Building peace in the minds of men and women

UNESCO's World Book Policy and its Impacts, according to Céline Giton

16 November 2015


Céline Giton
© Jean-Paul Dekiss

Since its creation in 1945, UNESCO introduced to the international arena what we now might call a world book policy.  This unprecedented initiative had a “clear positive impact on book development, on literacy and on education throughout the world.” Nevertheless, the “use of the book for promotion of peace and global security was a complex task,” argues French Historian Céline Giton who has analyzed the achievements and major challenges of UNESCO’s book policy.

The conservation and protection of the world’s inheritance of books, as well as the call for international cooperation to promote access to publications throughout the world are enshrined in UNESCO’s Constitution.  This allowed the Organization to launch since its birth what we may call a “world book policy.”

This policy arose from a philosophy that tended to sanctify the written word. Whereas many subjects have caused controversy since the creation of UNESCO, consensus was almost general concerning books and their benefits for human beings. Incarnating many hopes, the book was always presented as a technical and cultural support essential to development and humanity’s happiness.

From what may be called a “French” position, the book was described as an emancipator, giving individual knowledge and stimulating greater reflexion. These qualities made the book an ideal support for dialogue and mutual understanding between peoples. Great books and writers played an important part in defining a common literary heritage.

A second discourse, more “Anglo-Saxon”, presented the book above all as a tool for educating people and encouraging economic development, leading to general well-being, and to be considered as well as a very useful support for communication. 

The book, instrument of freedom

What is sure is that the book, at UNESCO, was almost never questioned. For René Maheu, Director-General from 1960 to 1974, the book was the individual machine tool par excellence, the informant constantly available everywhere, the faithful companion of personal quest through the collective treasure of knowledge and wisdom passed on by past generations”. The Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang, who was the first chief of the Division of Arts and Letters - in his 1937 work The Art of Living compared the act of reading to a journey in time and space, an excursion into a different world, a way of discussing with great people.  Emile Delaveney, the head of the Organization’s Division of Publications, explained that “books can liberate what is truly human in man and set off the spark connecting his here and now both with all time past and with any other point in the inhabited universe” (For books, UNESCO, 1974).

Closely associated, in Western minds, to the notion of civilization, the book appears as an instrument of freedom conveying thoughts, ideas, knowledge, symbols and dreams elaborated by other human beings. Reputed as being able to build bridges between human societies, books constituted, according to Jaime Torres Bodet, Director-General from 1948 to 1952, one of the major defences of peace because of their enormous influence in creating an intellectual climate of friendship and mutual understanding. “If UNESCO proposes to encourage the translation of the most important literary works in a great number of languages”, he declared in 1949 to the international Committee of Experts on the Translation of the Classics, “it is that, because of its call to a sensitivity mixed with intelligence, because of the vibrant colors it gives to the feeling of human solidarity, literature is one of the most authentic factors of universal understanding”.

UNESCO also wished to put forward the existence of a “common literary heritage.” If Goethe spoke in his time of the concept of Weltliteratur, this euro-centred concept was understood after 1945 in a more universal way and claimed that worldwide literature was composed of all the texts produced by mankind. UNESCO proclaimed its wish to bring together, without hierarchy or preconceived value, the “great representative works produced by the genius of different peoples,” as described by Jaime Torres-Bodet.  With this ambition, the Organization searched for a heritage to personify its ideals and values, where charismatic literary figures known to a wide range of people, and also in the colonies, could be used to affirm a feeling of shared heritage between peoples.

In the era of development

The book at UNESCO was further linked to the question of literacy as an important step in economic development. In the 1950s and 1960s, following the United Nations Secretariat in New York, UNESCO fully entered into the “era of development.” In UNESCO’s discourse, literacy, education, book and library went together; book distribution and the creation of libraries were directly associated with an increase of the number of readers throughout the world. Access to the written word was considered essential for development, as presented in the brochure Literacy and Development or in a 1970 report prepared for the United Nations Econonomic and Social Council. Literacy was rapidly considered as a priority by developing countries. This socio-economic approach to the book, which was part of a Western conception of industrialization, resulted quite naturally in a valorization of non-fiction: text books, scientific and technical books, and professional literature.

