Public libraries in Armenia are facing a lot of challenges. But when it comes to a sensitive matter like democracy, while we are defining public libraries as democratic spaces, in Armenia things may look a little bit different. Public libraries in Armenia are not palaces for people as Eric Klinenberg said, they are more bridges for individuals to understand the role of the library in the community. As challenges are always ways to turn into opportunities, Armenian libraries need to assume the role of an open window for democracy. This article briefly adds a spotlight on Lori Regional Library from Vanadzor, Armenia on the subject of practicing advocacy for community needs.
Armenia, like other countries which were part of the Soviet Union, gained independence in 1991. It was that year for all the countries that dropped the communism curtain when a window for democracy seemed to open widely. But, for Armenia, the start of democracy kept a lot of pedigree from the past, at least when it comes to libraries. But it was not 1991 the tipping point for democracy and the path to continue on this perspective, because Armenia was engaged in a war with Azerbaijan and Turkey. The war has a terrible effect on democracy building and the war breaths violence and a general sense of being in this constant crisis mode. Therefore, democracy is pushed to the side when the only concern is to survive. So, pursuing things like human rights or education reform, or library reform, all seem like a luxury when you are trying to survive.
The Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport of the Republic of Armenia is responsible for the development of policy and legislation concerning libraries. The only professional association representing the interests of librarians is the Armenian Library Association (ALA), which contributes to the improvement of librarianship through developing partnerships with foreign libraries and librarian organizations taking part in projects related to the principles, programmatic and normative documents on librarianship in Armenia as well as implementing initiatives aimed at raising authority and reputation of libraries. It is engaged in the professional development of librarians as well as improving policies and norms related to the library sector and the work of libraries and librarians.
So, even if they may have a long tradition in libraries structured on the profile of Soviet ideology, after 1991 the start of democracy was very slow. Many of the libraries in Armenia are not well prepared when it comes to infrastructure. Many of the spaces need restoration, the logistics need to be updated and, the main problem is the volume of the books which is far from impressive.
The Lori Regional Library in Vanadzor was founded in 1915. The foundation stands up to promoting an emblematic figure at that time, Vergine Mkhitaryan, who promotes the openness for dialogue. Leaving the fact that a war is putting aside culture, nevertheless, the library of the Lori region tried to keep alive the feeling of freedom gained after 1991. The first aspect that stands as a clue in the path to democracy is the card for the library. A common and usual extension of the library is in Armenia empowerment of the people. The card is more than an identity, it is proof that citizens are free. And what space is more dedicated and suitable for expressing their liberty than the public library? The card itself replicates the idea of an invisible teammate and then it grows stronger and it has the effect of the lake waves: from the individual to the community and then to the nation. And because libraries are in the business of creating whole individuals, it means that when you give someone a library card, you allow them to develop themselves.
Maybe the comparison is inadequate in the sense that it is normal for a library to deliver, among its services, a card for access, but in Armenia, this card is a factor of empowerment of individuals in a shared space. This means that individuals are important to be aware of their freedom and then an image of empowerment of the people is available which is just a step away from breathing democracy.
There is a sense of freedom that comes from knowing everyone around you has the opportunity for self-development and it makes you want to do better as well. The libraries in Armenia are struggling as they can assure the individuals of the opportunities to have a space they can share. In Lori Regional Library from Vanadzor, I understood how important it is to have information available to you because having this information available breathes action, movement, and energy. The more you know what is happening around you, the more it moves you to act. Librarians in Lori Regional Library understood this thing from the very first beginning of their mission, a mission which, in Armenia, is based mainly on being active for citizens and designing a prototype (like a model), for children. It is in fact a silent request from the innocent and beautiful faces of the children in Armenia that request this inspirational model to emphasize.
When it comes to infrastructure, Lori Regional Library has good infrastructure, the library is hosted in a cozy building with 2 floors, where there are a reading hall, administrative offices, an American Corner, and depository spaces for books and archives. A summary of the main services that the library provides to the community is organizing book presentations, camps, and events for children in the community. Actively participates in publicizing the works of creators, and writers ensure access to books for people with disabilities and elderly readers. The library provides a platform for youth initiative groups that present their ideas during various meetings. In the library, we have an American corner, where people can learn English for free.
