Isolate but Preserve: Civil Liberties in Russia
January 12, 2009

As a bit of a conceptual bridge between the global issues in libraries I’ve been discussing since the fall and intellectual freedom, which I’ll be focusing on for the next couple of months (there will be much overlap, I assure you), I’d like direct us back to Russia and to this article, by Ellen Barry, from yesterday’s NYTimes.  In particular, I’d like to highlight this passage:

“After presenting himself to the world as a liberal modernizer, President Medvedev has prioritized one major reform — lengthening the presidential term to six years. Last week, he signed a law eliminating jury trials for ‘crimes against the state,’ and pending legislation would expand the definition of treason.”

One of the suggestions for our class on intellectual freedom is to, aptly, read a banned book.  How many librarians do you know who proudly wear their buttons that say “I Read Banned Books”?  I certainly have one of those, in bright purple, and it’s pinned onto my book bag, presently.

It does no good to start a contrapuntal conversation about the differences in intellectual freedom in Russia and the U.S., as Russia always winds up being demonized.  But what if we transferred the idea of proudly proclaiming our having read a banned book to fit this issue above.  I’m not saying that librarians and intellectuals in Russia should start wearing buttons that say “I’m for Treason,” but what about “I Heart Civil Liberties” or “Where’s the Jury?”  I know that these slogans are not as catchy, and, perhaps, my analogy is a stretch.  Does anyone have any better slogans (I’d love suggestions)?  Maybe the tried-and-true “I Read Banned Books” will help, yet, another group in rallying behind the struggle for intellectual freedom.

Later in the article, a think-tank pundit states that, “I just think [the Russian leaders] don’t trust what they can’t control.”  Trust, especially for governments, is often a troublesome issue, as it takes openness and a willingness to put up with criticism from the people—for it is only when all people are free that trust can truly exist.  Attempting to destroy freedoms, ideas, expressions, etc., is only going to push “trust” farther away.  Intellectual freedom would foster this trust, which, in turn, would give continued life to intellectual freedom.

It’s unfortunate that Russian officials continue to choose intimidation and restriction over trust and openness, as this avenue has continually been proven to be ineffective throughout the country’s history.  In 1934, Osip Mandelstam wrote a poem called “Stalin Epigram,” which criticized the leader.  Stalin, in response, sent Mandelstam to a labor camp with instructions to “isolate but preserve.”  What Stalin meant was kill the idea–the art, the poem–but not the man (this was considered a “light” punishment).  The opposite happened, as Mandelstam died a few years later; yet, his poetry lived on, preserved by his wife, Nadezhda, who, knowing that any physical copy of Mandselstam’s work would be seized and destroyed, committed his entire body of work to memory.

You can’t kill an idea.  Intellectual freedom often means fighting and advocating as much for the person with the idea as for the idea itself.  We must continually remind ourselves of this.  So, choose your slogan.  Perhaps, mine will be: “I Read Osip Mandelstam.”


ALA President-Elect’s visit to Moscow
December 12, 2008

Here is a link to the first of a couple of postings about a recent trip by the ALA President-Elect to Moscow to meet with colleagues from the Moscow State University for Culture and Arts and the Russian State University for the Humanities Library.

What Open Access Means for Russian Libraries
December 4, 2008

Linked below is a paper that I just finished, which examines open access initiatives in Russian libraries, ultimately positing that these initiatives–and their significance, problems, and potential–are emblematic of the present state and future of libraries in Russia.


Critical Mass
November 23, 2008

“The quality of democracy depends heavily on the quality of the democrats,” [Sergei] Kovalyov told me after the [1996] elections.  “We have to wait for a critical mass to accumulate of people with democratic principles.  It’s like a nuclear explosion: the critical mass has to accrue.  Without this, everything will be like it is now, always in fits and starts.  Our era of romantic democracy is long over.  We have finally fallen to earth.”

When and how will that critical mass accumulate?

—David Remnick, Resurrection, p. 358

Critical mass: if not in these exact terms, isn’t this what libraries attempt to enable?  NYPL’s mission states that their libraries are “everyone’s university,” which, to me, gestures at a collective mission of empowerment, much in the vein of critical mass.

