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Yesterday evening, I went to the Institut Français with some of my course friends to attend a panel discussion about the IdeasBox, a charitable project launched by the Libraries Without Borders / Bibliothèques Sans Frontières foundation in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency and the architect and designer, Philippe Starck. The project aims to equip vulnerable populations around the world with books, information technology tools and infrastructure tailored to the needs of each particular community, in order to improve their lives through education and access to information and culture, as this promotional video explains:

There were a few things that struck me in particular about the evening:

  1. The programme is not just intended for areas in developing countries that are affected by humanitarian catastrophes, but also for disadvantaged populations in “developed” countries: it has been used, or its us is currently being evaluated, for the benefit of Aboriginal communities in Australia, deprived urban communities in New York, and migrant settlements in Calais, in addition to the more “obvious” areas of conflict and unrest in Africa and the Middle East.  This point, and the positive effects of reading, literacy and libraries in general, were emphasised by Barbara Band, the former head of CILIP, who quoted the results of some recent alarming surveys carried out in Britain: 3 in 10 British children do not own a single book of their own (2011) and a third of the poorest British children do not have internet access at home (2013) Reflecting on this figures, my mind wandered to the example of the Finnish government-provided maternity box that is given to all mothers: could an “information literacy box” be given to each new schoolchild one day in a partnership between the government and a specialist charitable scheme such as the IdeasBox, which already co-operates with governments, publishers, other charities and so forth?
  2. I was also impressed by the cross-fertilisation of ideas that took place during the evening. For example, the author Ian McEwan proposed a tie-up with the Solar Aid initiative that he already supports, as books by themselves are of limited value if there is no light by which to read them. A member of the audience from Penguin Random House UK also offered her company’s support in the question-and-answer session that took place after the discussion. To me, this provided timely hard evidence of the rhetoric that allowing networked access can improve the lives of disadvantaged communities by demonstrating the value of utilising multiple perspectives and areas of expertise at a social event.
  3. Several panelists pointed out that the freedom of information, expression and thought is under pressure in a number of countries throughout the world for political and religious reasons, and that this project represents the ideal riposte to this trend. This links back to the debates that we have discussed in my LAPIS module on the cost of knowledge and the digital divide that this, and other costs associated with the development of technology and infrastructure, produces between developed and developing countries. On the one hand, it is somewhat depressing to think that these economic pressures are therefore added to by the anti-information tendencies caused by political authoritarianism and religious extremism, but also encouraging that a successful project such as this has been set up to counter it.

All in all, it was an extremely informative evening, and I will follow the progress of the IdeasBox programme with much interest.

[N.B. The featured image for this post is “Ideas Box – Bibliothèques sans Frontières” by ActuaLitté on Flickr. It is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence.]