Learning, Encountering, and Exploring: Libraries Making Space for Cultural Diversity

On World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development (21 May), the UN invites reflection and recognition of the importance of ensuring the ability to create and access diverse cultural expressions.

This is critical for implementing the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005). Libraries have an important role to play in fostering an environment where diverse cultural expressions are encouraged, valued, shared, and protected. Find out more about the 2005 Convention through IFLA’s Get into Guide here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more important than ever to reflect on the value that access to and engagement with culture has for society. It also is an urgent call to work collaboratively to identify the gaps which must be addressed to ensure this access.

In 2020, IFLA marked this day by helping launch the #culture2030goal Statement on Culture and the Covid-19 Pandemic, a joint effort by IFLA and partners organisations. This statement called for culture to be at the heart of the COVID-19 response and reaffirmed the value of culture in the 2030 Agenda.

To build on this statement, we will take a deeper look at some examples of how libraries contribute to socially sustainable development by enabling culture to be accessed, explored and shared – including in the virtual space. Thank you to IFLA’s Library Services to Multicultural Populations Section, as well as to the wider library field, for sharing your stories!

Culture, Dialogue, and Social Inclusion

Promotion of a diversity of cultural expressions also includes creating space for dialogue among people and cultures, building respect and mutual understanding.

Many libraries offer programmes to inspire this dialogue in a literal way – through language learning programmes. These are often targeted at the most vulnerable members in society, and act as a means to promote social inclusion and cultural exchange. See examples from Norway and Germany for more.

The Bibliothèque Publique d’Information (BPI) Paris, France found that forging connection through language learning could continue despite closures due to the pandemic. A series of online FLE (français langue étrangère / French as a foreign language) workshops arranged by the library in 2020 connected French learners from both within France and beyond, including participants from Brazil, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Colombia [more here].

Like language learning, arts and art education can also be a tool for social inclusion – a vital aspect in towards the development goal “leave no one behind”.

The Invisible Youth Project (Finland) is one such example of an art-based initiative that targeted youth at risk of social exclusion by promoting creative self-expression.

Through this project, public libraries in the cities Jyväskylä, Seinäjoki, and Turku created space for participants to learn about a variety of creative activities such as design, cartoons, creative and therapeutic writing, digital storytelling, rap music, and video producing.

As social exclusion can stem from a variety of social issues, including poverty, disabilities, limited education, and migrant/marginalised backgrounds, addressing this is an aspect of sustainable development.

Libraries reaching out to those at risk of exclusion, while also promoting cultural expression as a means for social inclusion, can therefore be a driver of sustainable social development. 

Cultural Dialogue Through Library Programming

During the pandemic, many libraries were faced with the challenge of connecting with their communities in the virtual space. For more, see our blog: Virtual Engagement / Actual Connection: building community around digital collections.

We can find many examples of virtual programmes that seek to help their audiences learn about different cultures and traditions through storytelling, such as this recent example from Qatar National Library: Eid Around the World: Unique Traditions from Different Countries.

These programmes can also help connect people to arts and cultural expressions – despite physical distance.

Connections through Poetry

In 2019, Bremen Public Library (Germany) established the project, Lyrik grenzenlos (Poetry without Borders). The goal of this programme was to create an open space for people to come together and enjoy poetry from all over the world.

In addition to building appreciation for the art form, this event included an element of cross-cultural exchange, as participants were invited to recite poetry in their mother tongue, and were accompanied by local musicians with international backgrounds. Poetry was shared in Arabic, Turkish, French, Spanish, Bulgarian, Igbo, Persian, Russian and a variety of German dialects during the in-person event.

The library did not want to lose this community they had built in the face of the outbreak of COVID-19. Therefore, they went digitial, asking participants to create short videos of recitations. You can view the final video online [introduction in German].

As literature like poetry can be a vehicle for cultural exchange, it can also be a means to establish and celebrate a cultural common ground.

Recent hybrid in-person/virtual events at the State Public Library of Guadalajara included a celebration of poetic improvisation as a creative expression shared by Spain and Latin America.

This event explored the tenth, a form of poetry which originated in the Spanish Golden Age and has since become an important poetic-musical phenomenon, uniting Spanish-speakers on both sides of the Atlantic [more here].

Cultural Heritage and Modern Creators

Libraries can help connect unique expressions of intangible cultural heritage to contemporary creators, helping enable the continuation of tradition, while opening the door to modern interpretations.

The National Library of New Zealand Te Aotearoa included in its recent lecture series an event featuring researcher Michael Vinten, and his project collecting and publishing pre-1950 New Zealand art-song. The goal of this project, and the library’s session, was to help facilitate exposure to this form of traditional music to help modern musicians and music students include New Zealand material into their repertoire.

Another example of this was the National Library of France (BNF) participation in the Europeana Sounds project [more here]. The BNF provided metadata to help increase opportunities for access to and creative re-use of Europeana’s audio and audio-related content.

These examples showcase how libraries can help their communities discover and share diverse cultural expressions. Moreover, they exemplify how this goes beyond enjoyment of culture itself. Cultural programming in libraries can be a platform to build connections, facilitate cultural exchange, and enable the creation of new cultural expressions.

GLAM collaboration and cultural education

For International Museum Day (18 May), IFLA reaffirmed the importance of the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) sector working together to achieve goals relating to sustainable development (see more on our blog).

One example of libraries and galleries collaborating to connect contemporary art to library users, and find new audiences for both institutions, is the project How to Speak Art (Croatia). This was a cooperative initiative between Silvije Strahimir Kranjčević Library, part of Zagreb City Libraries, and Windows (Prozori) Gallery.

This project combined the curatorial expertise of the gallery with the library’s position as public community space to build exposure to and appreciation of contemporary art. It included an educational aspect for school children, which developed artistic literacy, and fostered an understanding of the role that art can have in their life.

Collaboration between cultural actors can present new opportunities for enhancing the social capital of the arts and those institutions which provide access to it.

Community Heritage Grants

Connecting resources to cultural actors and helping build capacity for community-level cultural activities is an important aspect of access to diverse expressions of culture. Libraries can play a key part in ensuring they achieve their goals.

Australia’s Community Heritage Grants are administrated by the National Library of Australia and funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (Office for the Arts); National Library of Australia; the National Archives of Australia; the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Museum of Australia.

These grants are aimed at helping community collections-holding organisations such as libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, and Indigenous groups make their materials more publicly accessible.

Past grant recipients have included community galleries, arts and creative communities, such as the Anangu Uwankaraku Punu Aboriginal Corporation’s Maruku Arts Collection, the Papunya Tjupi Arts Indigenous arts gallery, and the Naracoorte Regional Art Gallery – all community-based galleries showcasing unique cultural heritage and contemporary creative expressions.

Through such programmes, libraries, especially National Libraries, who have the ability to collaborate with national and regional governments can have a real impact on the ongoing accessibility of arts and diverse cultural expressions.

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Libraries are key components in a sustainable ecosystem for creators and cultural actors. They are platforms for the arts to be experienced, enablers of multicultural and multilingual exchange and learning, and facilitators of initiatives that connect creators to opportunity.

IFLA will continue our work in advocating for the library field’s role in preserving and providing access to cultural heritage during the Third Civil Society Forum of the 2005 Convention (31 May 2021).

Get involved! As 2021 is the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, we welcome more examples of libraries creating space for diverse cultural expressions! You are invited to share your own.

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