Make Knowledge about America Accessible: Move the Libraries Outside the Walls

Public diplomacy is a contact sport. Everything we say and everything we do takes place in am arena with virtually no boundaries thanks to the Internet and global transportation. This is a competitive space in which ideas and agendas struggle to shape perceptions for attention and dominance (and sometimes parity) from an increasing number of state and non-state actors. We are, as we have been, in a global struggle for minds affecting the will to act.

America’s attention, the focus of our global engagement, a better and functionally more accurate title than public diplomacy, must expand beyond countering violent extremism, the ball on which so many eyes are glued. Between the Chinese in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, the Russians and now the Iranians, we must return to global engagement.

Edward R. Murrow argued “the really crucial link in the international communication chain is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.” But budgets and a lack of appreciation for grassroots engagement, education, and empowerment means America’s connection in the “last three feet” went more virtual than it should as America retreated behind blast walls and into fortresses. But our pull back from “contested spaces”, where Internet access is poor, and from friendly countries where a “transformational” agenda disregarded diasporas often outside of the larger society (Hamburg, Madrid, x2 in UK: Glasgow, London…), was amplified by the limited funding, training, and agility by those who were left to engage local populations.

Between budget cutbacks and failure to grasp the importance of engaging foreign publics, the United States retreated from allied and contested spaces alike. The chart below shows use of American Centers, now Information Resource Centers, or IRC, drops substantially when hidden under protective layers. Public access to 11% (19 of 177) of the IRCs is not even permitted.


Contact with foreign audiences cannot make up for bad policies, but it can keep channels of discourse open. Eliminating opportunities to engage creates opportunities for our adversaries to move in.

Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) understands the need to change the status quo to fully and properly re-engage global populations. This week he introduced a Sense of the Senate resolution recommending (and provide political cover for) waiving requirements of the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 that made the Centers far less effective in today’s struggle for minds and wills.

It is important the Administration take the opportunity to move the IRCs back into the “open” so they are accessible. We must reverse the retreat successfully spurred by terrorists that tried to limit our access to local populations and vic versa.

It is absolutely true that public diplomacy is only effective when in support a foreign policy that is, on its own, agreeable by relevant target audiences. But public diplomacy does not operate in a vacuum.


The Chinese and the Iranians have been moving aggressively to further their own interests. While China is working what some consider the mercantilist approach, the Iranians are a little more classic. Iran is aggressively opening cultural centers, especially in African-Arab cities.

This is more relevant on the heels of President’s Day, when USIA / USIS libraries overseas would take the opportunity to reach out and create an enhanced learning environment. Today, we have VOA’s Making of a Nation series for President’s Day, but this is not enough.

As Senator Lugar’s resolution notes, the IRCs formerly

offered classes in English, extensive libraries housing collections of American literature, history, economics, business, and social studies, and reading rooms offering the latest American newspapers, periodicals, and academic journals;

The purpose of the libraries, the American Centers, or the Information Resource Centers was to foster an environment for knowledge acquisition. Senator Lugar understands this but I am not sure many others see public diplomacy as having this mission today, including some who follow and practice public diplomacy.

(It should be noted that the “fathers” of American public diplomacy, Rep. Karl Mundt (R-SD) and Assistant Secretary of State William Benton, two chief proponents of the Smith-Mundt Act, were both knowledge peddlers themselves: Mundt was a former school teacher and Benton owned the Encyclodpaedia Britannica and helped push the Great Books project.)

While it is not binding, the Sense of the Senate can re-empower an important and significant point of contact between Americans and foreign publics.

Read the whole resolution here.

See also:

3 thoughts on “Make Knowledge about America Accessible: Move the Libraries Outside the Walls

  1. Note that one thing hasn’t changed since the days of Smith and Mundt: Strategic management of PD by Congress — Fulbright, Humphrey, McCarthy, Zorinsky, Simon, Sarbanes, Helms, and a host of others. Lugar is just the latest.

