October 15, 2012

Documentation and Narratives

The fourth session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) took place in New York City two weekends ago. According to an info sheet in the program folder, it was an “International People’s Tribunal” that “has no legal status, [but] like other Russell Tribunals on Vietnam, Chile and Iraq, its legitimacy comes from its universality and the strength that it draws from the will of its citizens and the support of international personalities…” If anyone is interested in the actual content, you can go to the RToP’s website  (and I would also recommend you take a look at Ethan Heitner’s wonderful renderings, with sketches, of each day). But I bring this up here to talk about the value and limitations of documentation.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” an acquaintance said with a laugh when I bumped into her during a coffee break on the first day of the session, and I was happy to hear that because I didn’t really know what I was doing there, either (a future Library Juice post notwithstanding). But then I reminded myself, again, that it was called a “people’s tribunal” for a reason, that our very presence in the audience was necessary and gave the event weight. (There is also something called the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, which formed in 1979 and recently held a session in India about agrochemical transnational corporations.) We were what made it all different from the issuing of another bunch of reports and essays. The jury was stacked, as it were, composed of people whose progressive politics in general and on Israel-Palestine in particular are well known. And the event certainly wasn’t about hearing the voices of those most directly affected by the issue at hand, as there were only two Palestinian speakers the entire weekend (there would have been a couple more, had illness and visa denials not prevented their presence). But there we all were in the Great Hall at Cooper Union, having gotten up early on a Saturday morning for this sold-out tribunal.

The session opened with an introduction (in French, and tant pis to the majority of the audience who didn’t realize they would be needing the translation headphones) by Pierre Galand, who told us how Bertrand Russell had formed the first Tribunal (on Vietnam) in 1966 to combat “the crime of silence.”  He also explained that as the audience, we were participants in the tribunal and as such should rise when the jury entered and filed out, refrain from applause, and generally behave as befitting a serious event in which we played a serious role. (Being asshole Americans, most of us had a hard time with even these limited directions and just laughed it off when Galand tried to shame us by comparing New York with all the other world cities where people managed to conduct themselves properly.)

And so the weekend proceeded, with hours of intricate presentations. And we listened. And I formulated questions in my head: Does the proclamation of a foregone conclusion have value? Is having a big event and inviting ordinary people (albeit those who already care deeply about the issue) to hear testimony important if only as an affirmation and inspiration to keep up with their solidarity work? Will the additional documentation and judgment change minds?

Regarding the documentation, the single livestream file is online, but this is not useful if you want to find a particular witness’s presentation. The RToP website has all of the reports, of course, including a draft one for the NYC session, but I don’t know how easy it is to find the multilingual softcover reports that detail each session. A book about the London tribunal came out from a trade publisher and, according to WorldCat, is held widely in academic libraries around the world. I wonder if any public libraries have ever done programming related to these “people’s tribunals”?

And regarding the judgment and the changing of minds – as one commentator put it, “The conclusion was essentially preordained, but its importance lies in the fact that the findings were presented by a jury full of luminaries like Angela Davis and Alice Walker to a United Nations body.” Well, but that depends on whether you consider someone like Angela Davis a “luminary” or a culturally irrelevant ex-Black Panther.

Another commenter wrote afterward, “While the ‘witnesses’ were mainly international law experts at home in the world of inter-governmental bodies and narrowly-defined protocols for advancing an action, the majority of attendees (and indeed, of the local organizers who worked countless hours to make the event a success) were oriented toward grassroots activism operating largely outside of such channels. This particular contradiction resonated throughout the entire event. All through the proceedings, there was a distinct sense that different segments of those assembled were processing all of the same facts, and yet arriving at radically different conclusions.”

I don’t know if the conclusions were quite so radically different, but the sort of disconnect between the witnesses and the attendees pales in comparison to the disconnect between the overall RToP conclusions and many US perceptions of this particular subject. (Consider how the narrative in the [very minimal] mainstream journalistic coverage was unaltered.) Oftentimes facts and legal justifications are just not enough, and it all has to do instead with political will and public opinion shifts and individual reflection and critical thinking.

