An instrument of democracy. Libraries in a changing world.

Gepubliceerd op 11 september 2015 om 15:12

What do we lose when we lose a library. A conference about the future challenges of libraries. 9 - 10 - 11 September 2015.

On August 25, 1914, the German army deliberately burned the university's library of Leuven along with 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts. On January 28, 2013, Islamist rebels set the library of Timbuktu with thousands ancient manuscripts on fire. Many books of this library were about Islam. On January 9, 2015, the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris shocked the world. It was seen as an assault on free speech. Thousands of people marched in Paris to defend democracy and freedom of expression. Meanwhile the Flemish Government discharges the municipalities of the obligation to organize libraries.

In all the discussions during the last weeks, nearly no one established clearly the relation between the democratic right of free expression and the importance of libraries, both the large and the small, as sources of knowledge and opinions. One of the characteristics of totalitarian ideologies and regimes is the destruction of problematic information and limiting free speech through control of the written culture. In our changing world, we are convinced that we have full access to all information thanks to the Internet. But we often forget that this information is particularly superficial and at the same time easy to manipulate. Within this context, the meaning of a library, especially a national heritage library such as the Royal Library of Belgium, as a repository for intellectual and cultural heritage remains of exceptional importance.

The aim of my contribution is to develop this idea by means of the rich collection of newspapers preserved in the Royal Library of Belgium. These newspapers are not meant to be kept and their future is threatened by acidification. To preserve them, they are systematically digitized. The importance of newspapers lies in the richness of information: political, ideological, economic, social, cultural, and so on. Newspapers not only provide information, but also offer a contemporaneous interpretation and comment upon events. And because of this they also outline the history of (or the absence of) freedom of speech. So, our archive of newspaper helps critical citizens to inform themselves about the contemporary history, just like literature, philosophical or historical books, and so on.

What do we lose when we lose our libraries? We lose an instrument of democracy! A democracy needs cultural and intellectual education. Cultural education is focused on personal and social development, on raising awareness, on acquiring the competence and willingness to participate in social life. From a social point of view the importance of cultural education cannot be underestimated. Cultural education shapes our identity and makes us democratic beings. This being said, we must define libraries, as well as archives, as repositories of heritage and knowledge, as institutions which form the basis for a healthy democracy. So, I am convinced that in addition to scientific research one of the most important tasks for the educational activities of the KBR is in particular the enhancement of cultural competence that everyone needs to be able to participate as a critical citizen in public life


Foto: voormalige leeszaal Kranten van de KBR