career. It considers the personal and social effects of censorship and reveals the importance of a concerted effort to understand the past.

Chaired by former American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom director Barbara M. Jones, the discussion proved lively and wide-ranging, as you can see from the video of it here. Though the audience was small, there was no shortage of questions and we covered everything from the intriguing Japanese film Library Wars: The Last Mission (definitely on my to-watch list) to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a classic to which both Tax Choldin and I refer in our books.

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Next came the investiture of the Mortenson Center’s third director and distinguished professor, Clara M. Chu, and a celebration reception. Then it was my turn (you can watch the video of the lecture if you’d like to see how it went – my presentation starts at about 17.53).

Saturday was my last day in Illinois and Clara Chu and I spent it visiting Springfield, home of Abraham Lincoln, often said to be the US’s greatest president. There, alongside a welter of insights into Lincoln’s rise from lawyer to world leader, his efforts to champion the abolition of slavery, the horror of the American civil war and the pity of the great man’s assassination, I learned an interesting fact: each president has his (or perhaps one day her) own library. For every American leader, there is a small army of people sorting, ordering and safeguarding the historically significant documents associated with their time in office so that others may learn from them.

Important though books are, my visit to Illinois reminded me, they are limited without the people who organise, promote and – all too often – have to fight attempts to keep others from reading them. Librarians are at the forefront of these efforts. And as books such as Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories demonstrate, they have been essential in drawing out and shaping many an aspiring wordsmith.

This is one of the reasons why I’m also delighted to have got involved with another library-centred organisation recently. The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative aims to make more resources and techniques available to librarians to help them encourage readers to explore books from around the world.

Founded this year and already numbering 345 members, the project will run workshops, produce catalogues featuring excellent translated books and suggest tactics such as pairing unfamiliar works with popular titles to help readers venture further.

‘It’s about recognition,’ says translator and publisher Rachel Hildebrandt, who founded GLLI. ‘Very often librarians know what the patrons like. It’s sometimes enough to get someone to pick up a book that they might never pull off the shelf.’

Both the Mortenson Center and GLLI are funded by donations and would appreciate any help you can give (click the links to find out more). Hopefully, soon librarians everywhere will have the tools to help anyone who wants to to read the world.

Pictures courtesy of the Mortenson Center for International Library Progams.

11 responses

  1. Oh no! I so wish I knew about this. I grew up in Illinois and am doing A Year of Reading the World right now. I started in January and made it through Argentina and am just picking up where I left off with Armenian Golgotha for Armenia. Hope I can meet you one day or hear you speak!

  2. I listened to your lecture with great interest: it gave me many ways to think about reading the unfamiliar. Your comment about South American detective fiction encapsulated a lot of your argument in a very memorable way, and expanded thinking beyond culture into structure, and the connections between structure and history. I loved the way you always gave specific examples, and the scholarship underpinning everything you said. Thank you for an illuminating listen.

  3. It was wonderful to hear your presentation after reading your book. Reading widely expands our world and helps us be good global citizens. The Mortenson center is an amazing organization that works with libraries to enhance reading around the world.

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