Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thiruvananthapuram Fights Back

While the British Council Library in Kuala Lumpur is closing down with scarce a ripple of public protest, things have taken a very different turn in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerela State, India (left).

The Hindu reports that a writ petition has been filed in the High Court against the closure move. The petitioner is pleading the loss of "a cultural landmark". An online petition has also been organised and a blog set up by engineer Krishnamohan. (More about the closure too on Jo's blog.)

I wish them all the best with their protest and hope that the library can be saved.

I was a bit slow on the uptake and did not at first realise that the closure of our library is a manifestation of a worldwide policy rethink on the part of the British Council.

The closures have been happening too across Europe in Cyprus, Serbia, Georgia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany and Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in Greece.

Other countries where libraries are closing or have closed are Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Kuwait, Turkey, Israel and Bhopal, India.

Last August, Helena Smith reported in the Observer about the closure of British Council library in Athens. Calling it a "cultural earthquake", she described how:
... 8,000 books - the entire literary heritage of the British Council in Greece - were carted off to the English department of Athens University
(The Chief Executive of the British Council, Martin Davidson, made the point that this library was not economically viable in a letter to the newspaper.)

The money saved by the British Council, Smith said, is to be channeled to "high priority areas" to projects aimed at combating the dangers of Islamic extremism. Cathy Stephens, acting director of British Council operations is quoted as saying:
You cannot succeed unless you enter into risky areas and are prepared to deal with them. ... We are in transformational mood. ... We want more impact, better results and interaction,' says Stephens. 'Books and buildings are inert resources that [entail] fixed costs and a lot of maintaining and staffing. And the internet has enabled much better access to books.
Author Fay Weldon:
... a vociferous supporter of the earlier campaign to prevent the closure of the council's libraries, and an author who has long toured with the council ...
naturally scoffed at the idea:
What do they hope to do? Win hearts and minds by sending in rappers to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East? We're trying to impose our culture and values on the culture of countries that don't share them, in the extraordinary conviction that we are right. ...'All of this feels like somebody's bright idea that has not been properly thought out. The British Council should examine its own motives, attitudes and indeed cultural imperialism, because what they are doing is totally short-sighted.
The council are also justifying worldwide closures because they say its research shows that:
... its target audience between the ages of 18 and 35 is less interested in borrowing books than surfing the internet.
But, one could argue, isn't a good library the best (perhaps only?) way to counteract this drift? (Or does it not matter at all, online resources being the perfect substitute and the way of the future? Why fight the death of the book, particularly when it isn't economically viable to do so.)

The council has supported British authors and contemporary literature so well for so long but it does seem a great shame that this very important showcase for the most important contemporary British writing is to be lost.

Not to mention the big hole it will leave in the lives of readers.


I've lifted this letter whole from David Blackie's blog. I'm glad to be able to give it space.
Don't the British care for what people in other parts of the world think about them? I live in the state of Kerala in South India. It is a place that is considered a model state in many ways. We don't produce terrorists of any sort; not surprising when you consider our high levels of literacy and education. Quite a number of people from here have migrated to the UK, mostly from the professional classes. They've integrated very well into British society and have contributed significantly to British life, culture and economy. There are also British companies with big offices in Kerala. We had a British Library run with the help of the British Council. A couple of weeks back they abruptly announced their decision to shut the library. Members are devastated at the prospect. We have not been given reasons for the closure. It was suggested at first that the Council was pulling out because they would have to come up with significant amounts of money for new premises. Our state government offered free land and a building if the Council could continue to maintain the library. Now the Council says it is part of their world wide policy to close down libraries. Maybe it is the British Council's policy, but can't anyone in the UK see it is not beneficial to anyone? Allow me to point out that this is one of the few parts of the "third world" where there is some goodwill for Britain and the British. That is not because we are fans of what you are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is because we've had a mutually beneficial relationship with Britain. And your library has played a very important part in this relationship. Does the British Council not care for this? I would have thought it was more important for you to win hearts and minds here than to alienate yet another part of the world. The Council even refuses to talk to us, the members of the library. Is it your famous stiff upper lip or residual imperial arrogance? Will some British person answer my questions?

P. Vijaya Kumar Kamalalayam -2 Kunnukuzhy P O Trivandrum 695037 South India
Postscript 2:

A former colleague who still works for the BC, wrote to me in an unofficial capacity, and I think explains things pretty clearly:
While I don’t necessarily agree with the policy, it is part of a worldwide trend to make the Council’s grant go further. Libraries are expensive places to run; our grant, while it increased over most of the last 10 years, has now been fixed at the same level for the next 3 years (with no allowance for inflation – thus in effect a decrease in real terms); books in English are much more widely available in places like KL than they used to be (both with the advent of places like Borders, and also websites like Amazon); and also, at least in places like Western Europe (I don’t know much about the current strategy for East Asia), we believe we can stretch our grant further by targeting future leaders and influencers, who are less likely to rely on our libraries for information about the UK (let alone literature in English) than by targeting students and language learners, who we will attempt to reach through our language schools and UK education promotion activities.

