Calling all librarians

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Libraries are life-changing gateways to literature. These valuable institutions not only enable people to encounter books free of charge but also, through the imagination and expertise of their custodians, encourage us to explore further afield. They do this by introducing us to wonderful titles that we would probably never find on our own.

Indeed, many writers have spoken and written about the formative effect that libraries have had on their work. From British writer Ali Smith to Argentine great Jorge Luis Borges, who ‘always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’, a large number of the world’s most creative storytellers learned their craft among the book stacks.

As I discovered during my visit to the University of Illinois’s Mortenson Center for International Library Programs last October, the work of librarians is vital in other ways too. Not only can libraries be an educational lifeline for individuals, but, because they enlarge readers’ perspective and understanding, they have the potential to promote cross-cultural collaboration and peace.

So it is with great pleasure that today I share the first publishers showcase catalogue produced by the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative. Founded last year, this US-based organisation – of which I am delighted to be a board member – aims to provide resources and information to help librarians include even more great translations in their collections.

This catalogue contains information about some of the stand-out international reads recently published by or forthcoming from many leading independent presses. It is the first of several, with the next editions planned to showcase children’s and YA reads.

We hope it will be a useful source of inspiration for librarians everywhere. Happy reading!

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.

Equatorial Guinea: public service announcement

We interrupt this blog to bring you a public service announcement: libraries are in trouble and I’m beginning to realise why. In the first five months of A Year of Reading the World, I’ve noticed a worrying trend. Many of the second-hand books I’ve ordered for this project have turned out to be copies that have been withdrawn from libraries around the UK. Sometimes that’s because the library itself is closing, but more often than not it’s clear from the smattering of date stamps on the fly-leaf that it’s because these largely excellent translations from remote corners of the globe are rarely borrowed and read.

All the same, nothing could have prepared me for what happened when I opened Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory to find a sticker as blank and pristine as the day the book first appeared on the shelves at Grangetown Library. This novel, written in a small African nation that has yet to build its first bookshop, painstakingly translated by Michael Ugarte because of his admiration for it, and picked out by some unknown visionary person in Cardiff Council Library Service to be made freely available to the people of Wales, had not been borrowed once. [Since publishing this post I have had confirmation from Cardiff Council that they no longer stamp library books, however the pristine condition of the book made it clear that it had been read very little if at all.]

Set during the last year of Spanish rule in Equatorial Guinea, the novel reveals the thoughts of a young African as he traces the story of his attraction to and eventual rejection of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church. Held up as the great white hope of his community and his Spanish missionary mentors alike, the protagonist is forced to confront the damaging influence that colonialism and religion developed in an alien cultural framework have had on him and his nation. This, he discovers, is the only way he can ever hope to find some kind of lasting independence and peace.

Ndongo’s presentation of his hero’s internalisation of the political struggles that grip his country is extraordinary. Raw, vivid and shocking, his frank portrayal of the tortured emotional, sexual and intellectual development of the young man speaks eloquently, particularly when it comes to the self-loathing engendered in him as he tries to espouse the creeds and value systems of his country’s colonial rulers:

‘I identified with the martyrs’ early sufferings, a little like mine but infinitely more sublime, and I so yearned to have their faith, integrity, constancy, because more than anything, I wanted to be like them; yet I couldn’t, I would never be. In the soul of a little black boy like me, an animal in the wild, the vices of my primitive race were locked in, just as Father Amadeo had told me in confession’.

Ndongo further dramatises his hero’s wrestles with ‘the inexorable and inextricable absurdity of successive centuries’ in his use of language. The narrative roves restlessly back and forth between the first and second person reflecting the protagonist’s fractured sense of self, while the commencement of the book at ‘Chapter Zero’, in which he announces his intention to give up training for the priesthood, underlines the process of psychological unmaking and remaking he must go through simply to emerge as ‘a man among others’. Similarly, the way correspondence and speech are woven into the prose without the usual markers and separations emphasises the extent to which the protagonist internalises the expectations of those around him. By the end, I was left in no doubt that this was one of the most linguistically subtle, inventive and complex books I’ve read so far this year.

But back to that blank sticker. Fear not: this is not a lecture about using your local library. For one thing, I’m hardly in a position to talk – I haven’t taken a book out in more than two years. On an idealistic level, I believe that books should be available to everybody in libraries whether we take them out or not.

Sadly, though, we live in an era of cuts and quotas, where books that don’t get borrowed enough get banished and where libraries that don’t get used enough are closed. It’s the age-old law of supply and demand and it’s hard to argue against when you’ve got cancer care units in need of funds and schools teaching pupils in Portakabins.

I’m not sure what we do about it. Still, I can’t help being saddened at the thought of all these great books that have travelled through so many hands and minds to get to us sitting pristine and untouched in public buildings up and down the land. And I can’t help worrying that that bold person in the Cardiff Council Library Service will go for something a little closer to home when it’s time to choose the next round of titles. Or, worse, that he or she will decide not to bother getting more books at all.

Shadows of Your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo, translated from the Spanish by Michael Ugarte (Swan Isle Press, 2007)