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UNESCO and Book Development


This is the first piece of proper writing to emerge from research I have just started. I offer it, tentatively, hoping that readers might point out problems, or suggest overlooked sources or further avenues of inquiry.

The broad focus of this research is the fundamental role that UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, has played in post-WWII publishing.

As the main cultural agency within the UN system, UNESCO is enjoined to foster respect for human rights and to promote world peace – “global security,” in current parlance – by promoting international collaboration in the fields of education, science and culture. In attempting to fulfill this mandate it has collected and archived a staggering array of statistics about worldwide cultural production. In the words of former UNESCO employee Richard Hoggart, a founding figure within cultural studies, UNESCO is “a world resource centre, a complex of information banks” and “a great market for the traffic of knowledge.”1 For example, it publishes an annual Index Translationum, listing book translations by language and by subject, and a Statistical Yearbook monitoring national levels of cultural import and export. More than collecting these statistics, UNESCO has been a key player in defining what to count and how to count it. It was UNESCO that formulated the first official definition of a book – a non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages, excluding covering matter – accepted by the publishing industry. The International Standard Book Number (ISBN), easing the international sale and tracking of titles, was backed by UNESCO. International copyright law was debated, made, and reformed at key UNESCO-backed conferences. UNESCO has long advocated the treatment of books as a unique category of commodity that should not be subject to regular tariffs, taxes, or postage. It is UNESCO that has been at the forefront of organizations devising strategies for addressing global illiteracy.

UNESCO has also been heavily invested in research on the publishing industries. From the late 1950s through to the early 1980s it was in fact the premier sponsor, facilitator and consolidator of research on the book trades in the developing world in particular, conducting avant la lettre what we now define as book history, and supporting the research of scholars who have since been embraced as founding figures within the field, such as Robert Escarpit, and Lucian Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, whose The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800, is one of book history’s founding documents. Indeed when book history did emerge as a self-conscious practice in the early 1980s, it was informed by a public conversation that UNESCO had instigated about the ways social, economic, and political circumstances shape and are shaped by books and their readers.

It is surprising, then, that the history of UNESCO’s impact on the book industries has yet to be written. In studying this history my concern thus far have been what appear to be the three major book-related programs that UNESCO has pursued since its inception in 1946. The first program is the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works, which was devoted to translation and cross-border dissemination of the world’s classic literature. This program emerged with the organization’s founding after WWII, when it was dominated by the US, Britain, and France. It treated books as objects of diplomacy whose exchange would foster cultural understanding and thus help secure world peace. The second program is 1972’s International Book Year, which was promoted by an official Charter of the Book that put forward ten principles advocating the global spread of the printed word. This program emerged with the rise of a new majority within UNESCO, made up of the recently decolonized and anti-colonial nations. It sought to address a so-called “book hunger” in the developing world,2 and soon lent data and terminology to supporters of a controversial New World Information Order. Its appearance suggests a movement within UNESCO toward treatment of the book not as an elite object of portable cultural knowledge, but instead as an agent of social and economic change within the underdeveloped world. The third program is the recent City of Literature initiative, which awards this official designation to the place best able to position its literary traditions or book cultures as a competitive advantage. This program emerged in the early 1990s, as member nations appeared to unite around a conception of books as part of a national cultural heritage and creative economy and as a crucial resource for cultural tourism.

My specific arguments about these programs’ historical emergence and significance will come from archival research about the struggles that went on behind the scenes at UNESCO when they were proposed and ratified, as UNESCO’s representatives and consultants attempted to affirm particular uses and particular types of books and book industries. Tracing these struggles may reveal how the world’s premier international cultural organization arrived at decisions about the impact books might have on society, politics, and economics. My hope is to thereby illuminate the broader cultural history of the post-war period, by understanding how an initial liberal cosmopolitanism was unsettled by a postcolonial critique of the dominance of developed-world interests, and how both moments were superseded by a neoliberal consensus that what matters is culture’s private-sector potential.

Because this research is all still in my future, though, what I can offer here are only tentative thoughts on the period of UNESCO’s history that I have found most fascinating so far: the 1960s and 70s turn toward thinking of the book as an agent of development. In his important recent book Human Rights Inc., Joseph Slaughter critiques what he calls the “writing man’s burden,” defined as the “humanitarian injunction” that “reading nations must help nonreading ones (to read).” He writes that after decolonization a developmentalist attitude, committed to functional and spiritual modernization, “coalesced as the predominant discursive paradigm in the industrialized West.” Caught up in this paradigm was the technology of literacy, along with the specific “artifactual form of the book,” which became, in Slaughter’s words,” something of a fetish within certain humanitarian strands of developmentalist discourse and human rights.”3

It is here that he slots UNESCO, which he claims “sought to fortify the conceptual connection between literacy and development—and illiteracy and underdevelopment—with its declarations of the Charter of the Book and of 1972 as International Book Year.”4 In this context he directly links UNESCO to the US Agency for International Development’s programs for book development, programs which did read the extent of production and consumption of books as a measure of social and economic development. But it is unwise to collapse something like the US Agency for International Development into UNESCO. To do it is to ignore the very real distance between the American foreign policy establishment and UNESCO programming. In a sense the fetish here is Slaughter’s, as he strips various and often competing book development campaigns from their constitutive history.

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4 Responses to “Impressions”

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  1. Tade Aina says:

    This is an important contribution to the History of Ideas and Knowledge production. I however think there is no one story of the contributions to the development of the book and publishing. Also, do not forget that publishing included academic publishing. Children’s books, leisure and literature. What was UNESCO’s contribution? I remember the 1990s when I headed CODESRIA’s Book Division and we had to struggle with African conten, voices and publishing. UNESCO had by then surrendered culture and the book to market forces and had little or no capacity to influence the Global / International Division of Labor in knowledge. UNESCO seems to have been in a relatively disadvantaged position on the big knowledge issues since the 1990s. That needs to be interrogated too. That politics is important.

    • Sarah Brouillette says:

      Thank you for this response. I agree that the variety of forms of Unesco’s engagement with book development need to be addressed, and that by the 1990s market forces had taken over. I’m interested in that transition and will be addressing it in my research. Could I contact you about your experiences?

  2. If it is ok, I can do the introductions privately, Dr. Aina.

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