Paradigm shift on repositories of knowledge, Wisdom and Heritage

From Storage to dissemination:


Speech delivered by Sudharshan Seneviratne (Emeritus Professor. University of Peradeniya) at the 58th Annual General Meeting of the Sri Lanka Library Association. Colombo on June 29th 2018

Thank you for extending an invitation to share quality time with custodians of knowledge and information to our nation. It is also my privilege to dedicate this talk to the memory of the late Ian Goonatilleke, dear friend, intellectual and librarian par excellence. Each time I walk in to the central library at the University of Peradeniya memories of Ian, his smile, warmth and argumentative dialogues are yet embedded in my mind to this day.

The professional organization of librarians in Sri Lanka, founded in 1974, is now the apex body for the Library and Information Sciences. It is a relatively young organization but a critical cog keeping memory alive. Sadly, memory loss seems to be part of our national psyche at present. Memory as a vital role is echoed in the words of the late Sivanandan as he inscribed the prophetic words, "When memory dies, a people die".

Academics, researchers, concerned citizens, students and children, the world over, are indebted to the professional Librarians. You are entrusted with the noble profession of protecting, preserving and sustaining repositories of information and knowledge to humanity. Protecting knowledge is an integral component, so essential to any civilized culture. The SLLA that has rendered a valued silent service preserving and curating information through their skills as an asset to humanity under trying and challenging circumstances. They have relentlessly engaged themselves enhancing their commitment and professionalism to face transformations and demands of the present Millennium and globalization.

History of knowledge and information

From this back drop I wish to take up a few salient features noted in my title, From Storage to dissemination: Paradigm shift on repositories of knowledge, Wisdom and Heritage.

Storing information and knowledge has a long history. Pre-historic people stored their memory as folk lore and myths. The amazing pre-historic cave art in India, Africa and Europe are such examples. In Australia memory is known as Dream Time and it is often translated into cave murals. Around 6th Millennium BCE stones of memory or megalithic monuments encapsulated memory and corporeal remains of the departed. With the dawn of Civilization, around C.4000 BCE, formal storage of information and knowledge became a necessity. The need to record legal codes, religious practices, economic transactions, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and the sciences, etc., essentially had to be recorded and stored. A temple at the Babylonian town of Nippur, (early 3rd millenniumBCE) had a number of rooms filled with clay tablets. This may have been the earliest recorded library-archives.

The culture of this island was and is nurtured by the philosophy of Siddhartha Gautama. Knowledge, its dissemination and preservation are central to its ideology. First is knowledge. The term bodh has wider connotations such as perception, observation, intellect, awakening and consciousness. Buddhi means realisation and intelligence to perceive. Bodhi then is perfect wisdom and enlightenment. Secondly, dissemination is sharing of knowledge, is the most selfless and magnanimous gesture. Just as capital in circulation (not hoarded) is profitable, knowledge disseminated is productive and of greater service to humanity. The Buddha’s original pronouncement to the first 60 monks was the dissemination of the dhamma or knowledge. In his own words it said "carata bikkhave carikam bahujana hitaya bahu jana sukhaya…", that is to travel beyond and to spread knowledge for the greater good of many. Thirdly, is the preservation of knowledge! The Buddha continued the age-old tradition coming down from the Veda of recitation by memory. There is also evidence that books existed at that time as scribes are mentioned in early Buddhist texts. The Buddha refers to a simile of a person who is in possession of books but has no meaning if the books are not read and the reader lacks knowledge and comprehension. In fact, Buddhist ethos is based on the trajectory, namely, information, knowledge and wisdom. Library is based on the same ideals. The three Buddhist Councils were congregations to record memory and it is said that the dhamma was finally documented at Aloka-lena in Matale or at Dambulla, Sri Lanka. This was to be the forerunner to future libraries associated with monasteries.

It is evident that three aspects noted above, namely, knowledge, preservation of knowledge and dissemination of knowledge present three foundation stones required by a library. Our own history in South Asia is gifted with a rich legacy of religious and secular texts and repositories that preserved knowledge and information. The existence of the library at Nalanda University in India and the Potgul-vehera at Polonnaruwa are such examples among many. The statue of Pulatisa (Rishi Pulasti) at Polonnaruwa holding an ola leaf book facing Potgul-vehera indicates the premium placed on the preservation of knowledge. A Middle historic inscription records how books were deposited at the Lova-mahapaya at Anuradhapura. The SLLA is embedded in that cultural and historical ethos.

