Saving war-torn cities through education [and asking publishers and libraries to do more]

On Thursday, April 27, I spoke about Free Reading Zones in Osijek, a city in the East of Croatia that some 25 years after the (last) Balkan war, still shows visible signs of devastation and remnants of human cruelty. This “forgotten” city, as it’s often called, may still be hurting and trying to rebuild itself (I felt this on every corner and in every conversation), but it’s a city that recognizes the value of free access to knowledge. Otherwise the University of Osijek wouldn’t have invited me to speak about Croatia becoming an open virtual library.

Thursday was the first time I publicly spoke about turning Croatia into a Free Reading Zone since the pilot ended in January. And it didn’t happen in its capital (Zagreb) or its major tourist draw (Dubrovnik). Or in any other fancy coastal town on the Adriatic that reaps the benefits of its geography. It happened in the devastated and impoverished Northern city of Osijek, where bullet-ravaged buildings still populate even the main square (see picture).

It was an emotional three-day visit, my first in the fourth largest city in the country, where I spoke in an auditorium full of mostly students (some faculty) about the importance of free access to knowledge (ironically enough) outside institutions such as the University of Osijek, where the event took place. I spoke about the importance of universities and libraries raising their own awareness about the possibilities afforded to us by ebooks and econtent, which still remains largely locked away from most humanity. It took for me to leave New York to become acutely aware of that.

I also drew attention to the main goal of the Free Reading Zones project: to level the playing field. To give cities like Osijek and its residents an equal chance at education and success in life. When Croatia Reads launched on December 5th, and the country (in its entirety) became an open virtual library for one full month, any person inside the country could access thousands of books in digital format via a free app regardless of their location and affiliation. While many in the media praised the benefits of the project for tourism (Croatia is visited by millions of tourists each year, and the collection in the app comprised tens of thousands of titles by top publishers in various languages), I often purposefully focused on the benefits of the project more dear to my heart: to uplift rural areas and economically-disadvantaged regions where libraries struggle to remain open and where bookstores have long gone out of business.

During the discussion that followed the presentation, I learned (from the students) that the university library provides not a single textbook in digital format. On average, there are two print textbooks (or required course readings) available for the entire class (usually averaging hundreds of students) and they often perform poorly on exams owing to the fact that they simply don’t get to the materials fast enough (the materials are passed around). This is not the case in the capital, of course, or the most developed parts of the country which have been experiencing an economic Renaissance since Croatia joined the E.U. and since the Croatian Adriatic became a hot tourist destination (even among Americans in recent years). This is, however, an accurate portrayal of what higher education looks like in many cities in Croatia, and in many countries in Europe and all over the world, even the most developed ones, including, of course, the United States.

As our industry continues to explore the endless possibilities with ebooks and econtent, and the richest urban libraries continue to expand their influence (and receive the most funding), let us not forget that the vast majority of libraries all around the world are trailing behind. Despite the technological advances we have witnessed in the past two decades on the e-front, our industry still shows little interest in tapping into the potential of ebooks to democratize access to knowledge to everyone’s benefit. Yet at every conference we talk about the importance of education and access to books. We talk about the glory of libraries. For whom?, I respectfully ask.

Like forgotten humans cast aside by society and its controlling institutions, war-torn cities like Osijek, Sarajevo, and Alepo can only be saved by education. And their people can only be given a second chance at life through education. And this education need not (and cannot only) happen inside an institution and inside a library. And it absolutely must not continue to only be happening in major cities and involve the richest libraries where publishers and vendors always find the quickest return on investment. We must aim higher. The technology already at our disposal will help get us there.

Free Reading Zones is an attempt to get there in a way that rewards everyone in the process. If the book and library industry (all of it) gets the courage (and vision) to color outside those fixed lines just a little bit and tap into the potential of ebooks to level the playing field, the impact on the society will be tremendous. It’s up to us. And we only stand to gain.