Yet, echoing Kovalyov’s lament above, this idea of critical mass/universality seems less championed by libraries in Russia, at least in being a central element to stated library missions.  Here are the Russian Library Association’s (RBA: Rossiiskaya Bibliotechnaya Assotsiatsiya) goals:

  • Consolidation, support and coordinating of libraries, library associations and schools activities
  • Representation and defense of librarians
  • Increment of the social status and prestige of the library profession
  • Defense of library user’s rights

It appears that, presently, the priority for the RBA is to protect librarians, library users, and the library as an institution.  While all of these goals are extremely important, they are merely basic tenets of libraries.  Further confounding, when I searched the site of the National Library of Russia’s website, I couldn’t even locate a mission statement, which I find baffling.  Perhaps, I am putting too much emphasis on mission statements and codes of ethics, but these are the succinct anthems of library organizations that are widely disseminated—even if they are truly nothing more than a sound-bite, this sound-bite represents the ethos of a library to mass populations.

The ruling power’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the masses and their needs is, sadly, a recurring issue in Russia’s history, as Remnick often points out in Resurrection.  But I can’t help but find it disheartening to see that this emblem has not been clearly combated by the predominant library organizations in Russia.  I am sure that the RBA and the NLR do wonders for aiding every demographic in Russia, but acknowledging and fostering critical mass, everyone’s universality, or whatever you wish to call it is an important issue for which I know Russian libraries can carry the torch.

November 20, 2008

A long-distance view is definitely needed as the globalization of culture increases.  There are those in Russia who fiercely attack globalization, some who criticize only its excesses, and still others who warily welcome it; but in fact, Russia has been part of this process since the country opened up to Western Europe in the late seventeenth century.  It is just that events have accelerated immeasurably…Nowadays, every significant local cultural gesture sooner or later takes on a global resonance, usually a political one; when it does not, the reason is also political.  There is probably no way back to truly autonomous cultural reservations.  Russian culture, even domestically, is more and more judged as part of a global marketplace, a situation the Russian intelligentsia finds unusual and painful after seventy years of isolation.

–Solomon Volkov, The Magical Chorus, pp. viii-ix

“What kind of country is it now, a republic?” “I don’t know”

–from Russian Ark

Volkov’s extremely apt observations above highlight the complexities of Russia’s present state, resulting in ambivalences and confusions, as the narrator in Russian Ark displays.  Yes, Russia has been a part—in varying degrees—of Europe and, thus Western Culture, for a few centuries now.  Yet, it has also found itself in the throes of monarchy and dictatorship for much of the time since “opening-up” to the West.  I realize the arguably colonial sentiments present in using terminology such as “the West,” but what I most wish to imply is that notions of open culture and information (i.e. freedom of speech, expression, and the press) are complicated in Russia.

When the Soviet government collapsed, many people hailed the new opportunities for informational openness within Russia.  Even the multiple codes of ethics for librarians that I mentioned in my last post trumpeted these new possibilities.  Yet, these aspirations for open access and freedom of information have only been partially realized, and, presently, it appears that—from a governmental standpoint—there is a bit of retrograde taking place.

Thus, how can information professionals aid this situation?  In many ways, the basic infrastructure for a healthy, open information environment appears to be in place in Russia—unlike other, more impoverished regions of the world.  When C.K. Prahalad speaks to the willingness of much of the world’s poor to accept technology, one is tempted to feel that Russia is beyond this initial step.  Yet, there seems to lack a consistency, both in terms of who has access to technology and information and how strongly codes of ethics relating to libraries and freedom of information are upheld.  The former of these points is evidenced in the fact that some of the first countries that the Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Initiative aided, in terms of donating and disseminating technology, were the Baltics.  The latter is seen—in one of sundry examples—in the plight of the Echo of Moscow radio station, which I mentioned in one of my first posts.

Striving toward consistency in informational access and informational codes of ethics; this seems to be a good place to start.

Russia: the Land of Motley Codes of Ethics
November 15, 2008

In one of my earliest posts, I discussed library codes of ethics from around the world, as compiled by IFLA.  Interestingly, one country submitted two codes of ethics.  The country is Russia, and, while the surface intentions of creating two codes of ethics were to address different elements of LIS, this double submission is emblematic of the complexities that libraries and information professionals face in a country that continues to grapple with crucial issues such as freedom of speech and information, informational transparency, ethics, democracy, and intellectual freedom.

