Shelving Access to USIA Libraries Abroad

By Lewis, Mark | American Libraries, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Shelving Access to USIA Libraries Abroad


Lewis, Mark, American Libraries


It took an imaginative American librarian to come up with one of the most creative ideas for advancing U.S. interests abroad - what a July 1, 1962, New York Times story called an "old-fashioned, small-town American book parade" - in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, an important Cold War arena of the period. The librarian was the late Emma Skinner, with whom I worked when I was director of the U.S. Information Service (the overseas name for the U.S. Information Agency) in Ghana. I thought about Emma recently when I learned of the significant changes now under way in many USIA libraries abroad. For we have begun closing American libraries in foreign countries.

I had asked my small staff how our move to a new location might be dramatized, and Skinner suddenly sprang up in her chair. With unusual sparkle, she suggested a book parade in which thousands of Ghanaian students would carry the library's 18,000 books halfway across the city from its obscure and dreary site up two flights of stairs behind a movie house to its new, more accessible location in a glass-and-concrete building a few miles away. Cultural Affairs Officer William Davis enthusiastically said his local relationships could produce the book-carrying students, a marching band, and the cooperation of Pepsi to provide cold soft drinks at the end of the three-and-one-half-mile march.

On June 27, their vision was realized. Behind a blaring band, 9,000 Ghanaian students carrying two books apiece paraded across town with large placards they devised themselves that read "In Transit to the New U.S. Library," "Visit USIS," "Make Reading Your Habit," and "Books Are Important Friends."

The American library became busier than ever as more Ghanaians used it daily. The circulation of books tripled in one month and stayed that way for two years. Books about our democratic process and free-market economy were checked out in unprecedented numbers. And it all happened despite the anti-American, Communist-leaning regime of Ghana President Kwame Nkrumah and his government-controlled press.

Those impressive results proved that USIA libraries represent a positive American presence overseas - even in dark times when official government relations are strained. USIA libraries are our daily link with the public, and citizen involvement plays a larger role in the conduct of foreign affairs as democracy spreads.

Nonetheless, USIA - the U.S. government's principal agency for informing foreign publics about American civilization and for influencing world opinion - has decided that it's no longer pertinent to its mission in the electronic, post-Cold War age to make American books widely available overseas.

So, starting in developed areas such as Europe, USIA has closed American libraries, reflecting, according to the USIA Program and Budget in Brief for Fiscal Year 1997, its new "philosophy of remote access." The agency's new focus is on "new information technologies and more high-tech delivery systems." USIA posts "have closed their libraries as lending institutions and transformed them into electronic-based Information Resource Centers [IRCs], "USIA proudly announced. "Electronic information networks and a high-speed digital environment" are seen by USIA as the "cost-effective alternative to conventional book-based libraries."

Access denied

The new IRCs can be used by appointment only. The idea is to encourage and support only those who are "engaged in serious study and understanding of American society and institutions" and discourage browsers, or folks who stroll in off the street to avoid bad weather. Thus, USIA libraries are no longer open to the public in many countries.

There are still reference books in some IRCs that can be checked out on a "case-by-case, discretionary basis, but the circulating collections have been eliminated." Britishers today who want to read or study the works of Mark Twain, for example, would be politely advised to go elsewhere; Twain's books are not available at the IRC in London (or at other IRCs in Western Europe) because "western Europeans have access to other places for such books," according to Cynthia Borys, one of USIA's principal experts in the development of IRCs. …

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