In April 2015, nine librarians from four countries traveled to Palestine for an in-depth trip to follow up on the work of our 2013 delegation. In 2013, sixteen librarians had met with representatives from academic libraries, cultural centers, community education spaces, family libraries, museums, media centers, special collections, and more. From that delegation, the Librarians and Archivists with Palestine network was formed, and within this network, an advisory board of Palestinian librarians, archivists, information workers, and activists was convened.
Since 2013, our small group of sixteen delegation participants has grown to a network of almost 100 members in 15 countries. We have created a website profiling organizations we met with in Palestine. We have made art, spoken at conferences, written articles, read poetry on the subway, and encouraged hundreds of people to read Palestinian literature.
Our April 2015 delegation was divided into two streams. One stream focused on academic and research libraries and issues related to knowledge production in Palestine, with a focus on such topics as cataloging and classification, library outreach, library science education and training, open access publication, translation, and technology. The academic and research libraries stream met with Birzeit University Library, the Palestinian Library and Information Consortium (PALICO), Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), Institute for Palestine Studies, and Mada Al-Carmel.
The second stream focused on access to children’s literature in Arabic, both inside the West Bank and inside ’48 (Israel)*, and met with representatives from the Tamer Institute, Qattan Foundation, Al-Tufula Center, International Board on Books for Young People – Palestine section, and Palestinian public and school librarians in the West Bank and ’48. The two streams joined to visit Maktabat Kul Shay (Haifa), Dar Al-Aswar (Akka), the Educational Bookshop (Jerusalem), and a number of other organizations.
In all our travels and work, we respected the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and did not partner with any organization that violates this call. As librarians and archivists, as people who believe in access to information, we affirm that institutional academic and cultural boycotts are appropriate responses to curtailed freedoms and are effective tools for change.
As we traveled, we continued to see and learn about the effects of Israeli occupation on Palestinian life. We passed by the weaponized apartheid wall, checkpoints, and segregated roads. We noticed the rapid proliferation of Israeli settlements on hilltops above Palestinian villages, even larger in number and size than what some of us had seen in 2013, evidence of the ongoing theft of land and forced displacement that Palestinians have been experiencing for decades.
In all our meetings, we heard about the “enemy state” designation that prevents literature from being sent directly to Palestinian stores and libraries if it has originated in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and sometimes other countries. This is a particular problem with Lebanon, a major hub of Arabic-language publishing.
We were told about the book shipments into the West Bank that might be returned to Amman, quarantined for days (at a cost of 1000 shekels per day), or destroyed depending on Israeli inspectors’ arbitrary decisions.
People shared stories of individuals bringing books into Palestine from London to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Ramallah, from Ramallah to Gaza, from Ramallah to Haifa, or from Lebanon to Jordan to Ramallah’a process that is neither scalable nor easily sustainable.
We heard about the widespread unauthorized printing and copying of Arabic-language literature that render publishing and writing risky and sometimes unsustainable ventures, but also make literature accessible to the majority of readers who have trouble affording original publications.
We heard how journalists and editors at Palestinian newspapers and magazines have adapted to continuing Israeli censorship by engaging in self-censorship.
We heard from booksellers, writers, and librarians about the need for more local stories written by Palestinians for Palestinians. One cultural center director in Nablus estimated that 90% of children’s books there have been translated from other cultures. In Haifa, librarians talked about how a lack of local young adult literature leads Palestinian teens to prefer to read in Hebrew or English than in Arabic.
People also discussed the need to get Palestinian voices out into the rest of the world, and suggested translations from the original Arabic as a powerful and necessary step in the process. Palestinian writers themselves need more opportunities to get out of occupied territory and travel.
In both the West Bank and ’48, people talked about insufficient school budgets that leave little or no money for school librarians to stock their shelves with quality books. In ’48, discrepancies in headcount calculations and funding levels hit Palestinian students hardest, leaving them with overcrowded classrooms and paltry resources.
We heard about the myriad ways that Israeli universities suppress the academic freedom of Palestinian students and faculty in ’48—apartheid, racism, and censorship at these schools creates a chilling effect that makes it difficult for Palestinian scholars working in ’48 to openly engage in activism and organizing on campus and to publish their work.
We were told about the limited approved vendor lists set by the Israeli government in ’48 that result in a chain of informal agents, each levying their own fees, that librarians must tap just to get needed books from desired publishing houses who aren’t on the list.
Academic librarians from the PALICO consortium spoke to us about the challenges of acquiring access to databases and other electronic resources for their library users, as so many of these tools are behind a paywall, and prohibitively expensive. We learned that the active engagement of PALICO librarians with global networks and programs like Research4Life and EIFL has allowed Palestinian academic libraries to mobilize resources for their user groups in the context of this private commodification of scholarly information sources. A librarian at Birzeit University told us, “We don’t have freedom of information and we struggle to give the right education and information to Palestinian people.”