Lastly, books were considered by UNESCO as tremendous communication tools. The American vision, in particular, considered books first and foremost as a medium for spreading knowledge. The USA encouraged UNESCO to consider communication as a legitimate field of action. As early as 1945, Archibald McLeish, from the American delegation, asked UNESCO mass media in its activities. Indeed, as communication became a crucial challenge of the modern world, this was reflected in various projects. The opening of an International Literary Exchanges Center, the collection of data concerning books, the harmonization of bibliographical statistics, the standardization of bibliographical standards and the large-scale adoption of Dewey classification (created in 1876, this system of classifying books and documents is the used throughout the world today), played their part in this dual movement of gathering information through worldwide networks and redistributing this information in the entire world. In this way, the book was not valued for its esthetic, emotional and patrimonial dimension, but essentially as a medium of information.

Weapons of Mass Distribution

A mixture of these visions of the book often appeared in speeches and publications, and were used to explain and legitimise the choice and usefulness of the Organization’s projects.  The projects took four main forms: normative action, preservation and valorization of worldwide literary heritage, encouragement of increased professionalism of people working in the book industry, and direct actions to promote books and reading.  Of all the standard-setting instruments adopted until 1975, five concerned the written word:

  • the Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials also called the Florence Agreement (1950);
  • the Universal Copyright Convention (1955);
  • the Convention concerning the International Exchange of Publications (1958);
  • the Recommendation concerning the International Standardization of Statistics relating to Book Production and Periodicals (1964); and,
  • the Recommendation concerning the International Standardization of Library Statistics (1970). 

The Florence Agreement, adopted in 1950, was revised in November 1976,  and the adoption of the “Nairobi Protocol” enlarged the scope of the Agreement by extending its benefits to new technological supports. The Protocol took into account some requests of developing countries, for instance the fact that tax free books for institutions of higher education had to be explicitly adopted or recommended as text books by the institutions concerned in these countries. But on the other hand, the Protocol stated for the first time that customs exemption was extended to all books and was no longer limited to educational, scientific and cultural materials. In this way, the Nairobi Protocol contributed to accentuate the imbalance of the flow of books between Western and non-Western countries.

Signature of the Universal Copyright Convention, by Germany, 3 July 1955. © UNESCO

The Universal Copyright Convention, which came into effect in 1955 and was revised in 1971,  arrose from diplomatic negotiations made during the interwar period aimed at bringing  closer the two already existing copyright systems in America and Europe. At the beginning, the Covention widely reflected Western states’ interests as the main book producers. Yet,  African countries and UNESCO staff members later played a crucial role in the democratization of access to books in developing countries, notably through the organization of a regional conference in Brazzaville in 1963. The outcome of the Brazzaville Conference was a revision of the Convention in order to take into account the needs of developing countries.

In the area of literary heritage, the programs introduced by UNESCO  included the microfilming of documents and ancient manuscripts, the collection of African oral traditions,  the publication of articles, reports and journals on the subject, the creation of exhibitions, and the publication of the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works.  UNESCO set up a mobile micro-filming unit which, from 1956 to 1961, reproduced one million pages of archives in eight Latin American countries.

In the field of old manuscripts, the key-project of UNESCO took place between 1960 and 1984 in Egypt, and consisted in inventorying, spelling out, microfilming and publishing a facsimile edition of the 13 Coptic manuscripts of the Nag Hammadi Library.  With regard to  the collection and preservation of oral heritage, UNESCO contributed to the written transcription of several African languages between 1963 and 1968, and launched a large collection program of African oral traditions between 1964 and 1974, within the framework of the General History of Africa project, as well as participating in the creation, in 1968, of a Regional Centre for Research and Documentation on Oral Traditions in Niamey.

UNESCO's Collection of Representative Works was considered the flagship project of the Arts and Letters Division. Between 1948 and 1994, it published 866 books from all over the world, written in 91 different languages. The aim was “to encourage the translation, publication and distribution in the major languages – English, French, Spanish and Arabic – of works of literary and cultural importance that are nevertheless not well known outside their original national boundaries or linguistic communities”.

However, even as the project contributed to the diffusion at the international-level of authors, such as the Japonese author Yasunari Kawabata (published in the Collection in the 1950s and awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968), the project reached in reality first and foremost a selected Western or Westernized elite and encountered many difficulties in its efforts to reach the general public.  As the works were not published by UNESCO due to budgetary constraints, the potential symbolic and concrete impact of the project was negatively affected.

