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Between bits and paper

The modernization of the National Library emphasizes the importance of reading, in any format

In late 2005, a few days after being appointed director of the National Library Foundation – FBN in Rio de Janeiro (“Minister Gil invited me and I spent 15 days thinking whether I should accept,” he recalls), Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) communications professor Muniz Sodré was taken by surprise by an unusual complaint. Amidst a general crisis in which employees went on strike, issues between the previous administration and the Federal Audit Court had to be settled, and the disappearance of over a thousand items from the Teresa Cristina collection (the apple of the foundation’s eye) had to be explained, the new director had to attend to UFRJ researchers who had not been allowed into the library, contrary to the norms of the library,  because their T-shirts “were deemed too revealing”. “I’m a descendent of the Nagô people, a born negotiator, and so fighting is a last resort. Slowly, the library modernized itself, got rid of the stuffiness and now looks to the future”, explains Muniz.

FBN is ranked by UNESCO as the eighth most important library in the world, with over 9 million items. It houses treasures from the past and, by law, has a copy of every publication in Brazil. It is forced to deal with the past and must also rush to deal with the present. Ironically, the foundation itself is not allowed to publish anything other than a magazine on books (Revista do Livro), one on poetry (Poesia Sempre) and the library’s annals. These publications were re-instated by Sodré. Other than that, it can only co-publish and cannot sell anything outside the building, which is in neoclassical style and was built in 1905 as a part of mayor Pereira Passos’s Parisian style boulevard, on what is now Avenida Rio Branco. Muniz, who is restless, but also law-abiding, has dodged the obstacles and has just launched FBN’s new magazine Cultura Brasileira Contemporânea (Contemporary Brazilian Culture), which is published every four months and edited by Francisco Bosco (composer João Bosco’s son and co-lyricist), who has a Ph.D in literary theory from UFRJ. Initially, 2 thousand copies will be printed, sold for R$ 15 at the library and distributed free of charge to public libraries around the country. “Even in academia, there were no single-themed journals, journals that discussed a subject in depth. The idea is that the magazine will present new ideas and dissect them”, he says.

During the previous administration, FBN had problems with another magazine; the issue was who had the rights over the name Revista de História (History Magazine). Actually, that magazine, which is sold in newsstands, belongs to the Association of Friends of the National Library, a group which helps fund the foundation. However, Cultura Brasileira Contemporânea is the real McCoy. The first issue discussed Brazilian popular music, with articles by Arthur Nestrovsky, Antônio Cícero and Nuno Ramos, among others. The next issue will discuss “contemporary conjugations”, with essays on the verbs “to love”, “to consume”, “to produce graffiti”, etc. Muniz already has plans for future editions that will discuss themes such as Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s proverbial “cordial man” and national cinema. The magazine, however, is only one of the current administration’s projects, which, according to Muniz, a Bahian, “is for  the people, as the sky is to the airplane.”

“My intention is to do everything I can to increase the circulation of books and reading levels. The formal monetary economy is always preceded by another one: the economy of cooperation. It is the economy of knowledge, the cognitive capitalism that, though it cannot be computed, is fundamentally important for the development of the formal economy. It is through the teaching of literacy that one prepares  people for a new technological age. That is how you build the economy of knowledge”, he explains. According to him, we cannot go ahead with the Growth Acceleration Program (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento – PAC) without knowledge. “The value of public cultural policy is not to be found in treating the State as the solution to all problems. One must shift the class bias towards interaction with the communities that underscore symbolic Brazilian diversity and that aspire to the preservation of wealth and to participation in these policies. To add this non-material wealth to the wealth of brick and mortar is innovative”, he says. To Muniz Sodré, the global society still fails to interpret culture as the starting line, rather than the finishing line. To do this, it must associate culture with education. “The challenge is to ensure cultural citizenship and access to culture”, he says.

Muniz is less interested in how knowledge will be concretely supported in the future than how to share it more democratically. That explains Brazil’s last-minute inclusion in the Global Digital Library project, which began last December and, on October 17, plans to launch a website where one can obtain, free of charge, cultural material that each participant regards as most representative of its development. Initially, Brazil was not included in the project, but Muniz was invited to take part in it and now the National Library is going to provide Brazilian material for global access. The starting point was the rebuilding of the FBN site ( This has to do with Muniz Sodré’s belief that technology is the way to get rid of the dust which seems to surround the word “library”. For example, with a computer one can now look at the institution’s collection, learn about its history, walk around it in cyberspace, examine  a collection of 1,600 sixteenth and seventeenth century maps (“this really impressed the foreigners”), as well as download complete classics by authors such as Machado de Assis and Lima Barreto. As from October, for example, anybody in the world will be able to see, among other things, the treasures in Teresa Cristina collection, including works by Rugendas and Debret, maps, translations of classical works, etc.

The risk of robbery has been eliminated, as FBN has now installed a sophisticated security system to stop the thefts which damaged the institution’s name in the past. There are 70 cameras in the building and the alarm system includes over 10 kilometers of optic fiber. “This re-assured our employees, who are really first class and who are proud of working here, preserving our culture”, says Muniz Sodré. The new restoration laboratory is the best in the country, thanks to new equipment and a technology exchange with the USA’s Library of Congress. “My administration is focusing on the preservation of cultural assets and on the promotion of cultural events”, he says. To achieve this, the FBN annex, on Avenida Rodrigues Alves, is being prepared to house the digital library, with Petrobras’s support. Believe it or not, an inventory of the works also has to be put together, as the library does not have one. Furthermore, Muniz has commissioned two films (with popular actors such as Marcos Palmeira and Antonio Calloni) to be exhibited, starting next month, in the FBN foyer. They will show the library’s history, the collections and how best to use them.

Not content, however, with the Herculean task of managing an institution of that size with minimal funding, he is also actively engaged in the institutionalization of an unprecedented and strategic partnership between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education. They will prepare the National Book and Reading Plan (Plano Nacional do Livro e da Leitura), sanctioned by President Lula in September. “I’m sure that the development of the PAC’s educational side requires, in order to improve  educational levels,  a more intense thrust towards the dissemination of books and reading”, he comments. With typical Nagô luck, Muniz Sodré, as soon as he took office, received a windfall budget of 28 million reals, which the Ministry of Culture got hold of via the Senate. He used that to create over 400 new libraries. “Even so, we still need another 700 libraries”, he says. The link between ministries wants to make reading a State policy, involving teachers and publishers, who will be trained to encourage reading in schools. This includes Muniz Sodré’s reactivation of the Pró-Ler program in Rio de Janeiro. “We are witnessing the weakening of the supremacy of books vs. the virtual world, where one does not reside but merely moves about, comforted by the promise of a democratic body of knowledge with no hierarchies”, he says.