The democratization of the book ? UNESCO’s World Book policy, 1945 – 1974

by Céline Giton, director of the Chartreuse de Neuville-sous-Montreuil, member of the Lettres européennes network

Since its inception, UNESCO has had the mission of preserving the universal heritage of books, as well as promoting the democratization of literacy and access to books. The 1952 Universal Convention on copyright (revised in 1971) was the concerted effort of Western nations, along with African countries to defend authors’ rights and democratize access to books. With regard to preservation of heritage, UNESCO inventoried documents and ancient manuscripts, collected African oral history, organized exhibits, and published 866 works in 91 languages representative of emblematic world authors in the UNESCO Collection. UNESCO also made microfilms of these significant texts, namely of the thirteen Copt manuscripts from “Nag Hammadi’s personal library”. Furthermore, UNESCO launched a commemorative program of the great artists, authors, and intellectuals who marked history: Goethe, Pouchkine, Edgar Poe, Balzac, Confucius, Michiewicz, Cholem Aleichem, Tchekhove, Tagore, and Shakespeare. It is important to note that Latin American, African, and Middle Eastern countries, preferred to commemorate revolutionaries, scholars, and scientists rather than authors, in the context of this program. Finally, certain countries, namely the United States, refused to participate in this program; these ideological differences regarding UNESCO’s role in preserving culture ultimately affected the success of the Collection UNESCO initiative.

UNESCO also provided financial support to schools and training centers for librarians, authors, translators, libraries, and editors. These measures bolstered the professional development of key players in the world of books, but also founded a sense of cohesion within this dynamic sector. UNESCO launched an international book exchange, through “book vouchers”. UNESCO supported the creation of public libraries (in Delhi, Bogota, Enugu, and Dakar), while also publishing texts (Textes de lecture) in regional dialects for recently literate populations. This pedagogical mission was developed through the organization of conferences that encouraged member-states to establish national book policies through regional book centers (such as those in Karachi and Bogota) and the celebration of the “International year of the book” (1972). However, the international organization faced constant problems in the development of these programs, namely low budgets, bureaucratic inefficiencies, incompetent internal and external consultants, and poor communication. UNESCO thus undeniably fostered the democratization of books throughout the world, but systemic organizational issues hindered the full completion of the process.

One of the key problems with the UNESCO World Book program is that “democratization” is often a concern of Western nations. With regard to books, two approaches emerge: 1) the French conception of the book as a tool for personal emancipation, education and intellectual enrichment; 2) the Anglo-Saxon conception of the book as a pedagogical and informational tool, and thus an asset for economic development and the common good. These differing conceptions, advanced by founding members of UNESCO, were put forth in the World Book initiative; France, the United States and the United Kingdom hoped to spread their national book policies, and cultural productions, to emerging countries. In truth, the values at the foundation of UNESCO are fundamentally Western (unity, order, monotheism, democracy, sedentary lifestyles, industrialization) and thus influence the organization’s programs. Most publications, conferences, and professional development programs pertaining to the World Book initiative were provided in three languages (English, French, and Spanish). Hence, cultural democratization through books became a Western mission of cultural hegemony (soft power). As a consequence, countries in which oral history is valued saw such traditions set aside in favor of a “passive” relationship to books (reading books), and thus to the detriment of active participation in storytelling. Furthermore, illiterate populations in emerging countries were excluded from these new Western practices, despite the historical interpretation of reading as an antisocial activity in countries where oral traditions are preponderant.

In addition, it appears that the World Book policy relied on books as pedagogical tools – be it to expose Western countries to “Third World” authors (through the UNESCO Collection program), or through the Textes de lecture program which encourages the diffusion of technical texts in rural populations, namely in South-East Asia. The creative and liberating power of books was thus left undeveloped, in favor of the more functional and entertainment values displayed by certain books.

However, Giton also notes some positive outcomes of the World Book initiative. For example, numerous countries with oral histories witnessed an increase in national publications. Emerging countries represented a majority in the UNESCO’s General Conference, and thus pushed for amendments of the book policies to be more inclusive. The Western – and imperialist – conception of books and literature was thus put into question, namely in light of the decolonization movement. During the second half of the XXth century, new literary hubs were born and recognized (Nobel prize for literature) around the world.

It appears the UNESCO assisted in democratizing books, but not their content. Western countries were concerned with protecting their exportation rights, while developing nations sought to defend their cultural productions from their Western counterparts. In addition, elite populations in both Western and non-Western countries attempted to inhibit the diffusion of books, pedagogical and emancipatory tools. Furthermore, the emergence of television and the radio in Western nations diminished the value granted to books. The overall Westernization of the World Book policy, which undeniably encouraged the international diffusion of books, failed to assist UNESCO’s universal conception of culture on the printed page.