We heard about Gaza, where 180 schools and 5 universities were damaged in Israel’s 2014 assaults on the region. Two IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) libraries were completely destroyed. It is now virtually impossible to bring in books (among other resources) through the tunnels from Egypt to Gaza. Smaller libraries have few books despite large and avid user bases.
We met courageous and innovative publishers in the Galilee including Dar Al-Aswar, established in 1974 as part of the struggle to renew Palestinian identity and culture, and the four-year-old Rayya Publishing, which has already released around 100 books (mainly new publications) by Palestinian writers from all over.
We heard about programs to encourage reading, from “Daddy Read To Me” by Ramallah’s Tamer Institute, to bilingual (Arabic and English) author events at the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem, to the emphasis on learning and creativity that makes Haifa’s Beit Al-Karme “More Than a Library,” to “My Mother Is Reading for Me” for pre-kindergarten children in Nablus, to the initiative of Nazareth’s Al-Tufula Pedagogical Centre to produce children’s books so appealing they’re “eatable.”
We learned about both new and longstanding initiatives at research centres like Mada Al-Carmel in Haifa and the Institute for Palestine Studies in Ramallah, to collect, describe, digitize, and make accessible archival sources and oral histories from Palestinians in ’48 and the West Bank.
We heard from Palestinian academic librarians developing vital knowledge platforms for their communities and for researchers around the world. The Birzeit University Law Library’s legal database Al-Muqtafi gathers and makes searchable a comprehensive collection of all legislation enacted in Palestine from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, in both Arabic and English search interfaces. Cataloguers at Birzeit created and continually add to an Arabic-language equivalent of the Library of Congress subject headings.
We saw how Mada Al-Carmel in Haifa serves as a haven and a hub for Palestinian researchers who may not otherwise find institutional support in ’48, nurturing academic inquiry and engaged scholarship beyond the constraints of the university. Mada Al-Carmel’s programs bring seminars, workshops, and discussion groups into community spaces, and their electronically published research is freely accessible.
On the last day of our trip, Al Bireh Municipality hosted us in their public library for a meeting of our Palestinian advisory board. We reported on our week of meetings, brought forward a number of ideas, and asked people what they thought we should pursue. We learned more about struggles for different kinds of libraries in Palestine and heard a variety of views from our board members, who came from the Ramallah area, Jerusalem, and Akka, and who work in public, government, university, and school libraries, as well as publishing houses and community organizations. This was a great closing for our visit, and it helped solidify long-term relationships with our colleagues in Palestine.
Following our visit, we have a much better (though not complete) understanding of the specific issues we focused on during our trip. We are committed to working directly with our partners in Palestine on projects that are both concretely useful and politically meaningful. We hope to support professional development among library staff at universities by looking into the translation of new library science materials into Arabic; helping to raise scholarships for Palestinian librarians to attend conferences and university programs; and participating in regular discussions and workshops. We will investigate ways for people around the world to support the collections of Palestinian school libraries while discussing the political context that has created these needs. We plan to look into facilitating the translation of Palestinian children’s books from Arabic into other languages, and to distribute this literature in our communities. We hope to connect with colleagues in Gaza and raise awareness about the unique issues they face. We will continue to develop curricula to accompany the archival box set of materials that we created after our 2013 delegation. We reiterate our commitment to join BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaigns, to engage in critical examination of our positions of privilege, and to support Palestinian self-determination and access to information in and about Palestine.
Librarians and Archivists with Palestine 2015 delegation:
Eva Devos, Children’s Literature Specialist, Antwerp, Belgium
Jessamy Klapper, Caseworker, Brooklyn, NY, US
Jessa Lingel, Researcher, Boston, MA, US
Hannah Mermelstein, School Librarian, Brooklyn, NY, US
Melissa Morrone, Public Librarian, Brooklyn, NY, US
Vani Natarajan, Research and Instruction Librarian, Brooklyn, NY, US
Elisabet Risberg, Public Librarian, Stockholm, Sweden
Kevin Sanders, E-Resources Librarian, Bath, UK
Tom Twiss, Liaison Librarian, Pittsburgh, PA, US
*Palestinians often refer to different parts of historic Palestine by the years they were occupied by Israeli forces. Israel is therefore referred to as “1948 Palestine” or simply “’48,” and the West Bank and Gaza Strip are sometimes referred to as “1967” or “’67.” In this report/statement, we used the language we heard most of our Palestinian partners use, which is “’48” for what is now Israel, and “West Bank” for the West Bank.