One of your correspondents casts doubt on the work we’re doing combating Islamic radicalism: a couple of examples for you. We’re running English classes in Pakistani madrassahs, to try to help both the imams and their students get a more balanced view of the west, by enabling them to access more sources of information through English; and we’re developing a project in this part of the world, exploring the shared European heritage of the 3 Mosaic religions.

I realise – as I’m sure does senior management – that this is going to upset some (a lot of? people: and it’s worth noting that the National Audit Office, who are carrying out a value-for-money audit of the BC, have described us, apparently (ie I have only heard this said: I have no documentary evidence) as “addicted to change”. It may also be that the rationale for these changes has not been clearly explained, or understood (not necessarily the same thing) by the people most affected.


Anonymous said...

"The money saved by the British Council, Smith said, is to be channeled to "high priority areas" to projects aimed at combating the dangers of Islamic extremism."

Ah, yes of course. Better to save a few quids and help send more troops and guns and bombs and kill all those Agfans and Iraqis, Talibans , Al Qaedas, JIs. They are not like us are they? They are terrorists. Worthless humans, or just like animals anyway.

ah pong

bibliobibuli said...

only one thing wrong there. british council doesn't do bombs or guns (or at least it didn't the last time i looked) it does culture.

Anonymous said...

Ah Yes. Culture.
I wonder what British council will morph into now in these countries . Probably supporting the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Taslima Nasrin or even that Indian anglophile who wrote 'that book' to do road shows to 'combat the dangers of Islamic extremism'?

Good luck.
ah pong

eyeris said...

The British Council library in Wraclow, Poland was my only source of English books when I was there, and it saved me from going mad from not understanding a single word over there. I read practically half the entire fiction section in the six months I was there...

It also introduced me to the pleasures of Terry PRatchett, so I am forever in debt to BC's libraries...

Anonymous said...

Sharon, I was gobsmacked to read this bit:
"The money saved by the British Council, Smith said, is to be channeled to "high priority areas" to projects aimed at combating the dangers of Islamic extremism."

What does that even *mean*? Literature, books, knowledge... means of combating extremism of any kind, no? So why shut down the libraries? I don't know, but this troubles me a lot... and makes very little sense to me.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I had no idea why the BC library was closing down; was talking about it with some friends and I tried to reason it out as some budgeting/funding issue but someone pointed out, just like you did: "Doesn't British Council do culture? Libraries are a big part of that."

I must admit to not having been a fairly frequent user of the library as I would have liked, but finding the time to get there was half the problem... and then, too, the space was so limited that it really discouraged leisurely browsing, especially on a Saturday. But I was glad to have it there, and was happy to borrow books that I might not otherwise have read. I mean, really, who among us is able to buy every single book that arouses our interest?

And, as you pointed out, saying that "kids are more interested in the Internet," and then shutting down libraries because of that is just genius... Naturally we all want to live in a world where research = Wikipedia.


bibliobibuli said...

not sure i can make sense of it all either, really the rechanneling of the money to combat terrorism makes no sense at all to me ... for the very reasons you describe. can this really be true??????

there are the economics of the case too. if large numbers had been joining and using the library, i guess there would have been no case to close it. it's a pity though that there was no warning that it might close which might have got people rallying to prevent it.

(and there is the larger question of should libraries pay their way anyway.)

anyway, the council is still doing a very good job with other activities which support reading and writing. it would be very unfair not to mention that.

Anonymous said...

"we believe we can stretch our grant further by targeting future leaders and influencers"

"future leaders and influencers" = ???

How do you identify "future leaders and influencers"? Sounds like code for relatives of current leaders and influencers if you ask me.


Anonymous said...

In response to Jen: again, I can't speak for the BC strategy in East Asia, but the kind of people we're working with in Western Europe (or at least this small corner of it where I work) are the people who are going to be making a difference in their countries in 10- 20 years time - like the young people we sent to Davos last week. Their ancestry is irrelevant!

Anonymous said...

It's just a sign of the times isn't it ? instead of banding together to start a library, they band together to protest. I cannot imagine why they would not start one of their own.

As for my part, I've promised to support Animah should she ever get her hundred subscribers (if you recall she did offer.)

In case you're asking "why not you then ?" the simple answer is, no money. If she can come up with the subscribers she offered to, then we can get something done over here (instead of "protesting" like it should make a difference if people walk around screaming and yelling instead of actually trying to make a difference.)

bibliobibuli said...

am having a behind the scenes think. and cynical as i am about "the secret" am sending out my brainwaves to the universe ...

Gary (Empty Book) Justice said...

What is the connection to Library shut downs in Canada and U.S>.? What is the connection to U.S. new law proposal to shit down any web site for "suspected" misdemeanors?

IF all data becomes dynamic and few books are around, and free internet is not available to working class at libraries it may help support the powers that be to continue the reduction of liberty and the criminalization and control of ordinary citizens.

Keep your eyes peeled and exercise your rights and your power.