So, as usual, the upshot is that a rational assemblage of truthful evidence is only part of the surround of information that shapes our thinking, whether we are a US senator or a random librarian. (I also thought of the circle of information and the human role in it when juror Alice Walker spoke up after Jeanne Mirer’s particularly harrowing testimony about life in Gaza, telling her, “Thank you for going, seeing, witnessing, and sharing with us, with such compassion.”) From our personal lives to our political actions, we are usually guided by one narrative or another, and it’s everything from the recorded testimonies of expert witnesses to the stories we tell ourselves that ultimately change the world.

If you are interested in this topic, a delegation of librarians to Palestine is being planned for next summer. Get in touch with me if you’d like more information when it’s available.

Share on Facebook
September 10, 2012

New international trade agreements undermining copyright balance

This is a couple of months old now but has just reached my attention. It is a statement from IFLA, cosigned by some of its member associations, including ALA and ARL, raising alarm about a new multi-lateral trade agreement that establishes new intellectual property rules that bypass essential balancing user rights such as Fair Use. The agreement is called the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Please read the IFLA statement for a good explanation of what is happening in this area.

Share on Facebook
August 18, 2012

Sloppy reporting on Saudi “City for Women”

I won’t comment much on this except to speculate that this may be an example of a state of affairs in journalism where reporters are making sloppy mistakes because the pace of the newsroom, like the pace of everything else in the internet era, is too quick for us to keep tabs on everything as we should. Numerous reputable newspapers and magazines evidently misreported a story based on a reading of the original Saudi headline, without reading the article itself. Al Jazeera English reports: “Saudi Women-Only City? Look Again.”

Share on Facebook
June 1, 2012

Censorship at Canadian Library Association Conference – Librarians Expelled by Security Guards for Leafletting

Take note of this outrageous situation at the Canadian Library Association conference yesterday. Librarians opposing cuts to the Canadian National Library and Archives were ejected from the conference by force for passing out leaflets. The Executive Director of CLA claimed that the library conference was “not the right venue” for such activism. Read all about it on the blog of the unionized librarians of the University of Ottawa.

Share on Facebook
April 14, 2012

Censorship through travel restriction (two links)

Two links to share about what may be a growing trend – travel restrictions as a way to stifle political speech.

A column in Salon by Glen Greenwald a few days ago talks about the Department of Homeland Security’s detention of filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras at the U.S. border. They detained her and took possession of her camera and laptop, downloading all of the files on both. Pretty scary. Funny how we have become numb to this kind of thing. Greenwald’s column also talks about other, similar instances.

An article in Haaretz today reports that several airlines have canceled the flights of about 60% of the activists who have been planning to fly in for a protest against the building of new settlements in Palestinian territory. The article begins:

Over 60 percent of the 1,500 pro-Palestinian activists due to arrive in Israel on Sunday to take part in a fly-in protest have received notifications from airlines that their flights have been canceled, the spokesman for the “Welcome to Palestine” protest told Haaretz on Saturday.

Share on Facebook
December 12, 2011

Valuing the People’s Knowledge

Last month in Varanasi, India, the First International Conference of Lokavidya Jan Andolan, or the Peoples’ Knowledge Movement, was held. The original call for participation talked about the situation of the displacement, environmental destruction, and poverty experienced by people throughout India:

All these people, the displaced, the communities they belong to, have never gone to college and live by the knowledge they posses[s], called lokavidya, which they have acquired from elders, from peers, in the community, at the site of work, through experiments and by their own genius. […] In fact lokavidya, that is people’s knowledge, skills, ways of thinking, values, methods of organization, aesthetic and ethical sensibilities, in short, their world of knowledge as a part of their own world, is the main source of their strength. […] It is important to understand that the emancipatory pathways today traverse through the world of knowledge. The Lokavidya standpoint is the people’s standpoint in the Age of Information.

Looking around online a little, I came across a post from a 2008 gathering, which noted, among other things:

“Most people, peasants, artisans, adivasis [indigenous people], very small shop-keepers and women have never been to a college or a university, but they have their own extensive knowledge.”


“The reason for the very bad condition of their life is that their knowledge, lokavidya, is not organized. Their knowledge gets no recognition in politics, in the big bazar, in leading cultural institutions and in the universities. Actually the power centers of the society refuse to give the status of knowledge to lokavidya.”


