Most people today are familiar with the stories of destruction in Europe during World War II. Learned first-hand from family members, movies, online or books, many of those stories speak of human tragedy, looting, and the burning of cultural artifacts. But postwar reconstruction is a less familiar topic to many people, especially regarding internationally damaged artifacts and institutions, like books and libraries.
“Books Across Borders: UNESCO and the Politics of Postwar Cultural Reconstruction, 1945-1951,” written by Miriam Intrator, special collections librarian at Ohio University Libraries, is a publication that seeks to fill those gaps by examining the situation of libraries as well as access to networks of information and publications during the early postwar years. Much of the content of the book was obtained through extensive archival research conducted on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“This was an international effort… I focus on examples from France and Poland as well as surviving Jewish Europe for different elements of the book. But UNESCO’s efforts were present in Asia and North Africa and many other places as well,” states Intrator.
The founders of the UNESCO organization, headquartered in Paris, France, included not only the United States, Great Britain and France, but also exiled representatives of other European countries under Nazi control during the war.
“People from those different countries…and other cultural figures living in exile in London were all part of organizing and founding the organization while the war was still raging. At first, they focused on education and quickly expanded to consider books as critical to education,” explains Intrator. “Immediately after the war, UNESCO sought to respond to the massive demand for up-to-date information and reading material as well as to urgent questions regarding the fate of confiscated and displaced books and libraries. It became the center of a publication gathering and distribution network, as well as a lifeline to devastated libraries.”
As highlighted in the abstract: “The book focuses on four central areas: empowering libraries around the world to acquire the books they wanted and needed; facilitating expanded global production of quality translations and affordable books; participating in debates over the contested fate of confiscated books and displaced libraries; and formulating notions of cultural rights as human rights.”
According to Kathy Peiss, professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania, the book “offers a new perspective on cultural internationalism…and reveals how UNESCO sought to ameliorate the damage to the book culture in World War II, even as it modeled and enacted an international, universalist ideal for a war-torn world.”
Today, many know about UNESCO because of its cultural heritage sites that often highlight international countries and their natural features or cultural elements.
“But at the time, UNESCO was brand new and a beacon of hope. The idea was that you could heal the world, and then make it more peaceful and tolerant by focusing people’s spirits and minds on education and literacy in order to help prevent future wars,” says Intrator, …”sounds very idealistic, but [it] was something people from all countries and all walks of life needed and responded to.”
“Books Across Borders” took its shape from Intrator’s doctoral thesis, which was awarded the Phyllis Dain Library History Dissertation Award (2015). After she received that award, two different publishers approached her about a book. It appears in the New Directions in Book History series at Palgrave Macmillan.
“Hopefully, this book tells a story that fills in some people’s knowledge gaps about postwar cultural reconstruction—and inspires them to think differently about the information and culture wars of today,” says Intrator.