Conversely, history also informs of incidents where repositories of knowledge were subject to wanton destruction. Such events are now recognized as cultural genocide by UNESCO. It is recoded that fanatical Christians burnt down the great library of Alexandria because it housed "heretical pagan" literature. Inquisitions during the medieval period physically decimated individuals who had privy to traditional knowledge, books and wisdom, an antithesis to a dogmatic church. Inquisitions may have caused greater damage to knowledge than the destruction of books caused in China during the Cultural Revolution. In India the famous library of Nalanda University was burnt, allegedly by invading Turks. It is said that the flames of Nalanda library continued to burn for several months. In Sri Lanka King Mahasena destroyed the Mahavihara, which included its monastic library. While Stalin’s purged dissidents, library books of dissent were made into bon fires in Nazi Germany. In north Sri Lanka, the valuable library of Jaffna was torched in 1983 by state sponsored goon squads. The destruction of the Jaffna library liquidated the heart of knowledge, identity and culture of a people. In 2010, during my tenure as Director General of the UNESCO-Sri Lanka Central Cultural Fund we secured UNESCO funds for heritage training programmes and provided gift books to stock and revitalize the library in Jaffna. I am not quite sure whether that act alone will absolve the carnage that defiled a sacred space of knowledge. We also have the Taliban and LTTE destroying UNESCO prescribed World Heritage sites. Among other bizarre cases are the demand made in Islamic countries to lynch Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses while Christian Americans ostracized Cat Stevens, in some cases, destroyed discs carrying his wonderful music when Stevens embraced the Islam faith. We also came close to banning Professor Stanley Tambiah’s book Buddhism Betrayed by the 1980s regime. This insanity against knowledge and culture continues as we now hear of Koran burning and Bible burning. In the final count it is the cumulative knowledge of humanity and its aesthetic expressions that suffer and lost forever by such scars of crime against humanity.

Situating the library and paradigm shift

I will now address some country specific situations. It is understood that a library, as it is known in our country, is a repository of printed, digital and other mediums of sound and visuals. All this is translated to knowledge and information, mainly stored in libraries. Most of the larger libraries are associated with Universities (centres of knowledge), State Department libraries, state sponsored public libraries and those associated with religious denominations. There are variations such as private libraries, libraries of research organizations and children’s’ libraries.

It is natural, therefore, that libraries are an integral component of national heritage. In the year 2007, UNESCO-Central Cultural Fund redefined heritage as composed of four elements beyond culture per se. This redefinition recognized culture, environment, knowledge from the past and next generation as four integral components constituting heritage. As libraries are repositories of knowledge these inevitably become a major component of national heritage. This is given due recognition by the make-up of the Ministry of Heritage. They are: Departments of Archaeology, National Museum, Central Cultural Fund, National Archives, Tower Hall Foundation, and Department of Culture as the main segments. As a component of heritage, libraries are therefore provided with a broader national platform beyond a tunnel view or parochial identities. Its personality then is universal as education and knowledge rest beyond borders having no inhibitions and encouraging an uninhibited spirit of inquiry reaching out to its readers who are the main stake holders.

At this juncture I am reminded of words of wisdom noted by an old friend, the late Ravinder Kumar, former Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. In his view, while the economic aspect of education fosters life skills, the cultural role of education is critical for social sustenance. This is because while on the one hand education reproduces certain traditions and values, it is also expected on the other hand to "install the notion of curiosity and innovation and also examine conventional wisdom and inherited values in the minds of the young." This is a critical social and cultural function of education coalescing with knowledge information through formal and informal learning. He then concludes that "knowledge is in theory communicable across cultural borders and that persons of any cultural background are capable of using it." The library is therefore a catalyst democratising and universalizing knowledge.