“So long as lokavidya is not organized, the lokavidyadhars will not be able to effectively intervene in the public realm. Lokavidyadhar samaj needs to take initiative to organise lokavidya under its own leadership, then only can they command respect and get rid of poverty.”

I don’t know enough about the Indian context, but from the U.S. I can’t see that poverty and other manifestations of inequality could be traced to a lack of “organization” of knowledge. Here, voices on the left celebrate the knowledge, traditions, values, and culture of unprivileged communities (of which they may or may not be part). But I don’t think anyone is suggesting that society would change appreciably if only their “lokavidya” were respected by the centers of power.

This also makes me think of a workshop/discussion I attended at the Critical Resistance conference in 2008, where people were riffing on a variety of facts and ideas about prison and justice. Finally the longtime activist Kai Barrow took the floor and said something like, “Okay, now, what are we going to do when we leave here? We have all the information. We don’t need any more information.”

In other words, information (which leads to knowledge – obviously these are two different things) is not emancipatory in and of itself. But I think Kai’s plea does speak to an aspect of this lokavidya concept, a sort of active quality, coming as it does “from elders, from peers, in the community, at the site of work, through experiments.” It’s not just book-reading that’ll learn you. And given that Kai wasn’t actually suggesting that people take up pickaxes and start hacking away at the nearest prison walls, even in an active activism, the work of a prison abolitionist would involve creating new knowledge as a means to making real change.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, and in a chapter about Bangalore and engineers and IT, Deb writes:

There is also something Brahminical in the very way engineers perceive their work around computers, if by Brahminical one means the idea of exclusive access to knowledge that cannot be shared with commoners. There is no glamour in India, for instance, associated with being a civil engineer, and in this it differs remarkably from countries in the West, where, through the nineteenth and a great part of the twentieth century, the civil engineer was celebrated for his rugged masculinity, especially in the way he dominated nature by building dams and bridges.

Today’s Indian middle class, in contrast, celebrates the engineer-entrepreneur who makes money or the engineer-functionary who sits at a workstation. The cubicle is clean, air-conditioned and unpolluted, while the factory is dirty and physical. The cubicle is Brahminical, the factory is Sudra, the realm of the low-caste craftsperson. (p. 99-100)

Anyway, to conclude this sort of stream-of-conscious post – despite my relative unfamiliarity with India, I wanted to write up something here because I haven’t been able to get the idea of this lokavidya conference out of my head.

Share on Facebook
October 25, 2011

Looted Books

This post dovetails coincidentally with Rory’s 10/22 post about the solidarity library in Bethlehem – looks like it’s Israel/Palestine week at Library Juice.

Hannah Mermelstein, a school librarian in New York City, is also a Palestine solidarity activist (and generally awesome person). She’s reworked her thesis into an article, “Overdue Books: Returning Palestine’s ‘Abandoned Property’ of 1948,” that’s been published in the Autumn 2011 issue of the Jerusalem Quarterly.

The article is about books as physical and symbolic pieces of cultural heritage. During times of war and occupation, they may be seized and, if not destroyed, repurposed for the benefit of the regime in power. However, the continued existence of and, often, detailed record-keeping for these books leaves open the possibility of restoration to the original owners, in the larger context of rights for the victimized peoples.

In 1948, much of the wealthy and formally educated Palestinian population was concentrated in Jerusalem and other urban centers. When Zionist militias swept through these neighborhoods, they physically pushed thousands of people from their homes and caused tens of thousands more to flee in fear. Many Palestinians left in haste, grabbing only what they could carry as they ran. Others thought they would return a few weeks later, once the fighting died down. In many cases, members of the educated class left behind some of their most prized possessions: books.

The soldiers raiding these West Jerusalem neighborhoods were closely followed by teams of librarians from the Jewish National and University Library at Hebrew University (later referred to as National Jewish Library or simply the National Library). They gathered approximately 30,000 books from private Palestinian libraries and, according to testimonies from those involved in the project, began to catalog books by subject and often by owners’ names. In the early 1960s, however, close to 6,000 of the books were revisited and labeled with the letters “AP” for “abandoned property”. […] To this day, the books’ call numbers begin with the letters “AP.” The National Library has thus maintained a likely unintentional collection of looted Palestinian books, easily identifiable to those who understand what “AP” means.

