Administration and Organization
University Librarian Gary E. Strong

International Librarianship:
Remarks in Mary Mack's IS Class

April 27, 2004

First, let me thank Bob Martin for raising the visibility within the U.S. federal government concerning library issues and particularly for his involvement in the World Summit. Our respective leadership in state libraries and federal-level involvement of library issues spans more years than either of us would like to admit. And there are issues too numerous to engage this evening. On the other hand, Bob, it would be intriguing to do just that one day.

As I have said, we have long needed a spokesperson/advocate with portfolio at this level. Bob has represented us all well. The U.S. positions have been much more balanced. But make no mistake—our U.S. position is still very focused toward the business and commercial sector concerns. That has been record of our international involvement within WIPO and the WTO as well.

I am pleased to provide some response to Bob's remarks, but to have been asked to share a bit of my own perspective on international librarianship.

Having attended the IFLA PreComm in Geneva in November 2003, two factors have stuck with me.

First, the strong continuing division between north and south or, better put, the developed and developing nations. While I give high compliments to the Swiss organizers of the conference in achieving a balance of delegates from both camps, I fault them sincerely for the structuring of the conference meetings that kept us from interacting and developing an agenda for action beyond an attempt to get libraries into the statement. We had much more to discuss and engage. But perhaps that discussion is better left within the confines of IFLA itself.

While this context is important, it does not result in the development of a working agenda for libraries that bridge this growing divide. I was struck in the summary session at the hope expressed by representatives of developing nations for technology in capturing cultural heritage in particular and being able to share these digital resources among their countrymen and regions.

More traditional needs were also expressed and addressed, as Bob has mentioned. It is real that many libraries in developing nations do not have access to telephone and basic telecommunications. I recall visiting island libraries outside of Buenos Aires and seeing wonderful attempts to create a library with computers and books. On close examination, however, the books were horrendously outdated, and the computers did not connect to anything because there was no basic electrical and telephone service. And a library in provincial China that did not have computer access at all. Or a university library in Moscow, Russia, that had electricity supplied by a generator one hour each day. While these types of conditions are improving, they are still a blunt reality.

Second, how can American libraries help improve the situation before Tunis in 2005? The call for training and development opportunities is a challenge for all of us. How can we provide such opportunities in an environment of constraint within the academy itself? How can we participate in helping libraries in developing nations capture their national cultural heritage? In the past our research and university libraries have collected the printed resources of many of these nations and built our own collections of area studies materials. Many nations must turn to us to see their own heritage because of the ravages of war and civil strife.

For more than thirty years the UCLA Special Collections Manuscripts Division has held several large and important collections of Middle Eastern manuscripts ranging in date from the early fourteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. Viewed as a whole, these collections comprise some five thousand codices written in Ottoman, Turkish, Persian, and Arabic. These collections rank among the most important in North America, both in extent and scholarly interest, and have never been cataloged thoroughly or in such a way as to make them accessible online.

The only access to UCLA Middle Eastern collections is the Persian-language hand list prepared and published in Teheran in 1970.

The UCLA project began in July 2001 as an effort to transliterate author names and titles of works from the hand list to a Unicode-compliant database using romanized names and titles. It soon became apparent that mere transcription and transliteration of the Persian hand list would not enhance access substantially, due to the limitations of the hand list itself.

To make a long story a bit shorter, our project has sought to create and use new standards to digitize the manuscripts themselves and create and provide searchable metadata so they can be accessed. By creating a digital objects repository and developing the surrounding infrastructure, we hope to make this invaluable resource available to a broad base of scholars both at UCLA and around the world.

One of the project's objectives is to realize the value of the collections by allowing scholars to enhance our digital objects by adding commentary and traces of use as a third layer of the digital object catalog, metadata, images of manuscripts, and virtual collections, or notes about the manuscript texts. Having imagined the possibility of writing on archival material, it is not a huge stretch to wish for a fourth component that could make digital content react on demand: A user of the digital metadata catalog requests that a manuscript be digitized; that manuscript then becomes a digital object, which in turn can be examined by the original requestor, who adds comment and analysis that can be shared with other users.

We regard this application as a means of building an organic collection not only to evoke the idea of continual change implemented by users, but also to make the point that any digital object within the larger collection can be used extensively without depleting itself or its surrounding context. If a collection can strengthen itself by use and is supported by a robust mechanism for the storage and migration of digital files, then perhaps it can resist entropy and overcome the threat of obsolescence, especially because it is built entirely from common industry tools.

But the importance of what I am suggesting here is that scholars and researchers distant from UCLA can access and engage in the research. It is a method of creating access to national heritage to its place of origin despite war and changing tides of politics and political boundaries.

The loud call for training and development opportunities is a challenge for us all. I am concerned that given new immigration attitudes and policies following 9/11 that we will see the flow of international students to our universities diminish in large numbers particularly from parts of the world that are now suspect.

Just prior to leaving Queens, I was faced with the fact that four exchange librarians, two from the National Library of China and two from the Shanghai Library, would be denied visas to come for the six-week program at our International Center for Public Librarianship. Our librarians had been granted Chinese visas, but we were not able to keep up our end of the exchange. At about the same time, we hosted a delegation of Russian librarians, under U.S. State Department aegis, where half of the members of the delegation had been denied visitor's visas by the U.S. consulates in Russia.

We are experiencing the fact that many developing countries are now establishing their own private universities to keep their students at home and inviting U.S. collaborations to run their programs. Our own Chancellor Young has accepted a post in Qatar to lead an educational foundation that has joint programs run by Cornell and other American universities. We are seeking similar relationships in China, Korea, India, and Mexico where UCLA will mount similar such programs.

I have had the opportunity tonight to share but a few ideas in response to Bob's excellent remarks. I hope that we have encouraged your thought and questions.

© 2004. Gary E. Strong