Because we placed already on the table the idea of information and empowerment of individuals by the services that libraries in Armenia provide to the community, there is another aspect that we need to focus on and that is the process of dialogue with the community. Dialogue is a keyword for democracy. But, if we start from the idea that democracy is not a performance, in Armenia we can say that public libraries are having a big challenge in building democracy without many tools. Lori Regional Library is an open window for the consistency of education in Vanadzor, not only by the services the library provides to the community but for the openness and creative ideas the manager and employees are delivering to their community. Just a few examples are showing a commitment to drawing a nice picture of the theme of democracy in Vanadzor: English course for free for children and young people and accessibility for people with disabilities.
Still, there is a serious problem with accessibility for people with disabilities in small towns such as Vanadzor in Armenia. From ramps for people with disabilities to specific services, there is a lack of involvement from the authorities regarding this issue. Nevertheless, Lori Regional Library is cooperating with various NGOs and together they are building a bridge over this troubled and still unresolved issue.
One active NGO from Vanadzor that is working with Lori Regional Library is EREO, an NGO of 12 persons with disabilities. Having this common goal in developing policies for accessibility for people with disabilities, on the surface of their cooperation arises another opportunity and that is the civic power that cooperation is adding to the context. Government and public authorities from Vanadzor cannot just claim democracy and appoint this concept as being on board with their policies. To claim democracy, you need to nurture and invest in all those under-aligned layers in order to have real democracy. There is a full list of things that you need to have in order to be situated in the framework of democracy.
For example, the idea of advocacy is also new in Armenia. Above this, just to point out a detail, in the Armenian language, there is no word for advocacy, and also the translation from English doesn’t have an adequate meaning due to this lack of significance in Armenian linguistics. But seeing and participating in a common event made by the Lori Regional Library and EREO NGO, I understood that more than anywhere else, the library in Armenia is a space for people, designated as a clear profile of a prototype for the younger generation as an inspiration to breath the fresh air of democracy. Once again, the dialogue was the base of significant ideas, shared by people who lived in a war, which found the power to continue living within terrible crises which left them wounded for life and people with disabilities with a will of iron. At the event, which consisted of a workshop coordinated by a psychologist from Vanadzor University, Mr. Narek Stephanyan, there was an interactive discussion on the subject of stress management and resilience. At the event, I’ve noticed an active participation and a consolidated collaboration of NGOs and libraries, while many of the people present there shared with me their thoughts and memories about previous projects which were merged in the spirit of growing together into a stable and democratic society. Organizations such as ’Mission Armenia Organization’ and MediaClub NGO are partners of the library and EREO NGO in their effort to sustain the actual needs of their community, such as accessibility for people with disabilities.
The inventory of the aspects that still need to be resolved in Armenia when it comes to public libraries can be vast, but at the end of the day, on the new horizon which is a challenge and an opportunity day after day for children, young people and everyone in Armenia, there is a stable space for people inside the library. Accessing the space of the library is already a sign of empowerment and the start to solving what it is needed to be solved. Lori Regional Library is now taking care of accessibility, emerging initiatives, and openness for their community and this is a step, for sure a step forward in the process of democracy.
This project is developed by Progress Foundation Romania, granted by E.U. and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and implemented in Armenia, Republic Of Moldova, Romania and Ukraine with the help of the regional partners: Lori Regional Library, Armenia; “Dimitrie Cantemir” Public Library from Ungheni, “IPS Antonie Plamadeala” Public Library from Hincesti & Library Association from Republic of Moldova; “G.T. Kirileanu” Neamt County Library & “Antim Ivireanul” Valcea County Library from Romania; Luhansk Regional Scientific Library, Lviv Public Library & Ukrainian Library Association, from Ukraine.
This article was written by PhD Alin Daniel Piroșcă.
Growing Active Citizens Hubs is granted by E.U. and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Black Sea Trust or its partners.