The article that originally inspired Hannah is Gish Amit’s “Ownerless Objects? The Story of the Books Palestinians Left Behind in 1948,” published in the Jerusalem Quarterly as well. There is also a related cultural memory project called The Great Book Robbery.

Share on Facebook
October 22, 2011

Solidarity Library in Central Bethlehem

Message sent to me by the International Solidarity Initiative. I don’t have any personal names to connect to this group, but in response to my questions about them they told me that they are independent and not a part of another organization. They can be excused for wanting to stay personally under the radar given the difficult politics surrounding their project.

Our Project: A solidarity library in central Bethlehem

Presentation of the International Solidarity Initiative (ISI)

International Solidarity Initiative is an independent community center based in the center of the Old City of Bethlehem. It is a place where everyone meets to share and develop together there abilities in purpose of right social construction; to help Palestinian people in its march towards freedom and autonomy.

Our philosophy is based on non-violent popular resistance. We believe that educating young people must go through the construction of critical thinking and their own individualization inside the society. We participate in the creation and support of the Palestinian initiative campaigns. These campaigns and our actions are relayed by the media both locally and internationally. We are at the origin of the campaign I Am Palestine whose goal is to change the image of Palestine through various video testimonies of Palestinians on the question of their identity through its wide distribution.

Many volunteers have already joined our initiatives. To this end, we have also a guest house in the center.

Presentation of our project: a solidarity library

Our project is primarily a community project: the creation of a solidarity library, non-profit and open to all. This library gives to young Palestinians easy, secular and democratic access to books whose intellectual relevance and cultural escape fill the absence of such offer in Bethehem area.

The choice of undertake such a project in the center of the ISI is not trivial. Indeed, local and international youths meet there already, what makes this place a full participant in actual solidarity. We have a large room that can accommodate more than 5000 books on its shelves, and equipment and volunteer staff necessary for the proper management of the library.

We mainly target a part of the Palestinian youth who suffers from barriers to access to culture but also to the most disadvantaged families. This is why the free borrowing of books is a principle on which we insist.

The types of books required are mostly novels (classic, fiction…), poetry, theater, cultural books (arts, film, photography …), history and politics, dealing with social issues, art of living (cooking, nature, travel …) and educational manuals (language learning, science, academic books …).

Your contribution by a sponsorship takes on a gift of books.

In addition to this donation, you support us with the dissemination of a culture with a population that represents the future of a becoming nation. You support the Palestinian people. You support Palestine.
The in and out presence of international volunteers will give a media influence to our project’s sponsorship, supported by our very visited website and Facebook page.

If you want to ask question and support us, you can at first contact us via our email: bethlehem.isi [at] gmail.com

We hope that your initial support will soon looks like a partnership in the long term and you will become an mean asset to Palestinian mind’s plethora.

With blessed regards,
International Solidarity Initiative

Share on Facebook
August 29, 2011

Korean translation of Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library

ILWOL Books of Korea has published a Korean translation of Ed D’Angelo’s Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education and the Public Good. The book was previously published in Japanese translation in 2009 by Kyoto University. D’Angelo’s book has been one of our better selling books at Library Juice Press since it was first published in 2006. Chapters one and two are available online.

Share on Facebook

Tension over Weibo, the Chinese Twitter

You will probably be hearing more about Weibo, a Chinese social networking site that combines aspects of Twitter and Facebook and presently has, at a minimum, 140 million users, which is nearly three times the user base of Twitter.

The interesting news at present is that the Chinese government, which shut down access to Twitter some time ago, has sent out mass messages on Weibo warning people that two recent posts were false. Here are accounts of the story from The Atlantic and The New York Times. My friend Anne Mostad-Jensen, a user of the site, sent me this screenshot of the government’s notice on the site (though if you can read Chinese, chances are you’ve already seen it).