(In 1946, UNESCO launched the program “Commemoration of great men”)

UNESCO also launched a program called “Commemoration of great men”, in order to put forward artists, writers, intellectuals, educators and scientists from all over the world. Between 1946 and 1965, 12 writers were celebrated: Goethe, Pouchkine, Edgar Poe, Balzac, Confucius, Mickiewicz, Cholem Aleichem, Chekhov, Tagore et Shakespeare. The absence of writers from Latin America, Africa and the Arab world was due to complex reasons, historical but also ideological and cultural, the countries having chosen instead to celebrate famous educators, philosophers, or scientists. Moreover, the strong opposition of some states, especially the USA, and the lack of a budget prevented this program from giving birth to a worldwide literary Pantheon. This failure resulted from a deep ideological disagreement between states concerning UNESCO’s role, the existence of a “common” literary heritage and the place given to writers in society. (See Anniversaries celebrated by member states). 

(In 2011, UNESCO launched the program "Tagore, Neruda, Césaire".)

A third area of action consisted for UNESCO in facilitating and supporting the professionalization of the book world, by creating or subsidizing schools and training centers, giving scholarships and organizing events such as seminars and training courses for librarians, writers, translators, booksellers and editors/publishers. With its studies and research, UNESCO also played the role of a resource center and its publications contributed to a greater awareness of the situation of book production in the world. The financial help given to professional networks (IFLA, FID…), the creation of pilot libraries, the promotion of modern methods and standards following Western models, the production of materials, books, periodicals and films for book workers, not only contributed to professionalize the fields, but also to bring into the foreground a true esprit de corps. With the creation of international consultative committees, UNESCO also wanted to encourage collaboration amongst professionals; the Organization in particular managed to bring together librarians and documentalists, and the organization of the International Book Year in 1972 reinforced contacts and collaborations between colleagues working on book production right through to dissemination.

With regard to direct promotion books and reading, UNESCO worked through three types of activities. First, the Organization favoured a rebalancing of book circulation around the world by encouraging literary exchanges and by launching a book donation program called “book-coupon scheme” (for which it dedicated 9 million dollars). Its impact was quite limited because of the attitude of the USA, which saw it as a competing project for their own fund-raising campaigns linked to development aid and Reconstruction.

UNESCO also encouraged reading with two specific programs. One of them concerned libraries, which were a major area of activity during the first years of the organization, reflecting the importance of libraries in Anglo-Saxon societies. Influenced by the activities of the British Council and the Carnegie Foundation, UNESCO gave grants, scholarships and books to many libraries throughout the world and created several important pilot public libraries in Delhi, Bogota, Enugu and Dakar. However, an important administrative reorganization in 1967 and the organization of a series of regional conferences on library and documentation planning were a turning point in this field: the cultural aspects of libraries were considered from that time on as part of a larger discourse concerning technical and scientific documentation.

From 1955, UNESCO launched a program called “Reading materials for South-East Asia,” with the idea of producing and distributing texts in local languages for new literates in this region.  This project took off with the creation in August 1958 of a Regional Center in Karachi, and between 1958 and 1967, this Center helped in the publication of more than 500 books in 22 languages .

Finally, UNESCO encouraged reflection on the book and its promotion, by organizing conferences and academic symposiums, by helping its member-states to launch national book policies, by creating regional centers for book promotion, and by launching, in 1972, the symbolic “International Book Year”. 

(Novembre 1970. Meeting on the International Book Year - 1972. © UNESCO)


After having considered this overview, the question that remains is the extent of the impact of UNESCO’s book policy, in particular its impact on the human spirit and peace in general. 

Indeed, if this policy had certainly a positive impact by encouraging education and reading, its effects on the “peace” aspect is much more complicated to evaluate.

The UN Charter refered to cultural cooperation as a factor of mutual understanding , and UNESCO was charged with this task, especially the related idea that peace should be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of humankind.  However, the idea of promoting peace, security and international understanding only with education, culture and science is a very complex one, and above all in an Organization more and more heterogeneous from a political, ideological and cultural point of view. Whereas Western countries gave their preference to intellectual activities and the circulation of knowledge, most of the developing countries asked UNESCO to take on urgent problems like poverty and illiteracy, through education and technical assistance.

In 1949, Jaime Torres Bodet considered that if UNESCO wanted to serve the cause of peace, it must concentrate on the concrete needs of mankind. It must not be an academy preaching virtues of theoretical pacifism. This indirect manner of contributing to peace came to occupy a central place in UNESCO programming. 