For the remainder of my independent study—and, thus, in the discussion here, for the next month or so—I’ll be focusing on Russia and the current information science “climate” thereabouts, in an effort to, via a regional study, delve more deeply into issues that affect global libraries.

(And as a bit of related, local color, please see.)

Code of Ethics
October 5, 2008

“A shortlist of potentially divisive issues with ethical aspects would include globalisation, the digital gap between the information rich and poor, digital inclusiveness, commercialsation of information versus interactive on-line public services, privacy, authenticity, confidentiality, trust and confidence in cyberspace, censorship, copyright, intellectual property rights, grey literature, electronic filters…” Robert W. Vaagan

It’s hard discuss global initiatives in libraries without encountering IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), for they have been at it the longest, at least in an “official” way.  The quote above comes from an IFLA publication entitled The Ethics of Librarianship: An International Survey, which I spent this past week reading.  Though rather academic, this work is extremely interesting in that it collects various library codes of ethics from around the world, in an effort to create a sense of international solidarity among individuals and organizations in the field of Library and Information Science (LIS).  Yet, this work is also meant to highlight areas in which these codes of ethics are not in concert with one another, as well as draw attention to the fact that many national library organizations still do not possess an official code of ethics.  To further complicate matters, some of the library organizations represented in this text have codes of ethics that are significantly at odds with the governments under whose laws they exist.

A lot of noise is made in this book about those places/organizations that lack an “official” code of ethics.  While I, of course, understand the symbolism and the intentions behind raising such alarm, I found myself wondering what it truly means for a library organization to present an “official” code of ethics, especially in those situations where it is nearly impossible—illegal, even—to strictly follow such a code, or in those cases where following the code, despite all of the meritorious intentions within, does not produce the desired results.

This latter complication brought to mind a New Yorker article a few weeks back about the Russian radio station Echo of Moscow.  Arguably the last significant bastion of free press in Putin/Medvedev’s Russia, Echo of Moscow has remained on the air, some argue, solely for Putin to point to when he needs to defend himself against claims that he censors the press.  Whether or not this is true, a more crucial issue is one broached by Kirill Rogov, a former editor at Kommersant, a respected Russian mainstream daily newspaper, and a supporter of Echo of Moscow, who states: “It’s been the best news service for a long time…But is a free media outlet possible in an unfree country? I would say no. In a free country, the newspaper publishes a story, it influences television, it reaches the public, then it helps to shape the course of policy. In an unfree country, Echo of Moscow lives in isolation, on a kind of Indian reservation. It broadcasts a story or a discussion and it reaches an audience, but then it never goes any further.”

With this in mind, I ask, again: what does it mean to have an official code of ethics for a library organization that exists in a society that will not honor and/or allow for the blossoming of such a code?  Turning to Russia’s code of ethics in the IFLA text, one reads: “[In a] totalitarian state…The development of professional ethical rules was impossible, since the ideological framework strictly determined both external professional space (relations with authorities) and internal ones (relations with users).”  In Putin’s present Russia, has the was in the above statement returned to an is?

Regardless, I think that, in terms of global library ethics, the question above (what does it mean to have an official code of ethics for a library organization that exists in a society that will not honor and/or allow for the blossoming of such a code?) is a crucial one.  While it is exceptionally empowering and noble to create and follow a code of ethics, we must, at times, make the admission that boldly standing-up to those forces that attempt to censor and stymie the very ethics protected by these codes is not enough.  Simply following a code of ethics will not, in and of itself, resolve many of the divisive issues listed above, nor will it even, at times, allow for the freedoms so despertely desired in an unfree society, which libraries strive to provide:  “Ethical considerations, not least the intellectual freedoms of opinion and expression, which are reflected…in the core values of IFLA, have long been a concern for librarians and library associations.”  (Robert W. Vaagan)

Yes, these codes of ethics are absolutely essential and, at times, their employment an act of bravery, but, in combating those forces that censor and divide, and in creating an environment in which information can truly flow freely, they are not an end unto themselves.

What, then, is to be done?