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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 20. Vinita Ramani interviews Julian Samuel, a Montreal film-maker and writer

Julian Samuel made a documentary film in 2002, entitled 'The Library in Crisis' . Vinita Ramani interviews him about the film and about some of Julian Samuel's views about life in general.

For more information about the film, see -

VR = Vinita Ramani (Interviewer)
JS = Julian Samuel (Interviewee)

VR : The first thing that comes to mind watching 'The Library in Crisis' is a quote by Tariq Ali in an interview he did soon after September 11th. He said ".... the one discipline both the official and unofficial cultures have united in casting aside has been history. It's somehow as if history has become too subversive. The past has too much knowledge embedded in it, and therefore it's best to forget it and start anew."

Has history always been of topical concern to you in your work and how does that relate to what is happening with libraries?

JS : I am not a historian nor am I an analyst of contemporary world affairs. I am, however, a documentary film-maker who has a fundamental grasp on what it means to expose audiences to extensive discussions of a historical nature. Will my works bring about a skepticism that will empower us to make for a better world? What a dreamer some of your readers might say. I believe that it is only via a discussion of historical issues that we will be able to understand and act in the contemporary world. For example, Noam Chomsky has consistently referred to recent Middle-East history in order to expose the current-day slaughter of Palestinians. By the way, the Israelis are directly responsible for the poor condition of libraries in Palestine (see 66th IFLA Council and General Conference Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August. Paper by Erling Bergan, Bibliotekarforbundet, Oslo, Norway. Web site for Bergan's essay: ).

And on the subject of history - well let's see what kind of future this area of study has. For years now, schools in France have not given the failed Paris Commune of 1871 the attention it deserves. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the consequent siege of Paris lead to one of the first experiments in social democracy. It must be difficult to study history in societies that specialize in communal violence such as India, Pakistan and Canada - a country that has a history of violence against First Nations, et al., ad nauseam. Depending on the country, the repercussions from the history classroom to the street are immediate, and the elites will try to exert - as they have always done - limiting parameters on the teaching of this subject as well as others. Absurdly, there are news reports that tell of a move toward controlling actually who studies biology. Will students with "Middle-Eastern" features be observed, controlled and discouraged from advancing in this field? One wonders.

VR : You do not merely address the issue of the threat of privatization of what is essentially a public service in your documentary. You specifically use the word "bibliocide" to describe the phenomena. What was the intention behind that usage and how widespread a phenomenon is it?

JS : Ian McLachlan, one of the main interviewees in 'The Library in Crisis' , uses this word. Biblocide is happening as we speak. The forthcoming part of this documentary on libraries and information in society, entitled, "From Alexandria to Cyberspace: The Library in Crisis" will address the following themes: permanent book burning - the enlightened destruction of primary documents in the libraries of western democracy; the future of the study of history based on primary sources and commentaries and images from the developing world. What am I basing my suspicions on? Nicholson Baker has written a brilliant work of humanist scholarship, "Double Fold, Libraries and the Assault on Paper" (2001). He makes the following claims:

  • That major librarians at Library of Congress, Yale, Harvard, et al., have since the last 40 or so years, microfilmed newspapers and books, subsequently discarding, selling or destroying the originals. The process of microfilming requires that books have to be disbound (the binding slashed open with a knife) because the pages have to be put perfectly flat on a table in preparation for photography.
  • That there is an attempt on the part of major libraries to transfer books to the digital world. Once the books have been filmed or scanned, they are not re-shelved, but sold or "pulped".
  • Librarians need more and more bookshelf space; space means the expenditure of money which is not easily available. Yet, year after year more and more books and newspapers are published. Librarians of major collections say the only way they can make more space is to microfilm the old documents, throwing them away afterwards. The Library of Congress leads the way in this book and newspaper massacre.
  • Microfilming indirectly results in the destruction of books and newspapers. Microfilm cannot work as a substitute for paper; many microfilms of newspaper are incomplete, issues and pages missing, badly cropped pages, missing texts. Nicholson Baker estimates, conservatively, that one million books and tons of newspapers have been intentionally destroyed. Furthermore, microfilm is not as stable as paper.
  • Various conservation processes, including the use of diethyl zinc (an explosive element found in fuel-air bombs), have not saved books from acidity, but rather have ruined and in some cases destroyed them. Preservation is destruction: "Just leave the books alone."

