Monday, January 26, 2009

Bring Back the USIS Library

As the new administration settles in at the foreign affairs department of the Washington DC area's largest employer, there appears to be a surge of interest in reinvigorating our Public Diplomacy efforts. Personally, I am cheering on those who urge a revival of the American Cultural Center. I wish them success in bringing back the fine old institution of the semi autonomous cultural entity that stood apart from the dread Fortress Embassies.

I always enjoyed spending time in U.S. Information Service Libraries during my travels to diplomatic posts back before the 1999 merger of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department. They had a nice mini-America feel, and they were clearly effective at cultural outreach. An Indian-born architect I know has told me how the USIS Library he visited as a young boy changed his life. He would sit at the same library table every afternoon to read books, and one day he noticed on the opposite wall a poster of Abraham Lincoln with this quote:

"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy."

I can imagine how that quote would have struck him, being a citizen of a democratic but far from egalitarian society. I don't think even Gandhi ever said anything similar. (As I would not be an Untouchable, so I would not be a Brahmin? No. Gandhi was a Brahmin.) The sentiment was foreign to his native Hindu culture, and he was fascinated by it. He became an admirer of Lincoln and read everything he could find about him in the Library, which eventually led him to graduate from an American University via its foreign extension campus, and then to emigrate to America and become a citizen.

I doubt he would have had the same experience at one of the smaller and less walk-in-friendly embassy Information Resource Centers that replaced USIS Libraries. Most likely, it would be impossible for a kid to hang around in an IRC day after day to just absorb the atmosphere. Do IRCs even have atmosphere?

What is there to stop a revival of the USIS Library or something close to it? Apparently only two things: concern about their physical security, and certain legal and administrative requirements that, unless waived, call for all offices and agencies under the authority of the Ambassador to be collocated on embassy compounds. Neither problem is insurmountable.

Were I advising the Public Diplomacy bureaucracy, I'd recommend they gather data on the history of attacks on USIS Libraries, Bi-National Centers, American Corners and similar stand-alone public facilities past and present, and see whether the incidence of attacks on them hasn't, over time, been the same as or lower than the incidence of attacks on diplomatic facilities in general. Those results might go a long way toward relieving security concerns.

I'd also advise PD to document the program impacts that occur with collocation. Contrast the measures of program effectiveness for stand-alone public diplomacy facilities - of which there are many, since we still occupy legacy USIS buildings in places where we haven't had new construction since 1999 - with the metrics for those PD facilities that have been collocated under the new embassy construction program. We always hear the claim that program effectiveness is lost when PD facilities are collocated, but I've never seen actual substantiation. Documentation of that sort would be PD's best argument for avoiding collocation in the future.

Here's hoping I'll be able to visit some brand-new American Cultural Centers in all their (old) inviting ambience and downtown locations before many more years go by.

1 comment:

USIS said...

USIS is the overseas name for the no longer existing United States Information Agency. The USIS is a name that was sometimes used in the past, both officially and non-officially, to refer to at the very least one of the many United States federal agencies of the executive branch which has implemented United States Immigration Law.