The ideal of mutual understanding between ordinary people replaced the aristocratic ideal of intellectual exchanges betweens the elites, “and this, all the more because culture is not any more the privilege of a few advantaged minorities but becomes accessible to everybody”. Yet even if UNESCO encouraged “mutual understanding”, it could never prove scientifically by what process a better objective and intellectual understanding of others would naturally lead to collaboration and peaceful relations with them. This limit, more generally, is part of the difficulty in linking, by a relation of cause and effect, education and culture on the one hand and peace on the other.

As the French writer Pascal Bruckner claims in his article “Faut-il être cosmopolite ?”, Esprit 12 (December 1992): “There is never a direct link between a work of art and life. With a book, I can forget my prejudices, commune with the universe of a Chinese or South-American writer, fully enter another age, others customs, but it doesn’t change anything in my open-mindedness when I leave the literary field.” Further, in terms of the literary field, the sociologist Gaston Bouthoul points out in his book “La paix” (PUF, 1974) “even popular poetry glorifies military exploits and heros that accomplish them, much more than peace”.

…and Success

(Cameroon, 1963 © UNESCO/Paul Almasy)

Nevetheless, the book has experienced a real revolution in the 20th century, both interms of form and content, and in terms of use: social, educational, and recreational.  UNESCO’s book policy from the 1950s through the 1970s shows that the Organization not only followed these trends, but became progressively in different ways a kind of spokesperson for this evolution.

On a global scale, the modern printed book, conveying ideas, culture and imagination, has been appropriated, distorted and used by many non-Western peoples. By an acculturation and reappropriation process, a growing number of countries and new literate populations entered the worldwide literary scene, which is well illustrated by the evolution of the Nobel Prize for Literature from the 1960s.

With decolonization movements and the advance of democratic principles, former colonies denounced imperialist practices related to the book, like the donation of books or ill-adapted economic practices, and demanded a change of copyright rules so that their educational needs were taken into account. These claims were part of a larger challenge to the primacy of the written word imposed by the West.  Voices rose insisting on the validity of oral tradition as historical and cultural source and to advocate for a rebalancing between the oral and the written word. 

Arriving at a conclusion

UNESCO’s book policy had positive effects in many aspects: libraries were created everywhere, thousands of people around the world learned to read and write, book distribution improved, many book professional were trained, precious archives and manuscripts were microfilmed and safeguarded, and so on. According to Michael Kereszesi, “through its regulatory function, UNESCO has achieved standardization in many professional areas, as in statistics, bibliographical description, terminology and others”. (The contribution of UNESCO to library education and training, University of Michigan, 1977).  In his book The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart wrote about the indisputable interest of many UNESCO’s programs, like literacy campaigns, and concluded that “in spite of incredible, baroque and disconcerting failures, UNESCO remains one of the most promising institutions created in this ambiguous century”.

By spreading the book in the world, UNESCO contributed to transform it into a tool of emancipation, a support for denunciation of Western ethnocentrism, a way to share imaginations and to perpetuate oral literature.

Its book policy had therefore results quite different from the official goals concerning peace and stability. On the contrary, it encouraged democracy and individual emancipation through books. To conclude, UNESCO’s book policy was a good illustration of the difficulties and the ambiguities of the organization as a whole. It showed that, even when its action was based on noble and humanistic ideals, the multiplicity of actors, cultures and challenges, reflecting humanity’s diversity, made it difficult to conduct a worldwide policy on any subject.

Depsite this, the policy allowed many countries to express a symbolic opposition to the cultural and linguistic imperialisms of the Great Powers and American foundations, contributed to the spead of the book throughout the world, promoted non-western literatures and oral tradition, as well as, more generally, acted as an intermediary to proclaim and defend the cultural, literary and linguistic diversity of humanity.

Céline Giton

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Céline Giton participated in the conference Making a Difference: Seventy years of UNESCO Actions which was held at UNESCO headquarters on 28-29 October 2015. She spoke on the theme of “Weapons of Mass Distribution: UNESCO and the Central Role of Books.” This article is an extract from her talk. The the entire review will be available in A History of UNESCO: Global Actions and Impacts, to be published in February 2016.

Giton is a participant in the Global History of UNESCO Project, directed by Poul Duedhal and sponsored since 2013 by the Danish Council for Independent Research.