Books and libraries

André Maurois (1885-1967), today rather unknown, was once a famous French writer with an enormous production of novels, essays and biographies. From 1938 he was a member of l’Académie Francaise. But André Maurois was also the anonymous author of the first Unesco Public Library Manifesto, published in 1949. To be honest, later versions of the Manifesto have not reached an equal literary standard.

In 1961 another Unesco publication by Maurois was published. That is the pamphlet, Public libraries and their mission. This official document is also of an unusual literary standard.

In the 1960s Unesco was very concerned about international library development. And the pamphlet Public Libraries and their mission is a massive support of the basic values of public libraries.

According to Maurois, books are the only way in which we can learn about past ages. Books are the best key to an understanding of social groups that we never frequent. Maurois further maintains that books can take us out of ourselves and are our gateways to other people’s minds. And nothing is more important than to broad our horizons. Public libraries are important to make books accessible. And, summarizes Maurois, “every library is a centre for international understanding. By its very existence, free from propaganda and prejudice and with no axe of its own to grind, the public library serves peace as well as democracy.”

According to Maurois, public libraries are one of the most essential institutions in a civilized society. He goes so far as to state that … “education is but a key to open the doors of libraries.”

His strong concern for the importance of good children’s libraries is expressed as follows: “It is early in life that a taste for books and reading is most easily acquired. Most children have not enough money to buy books, nor have their parents enough money to give them books. Only in a library will they find good books. A public library must have a children’s corner.”

The design of children’s libraries is important. In the words of Maurois “… the setting should be bright and colourful, so that the idea of books may be associated in the child’s mind with a feeling of well-being. The shelves should be full of books among which the child should be free to browse.”

In the 1960s children’s libraries did not have the highest priority. Libraries did not always regard children’s literature as important. Fortunately, attitudes have gradually changed and library service for children has improved a lot.

High standard in Nordic countries

In the Nordic countries library service for children have reached a comparati vely high standard. Public libraries without a children’s department are a rarity. Consequently children in our countries are regular book consumers which is evident from numerous surveys on reading habits produced during the last decades. Figures on reading habits for Swedish children usually show that somewhat 90% of children read regularly. And what is more, the pattern of reading habits is that a generation appears to continue its reading habits as its age increases. That means, a 20 year-old in 1982 read at roughly the same level as a 40 yearold in 2003. Conclusions drawn from this is that if we want to encourage a nation to become a reading nation the most strategic action would be to set up well-equipped children’s libraries.

Most children in the world do not have access to well-equipped libraries, or to libraries at all. Too many children live in countries where poverty rates and illiteracy rates are equally high. Where the education system is insufficient and old-fashioned. Where libraries have low priority on the political agenda. Where a book market is almost non-existent and where nobody would dream of opening a book shop. Where the chance to read for most children is minimal.

When Maurois wrote the pamphlet, Public libraries and their mission, in the beginning of the 1960s the world was different. Books still had a strong monopoly status. Television was in its infancy, and not many could imagine its potential as mass distributor of junk information. The entertainment industry was still far away. And so was the sex industry. The Internet was not even thought of.

Not just books

Imagine that we today could ask André Maurois to update his pamphlet, Public libraries and their mission, and adapt it to the current situation, he might have made the following comments:

‘Yes, he might have said, I admit I was a bit biased and too focused on the role of the public library as intermediaries for books. And books only. Had I foreseen the development in the publishing industry and the increasing amount of international best sellers and the increasing amount of nonsensical junk, I had probably been less categorical in my statements. But on the other hand this fact does not reduce the value of good books. I am still convinced that books are one of the best sources to knowledge, information and understanding. And so far, I can’t see that any new invention has replaced the book.

With the ICT development public libraries have become aware of the importance of information, and above all the importance of immediate information. Information technology has offered new opportunities for libraries. Of course libraries today should use the IC technologies. It would be silly not to. But there must be a balance. Books are still the most important content in libraries. If libraries did not exist, which institution could take their role? Not any I am afraid. Public libraries, as I said in 1960, are one of the most essential institutions in a civilized society. And they still are. I think that today libraries are necessary as sanctuaries and counterparts to the huge amount of misinformation. Quantity seems to have become more important than quality. The strength of libraries is that what they offer has to some extent a quality guarantee.

In the 1960s it was necessary to emphasise the need of good children’s libraries. They were neglected. Today there is a risk for a backlash, due to lack of interest. So I would certainly repeat what I said in the chapter on children’s libraries more than 40 years ago. Perhaps the language should be updated, but that is all.

Children’s libraries are important. Without libraries many children would never come in contact with books and reading. This is valid in rich countries as well as in poor countries. For different reasons, of course.

Top priority to childrens libraries

The international library movement does not seem to be very concerned on children’s library issues. Children’s libraries should have top priority.’

The library profession today is very concerned with ICT development, with copyright issues and with digitisation. The concept of lifelong learning has got a new life. Here I would like to remind you of the original concept of public libraries as expressed in my version of the Unesco Public Library Manifesto, that public libraries are the people’s university. This statement is still valid. All the issues mentioned above are of course very important. But the library community does not seem able to manage more than one topic at the time. Maybe a better understanding of library history would help.

However, Maurois would conclude, it would be a good idea to revise my pamphlet from 1961. Maybe IFLA should urge Unesco to initiate such a revision. The public library movement needs an updated ideological platform. And if my pamphlet could serve as inspiration, I would be more than happy.