Share on Facebook
May 19, 2011

Paulina Mickiewicz on library architecture

An interesting library-related paper from MiT7, by a media studies scholar:

Knowledge Experiments: Technology and the Library, Paulina Mickiewicz

In April of 2005, the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec opened in Montreal, a library project of unprecedented scale in the city. This paper seeks to focus on the programming and technologies of the Grande Bibliothèque. One of the main reasons for the creation of the Grande Bibliothèque was to offer Montreal citizens a public library that was capable of not only hosting and managing emergent media technologies but that would provide free and equal access to these new media. In addition to being a highly digitized and networked facility, the Grande Bibliothèque is also a site that offers the most advanced methods of storage, search and retrieval of a multiplicity of collections, be they referential, digital or archival. This paper will serve to explore the so-called “technologization” of the traditional library, how this has transformed the ways in which we use and understand the library as a public space as well as what this may mean for the future of libraries, and how well equipped the Grande Bibliothèque is in adapting to the constant flow of newer and faster technologies.

Share on Facebook
May 16, 2011

MiT7 podcasts

MiT7 was a great conference – intimate, warm, stimulating, interdisciplinary, and cutting-edge. There were some brilliant minds at work. I plan to post a few comments on the conference later. For now, here are links to podcasts from the three topical plenary sessions:

Media in Transition 7: Unstable Platforms

Archives and Cultural Memory

Power and Empowerment

Share on Facebook
May 11, 2011

MiT 7

Media in Transition 7 (MiT 7), a small conference at MIT, is starting Friday and running ’till Sunday. I will be there; if you will be there too please say hello.

Anyone wanting to follow the Twitter hash tag can look for #mit7.

Share on Facebook
April 10, 2011

Very good article on the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz

There is an very good article by David Remnick in the February 28th issue of the New Yorker about Ha’aretz, the Israeli newspaper that has set the standard for accuracy in news there for many years while also providing the main support for pro-Peace viewpoints among Israelis. If you are interested in the role of the press in a democracy, the fate of newspapers, or the fate of Israel, the article is a must-read. It is called The Dissenters.

Share on Facebook
March 28, 2011

New book: The Culture of the Internet and the Internet as Cult: Social Fears and Religious Fantasies

The Culture of the Internet and the Internet as Cult: Social Fears and Religious Fantasies

Author: Philippe Breton
Translator: David Bade
Price: $22.00
Published: March 2011
ISBN: 978-1-936117-41-3
Printed on acid-free paper

French author Philippe Breton examines the Internet and the culture surrounding it through the lens of its philosophical and cultural background. Central in his insightful analysis of “the Internet as cult” are Teilhard de Chardin and the New Age, but he looks also at the fears, passions and pathologies of Alan Turing and Norbert Wiener, the imagined worlds of Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, J.G. Ballard and Timothy Leary, the prognostications and confessions of Bill Gates, Nicolas Negroponte and Bill Joy, and the philosophies of Saint-Simon, McLuhan and Pierre Lévy. Breton contrasts the dreams of a transparent and unmediated world, a world in which neither time nor space are relevant, a world without violence, without law, without a distinction between the public and the private, with the reality of propaganda, computer viruses and surveillance; the world in which “sociality in the sense of mutuality disappears in favor of interactivity,” where “experience with another and with the world in general is replaced by brief reactionary relations that hardly engage us at all.” This English language translation is by David Bade.

When the book was first published in France as Le culte de l’Internet: une menace pour le lien social?, the publishers described the book with these remarks on its cover [translation by David Bade]:

For the first time in the history of humanity human beings have created a technical system—the Internet—that allows us to dispense with all face-to-face communication. No one would have considered such a possibility if the Internet had not been the object of a cult offering the promise of a better world, the world of “cyberspace”. The advocates of “the Internet for everything” seem to have carried the day not only against technophobes but more importantly against all those desirous of a reasoned use of new technologies.

These militant fundamentalists call for a global information society in which social relationships will be founded upon a separation of bodies and a collectivization of consciousnesses. Their vision is one that mixes together the heritage of Teilhard de Chardin, Zen Buddhism and New Age philosophies. It is a vision that mobilizes American cultural values such as Puritanism, manicheism, the quest for social harmony and the cult of the young. It is rooted in a religiosity that celebrates the utopia of transparence in the context of a political crisis and the waning influence of monotheism and humanism.

Technical developments since 2000 have brought many new imaginations and practices, but Breton’s description of the imaginations that have surrounded the development of the Internet remains a superb corrective to the commonplace that technological developments are changing our world. The reader of The Cultural Origins of the Internet and the Internet as Cult will come away with an awareness of how our own imaginations, our fears and our fantasies form and fashion our futures, technological, social and otherwise.

Share on Facebook