The crux of the matter is how we situate libraries beyond books and buildings? What are the other areas of cognition we need to nurture critical thinking and cultivate the culture of reading beyond the text books? How accessible are libraries to those who are not privileged to enter Universities or a religious Order? A vast number of people who are recognized as public intellectuals (after Antonio Gramchi) do not have access to libraries.

This calls for an expanded purview of the library and greater professionalization of librarians beyond curating and accessing. There is a need of this hour to view the library beyond the "structured material buildings". It then needs to function as alternative repositories of collating memory, cultural objects, tangible and intangible heritage, or having sculpture gardens beyond the physical space of the libraries and playing the proactive role as centres of exhibitions, performing art and even as museums. In short they need to be sources of outreach programs. Several libraries world over have gradually moved into the concept of the alternative library-museum as points of convergence. Libraries now need to redefine its cultural and intellectual scape and recognize the total nation as its primary stake holder. This means the need for a parallel existence of the formal and structured building housing a "library" on the one hand and informal or alternative library/libraries that incorporate multiple areas of tangible expressions and intangible cognitive values on the other. The library needs to be proactive in its role as a portal of convergence and connectivity. It is a dialectical interaction needed to unfold a ripple and a counter ripple effect and not a stand-alone policy.

The multiplier effect of the alternative library

In my last section I wish to outline an experiment we carried out through alternative convergence of knowledge and its storage. It was done through the Revitalization of Ola-Leaf Tradition – 2007, a Project of the UNESCO (Bangkok) Programme on Cultural Survival and Revival in the Buddhist Sangha: It was a project on Documentation, Education and Training to Revitalize Traditional Decorative Arts and Building Crafts in Buddhist Temples.

The project was carried out by the Department of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya and undertook "training of the trainers", who were young monks and lays students. The focus was to preserve ola leaf books stored in temple libraries and information documented in such books and memory found in the Kandy region. We initiated a programme of revitalization and empowerment of young monks with writing skills, reading, making ola books, digital recording and preserving and storing, training of documentation on floral resources needed in the process of manufacturing. We also recorded folk lore, rituals and technology of crafts people and the revival of the vanishing art of making stylus (panhinda) and covers or Kamba for ola leaf books. We eventually linked the crafts people to the sustainable heritage tourism programme of the Central Cultural Fund. The young monks went on to initiate the ripple effect by establishing heritage clubs in their villages and trained young lay students to read and write ola books and in the production, curating and cataloging ola books. Most of the young monks were affiliated to Rajamaha vihara that house large quantities of ola leaf libraries. It was gratifying to see the outcome of a multiplier effect launching an informal library and a living process of humanizing knowledge.

Conclusion and challenges ahead

Having narrated such idealistic situations, I am fully aware of the impediments librarians face in their profession. I have friends and colleagues in different libraries spread over the island and I hear and feel their concerns. They need greater support from the public and private sectors enhancing funds for infrastructure development, technical assistance, training and awareness programmes, greater digital application, expanding the culture of reading and multiple auxiliary facilities among other necessary value-added futuristic plans. Such initiatives eventually will enrich the preservation of knowledge and provide a greater participatory role to the public in conjunction with these professionals. It is my personal and professional view that one cannot place a premium on the valued service you render to the nation. Often your services go un-noticed and un-recognized. Regardless of that, what you selflessly render is a compassionate and selfless gift to the next generation and to walk them through life as enlightened citizens of the world.

Finally, we need to look at ourselves, country and humanity. Knowledge and heritage as an outreach of refinement needs to be the ideal bench mark. As a point of convergence and humanizing education and culture - every type of library needs to be a portal incorporating and disseminating information, knowledge and wisdom. Rabindranath Tagore went on to state "Libraries are more important to the education system than the institutions such as schools, colleges and universities." This insight carries a universal message.

With that sentiment I wish to conclude with a quote by Amitav Ghosh inscribed in 2001, of an ‘archipelago of hope’. It was about creating those sanctuaries that remain "stubbornly open to the flow of opinions, stubbornly hospitable to imagined enemies, stubbornly resistant to the floodwaters that seek to grind all forms of life into uniform grains of sand". We must open the universe a little more and the library becomes the center of that universe.

That message of universality is best conveyed through libraries.

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