From Leiden I took the train to Mechelen in Belgium to attend a conference entitled “The multicultural library: a necessity in a creative and tolerant society.” It was organised by the Low Countries Libraries Link, comprising the Flemish Centre for Public Libraries in Belgium, The Netherlands Public Library Association and the Goethe Institut in Brussels.
This was a full but fascinating and very stimulating two day programme (with optional additional visits on the Saturday) with lots of formal and informal opportunities to network and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The programme with links to the presentations has since been made available online. The event involved a good mix of presentations, workshops and visits, but I’d like to focus here on the keynote presentation by Erwin Jans, a dramatist in the Toneelhuis in Antwerp, who has written an essay entitled “intercultural intoxication.” His presentation, “The tower, the library and the angels of globalisation” provided just the sort of conceptual thinking that has often been lacking in events I have attended in the past addressed at librarians.
Some excerpts from the conclusion of his presentation: “The library….should no longer be only the storing room of knowledge, but also a space for concrete exchange and dialogue between people…..the library could be defined as….a transitional space where existing and fixed cultural identities are questioned, decentred, dislocated and opened up to a process of doubt, reflexivity and change. Therefore, it should be part of a network of libraries (also abroad), cultural, social, political, religious…organisations; all of them engaged in the construction of a society that sees the possibilities of difference, not only of ethnic or cultural difference, but of difference as such. Jean-Luc Nancy formulates it as follows: “Every culture is in itself “multicultural”, not only because there has always been a previous acculturation, and because there is no pure and simple origin, but at a deeper level, because the gesture of culture is itself a mixed gesture: it is to affront, confront, transform, divert, develop, recompose, combine, rechannel.” I think that is what the angels keep on whispering in our ears when we are sitting in the library.”
It made me feel that public libraries could and should be working with those engaged in the arts and thinking in this way at a much more strategic level than is the case at the moment in the UK.
Just five (of many other) aspects of the conference that stood out for me include:
- presentation by Chief of the Cabinet representing the Flemish Minister for Culture, Youth, Sport and Brussels Affairs, who consistently used the term “interculturalism” as an outcome of and prerequisite for diversity and community building
- international exchange seemed to be a natural way of working with a profile that I don’t detect currently in the public library world, or at least not to the same degree, in the UK
- everyone had astonishingly good English and yet nearly every speaker apologised for their English!
- meeting Kirsten Leth Nielsen from Oslo Public Library, who chairs the group in IFLA that has just produced the Multicultural Library Manifesto and hearing more about this.
- visit to the ATLAS centre in Antwerp, which is home to a range of government agencies dedicated to equal opportunities, Dutch lessons and social integration.
But one particular story will really stay in my mind. One of the delegates, Ali Abdirahman, who works in a library in Espoo in Finland, told me he went to Finland from Somalia in 1990. While walking to one of the conference sessions in Mechelen, he spotted a Somali woman in the street who looked somehow familiar to him. It turned out that indeed she was the best friend of his sister in Somalia, but the last time he’d seen her was 22 years ago! He had no idea she was in Belgium and she had no idea he was in Finland. I wasn’t present when this remarkable meeting occurred, but I was walking with Ali back to the hotel where we were staying when he told me this story. Not surprisingly, he said they wanted to spend time together, but the only option was for her to come to the hotel for just an hour that very afternoon before he had to leave to catch his plane back to Finland. Just as I left the hotel myself to go the station, I saw her arriving in a hurry. She waved to me (she must have seen I was in the same group) and said breathlessly in English “Is he still there? Is he still there?” I just smiled broadly and nodded and continued on my way to Brussels and then on home the following day. It somehow felt like a fitting end note for a journey that has been all about connections.
I will be writing a report on my findings from my travels which will be much less of a travelogue than this blog and when completed (not before the end of the year) I will post a link to it here. Here it is