Filming and scanning of old books and papers is much more expensive than simply building a large off-site warehouse. It is exponentially more expensive to store complete books on hard disks than to build warehouses.

Baker objectively concludes that the destruction of books has been utterly unnecessary: American libraries have tossed out 975, 000 books worth $39 millions dollars, and have no intention of stopping.

VR : Part of the process of privatizing public services reveals a tussle between what may be termed "knowledge" as opposed to "information". A recent article points out the emergence of companies launching "information markets", which would provide reference services for paying customers and would call themselves "library-like services" in order to claim government funding. In light of this, what are your thoughts on the digitization of texts and the prevalence of the Internet as a resource? What impact is digitization having on libraries?

JS : I haven't the expertise to respond to these questions. However, let me offer the following:

Are you suggesting that "digitization" may become "privatization"? Perhaps, privatization will mean that libraries may charge for knowledge. If we as a public don't resist the primrose path towards privatization of knowledge, the full-steam ahead of the privatization of education (what Tony Blair is trying to do in the UK), and the privatization of health care, then we are doomed. People should make their will known to the politicians who claim to represent us in Parliament and City Councils. Their feet must be held close to the fire, otherwise their natural proclivity to falsely represent our interests will prevail. These thinkers and plotters are committed to making more money, not extending democracy. They want to project their ugly policies from above without listening to anyone. Rancid cliché - hello: the rich are not interested in solving the problems that follow from globalization.

VR : The threat posed to libraries, and the de-accessioning of texts (a term Ian MacLachlan cites in the film to point out how books are "cancelled", or taken off the shelves) extends to universities as well. In a sense, the definition of a university as a place for intellectual debate and exchange itself is being de-accessioned. Is there a broader agenda motivating this other than the workings of privatization?

JS : Books need not be "deaccessioned." It is cheaper to build large warehouses with roofs that do not leak rather than rip apart books for filming - film lasts for only a few decades. Books last for ages - longer than computers stay at the cutting edge.

Privatizing information means that it becomes easier for the elites to control who gets to see information (and documents). At the moment, it is getting harder and harder to look at archival government documents in the USA - rumour has it that the US government may even put a back curtain around the beautiful Statue of Liberty. The post 11 September Bush administration is particularly worrying. Julian Borger, a journalist for the Guardian Weekly, explicitly addresses the issue of the 1966 Freedom of Information Act and the current access to government documents (Thursday March 7, 2002).

VL : The term "globalization" is tossed around liberally and inversely, the term "anti-globalization" is used to dismiss any serious (and not always supportive) concern for the policies that fall under this ambiguous term. In a sense, it even feels like a ruse designed to detract attention from the various issues that fall within its realm. How does your film grapple with this term?

JS : The term "globalization" means privatizing everything from libraries to health care (I realize that not all countries have public healthcare) and even privatizing the process of privatizing itself - this process has produced a litigious culture the likes of which we have never seen.

'The Library in Crisis' tries to put historical events such as the fall of the library at Nilanda and the contemporary digitization of texts in a framework, which allows us to make comparisons and to act in an informed way. Without some knowledge of the past we can't act.

VL : Your previous work on Orientalism, (The Raft of the Medusa; Into the European Mirror; City of the Dead and The World Exhibitions) consisted of three documentaries that examined colonialism, imperialism and how historiography operates, amongst other issues. Is there a similar series in the works built around the thematic concerns raised in 'The Library in Crisis' ?

JS : In a very general sense, 'The Library in Crisis' is similar to my work on how the Middle East and parts of Asia are configured within the workings of western imagination. 'The Library in Crisis' focuses all interviews onto one single site: the library. This public institution is one source for the preservation and further development of democracy.

However, there is an ugly trend afloat: charging for library cards. This trend has not yet hit Montreal, but the province of Alberta is now charging for library cards, and Montreal area libraries are charging for borrowing best sellers - about five bucks a shot - total fraud this is. We have *already paid* for the library and *all* its contents - the shelves, the books, the networks, the data bases, the journals, the newspapers, the tables, the CDs, the old LPs, the 45s, the chairs, the air-conditioning and the heating *through our tax* contributions. Why are some odious and conformist library administrators starting to *double charge* us? A simple petition by library users could stop this hideous trend towards barring those who may not be able to afford to use the library. Without the public library we are dead and finished as a civilization. Protest and survive is that the answer? I am not sure.

Julian Samuel can be contacted at: jjsamuelat



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