  2. Greetings, Matt–We met–if only casually–at White Oak, but we both did our share to try to add to the discussion. I’m an old USIA geezer who still feels strongly what we need most for better PD is more good practitioners out in the field. After seeing the Lugar announcement on centers and your own comments (above), I was moved to cite myself on the same subject. Below is a section I wrote last December for the PDCouncil’s website which addresses the issue, assuming a layman’s audience. Just FYI, trying to make some obvious points…
    “Revive the American Cultural Center
    Since 1969, when USIA was at its zenith, the nature of PD work has changed, in some cases dramatically. Much of the Third World has moved into the First World. International media has grown, sometimes exploded, especially television and information through the ether. We do not need, for example, a contingent of “audio-visual” officers as we had in a struggling post-war world, when moving images were few and media outlets limited. We rightly phased out clusters of cultural centers—like our Amerika-Häuser in Germany—when local institutions could pick up much of the programming slack. Still, the end of the Cold War seemed to create a kind of easy euphoria in policy and Congressional circles with our victory over the “Commies.” This lead to some smug triumphalism and to some quick and easy cutbacks of PD resources overseas and a lack of awareness that “the American model” had hardly been accepted everywhere.
    Though the PD focus on stand-alone cultural entities, such as earlier cultural centers and libraries, had lessened by the 1990s, their very existence has been questioned after the shock of 9/11 and the—perhaps understandable—obsession with the security of our overseas personnel. An overriding bunker mentality has been created that assumes that our diplomats must be physically protected above all. But, if, as argued above, personal contact is so important to effectively communicating with foreign audiences, ways must be found to enhance it.
    The best way to read a person, to see if that person is credible, to see if you two “click,” is to deal with him in person, and while our PD officers can, of course, visit locals in their own settings, there should be an environment, a focus where host nationals interested in us and our life know they can encounter a competent, welcoming American. The opening of additional centers would also allow for a new influx of trained junior and mid-level PD officers who could aspire to more senior information and cultural jobs.
    Most American Cultural Centers used to be social, even political, havens where other peoples could learn and read English, pursue private research on our nation, and interact with U.S. colleagues and experts in sundry fields. They offered a far more comprehensive American “environment” than the recently established “American Corners,” which are pockets of Americana placed in an indigenous library or academic institution, but with no American officer or FSN presence. “Corners” are earnest but pallid shades of our earlier centers created in another bow to our security-minded age.
    True American Centers were, and could be again, structures separate from our Embassy bastions, where the aim is to deal with local people–not to fend them off. They would pointedly be sited in center cities, close to local cultural and educational institutions, the better to reach our audiences in those countries. Of course, protecting our diplomatic entities is important in the newly turbulent 21st century, but there are ways to balance good security with access to the audiences that public diplomacy must address. Such centers would aim to be security conscious, not security dependent. An excellent current example of how they can still function and directly contribute to open, democratic practices is described vividly in a recent New Yorker article (issue of August 21, 2008) by George Packer, who describes in detail how much the very active American Center in Rangoon has edified those Burmese interested a wider world outside the grim environment created by their lamentable military dictatorship.
    Recommendation: Especially in lesser-developed capitals and cities, we should re-establish more full-service American Centers. Current realities would require some practical security elements, of course, but these should not override openness to foreign visitors. We know that new investment in buildings is not deemed prudent by current budgeteers, but some revival of American Centers should be attempted, say, by re-opening one or two in strategic cities within each regional bureau.
    Such centers could, by the way, incorporate libraries again, and that does not mean “Information Resource Centers (IRCs),” the neologism that has taken over that function in our foreign affairs bureaucracy. The premise of such IRCs is that they focus pointedly on Internet reference work and outreach for interested, targeted users rather than old, outmoded libraries with bookshelves in reading rooms. Further, in dicey times, it has been thought IRCs could still service their clients at a remove, without them having to physically come to the institution. They gibed with our society’s new, more earnest labeling of librarianship as “information science.”
    Yet the “IRC” is a nomenclature that much of the world simply does not recognize and which is frankly hard to translate, placing a new layer of obfuscation over an institution that everyone recognizes worldwide: the library.
    Many ex-USIS officers can cite instances of mature academic, literary, and intellectual talents in their host country who got their first taste of American life and lore while musing in a USIS library, a library usually unlike any in their own country, whose very openness reflected the best aspects of the society it stems from. For many, that library was a discovery that lasted a lifetime. Our PD officer complement has long included, and still includes, American Library Specialists, almost all with regional responsibilities. These professionals could better serve their audiences, and our public diplomacy, if they were physically based in a library institution.
    Recommendation: There should be an infusion of new American “libraries,” called by that name, containing all the technological aids that information resource centers already possess, but in addition, existing in a accessible public space to provide crucial interaction of foreigners with knowledgeable PD staffers. They would also allow, especially for students, a chance to truly discover the United States through thoughtful reading in a learning climate that is specifically American.
    Recommendation: Within that increase in human resources mentioned above, consideration should be given to at least doubling the number of Library Specialists over the next five years and installing them, where possible, in American centers and libraries, where they can interact directly with foreign publics.
    Another local cultural institution which has long proven effective for enhancing PD activities is the binational center (BNC). Mostly based in Latin America, these indigenous entities with bi-cultural roots have flourished—some for decades—as purveyors of American culture and life, chiefly through English-teaching classes, libraries, and diverse educational and recreational programming. The latter revenue-generating classes and programs allowed most of these BNCs to be self-financed and not dependent on U.S. dollars.
    Up until the 1980s, American officers, sometimes more than one, acted as directors of such BNCs, achieving a broad and natural connection to local people in several spheres. By the mid-1990s, there were no more U.S. BNC directors, their function having been eliminated as part of that steady cutback of personnel mentioned above. Such positions were, for years, also first on the block when budget reductions were called for.
    Recommendation: Reinitiate assignments of public diplomacy officers into major binational centers in Latin America and experiment with establishing positions for PD staffers in other bi-cultural entities, such as overseas language schools or American-curriculum universities.” (END TEXT)

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