Why ‘Matloub’? A Talk with Librarians and Archivists for Palestine

ArabLit’s editor M Lynx Qualey recently wrote a short piece on “Matloub,” a new library project organized by Librarians and Archivists for Palestine (LAP):

The article came out of a four-way conversation between Lynx Qualey and LAP members Hannah Mermelstein, Melissa Morrone, and Maggie Schreiner.

I understand that the first delegation of 16 librarians happened in the summer of 2013, but I’m not clear on what that came out of. How did this initial group (from a wide geographical area, yes?) know each other in the first place? What did you want to achieve with that initial trip, as librarians/archivists? How did you see the limits of the project then?

Storyteller Mohammed Al-Amoudi with children at a Gaza book exhibition. Photo credit: Tamer Institute.

Librarians and Archivists for Palestine: In the spring of 2012, Hannah had been leading delegations in Palestine for almost a decade, and had been a librarian for a couple years, when fellow librarian Jenna Freedman said to her, “How about a delegation of librarians?” Hannah did a bit of initial research in Palestine that summer, started to make connections, and soon after formed a team of planners–Jenna, Melissa, and Vani in NY, and Mezna in the UK (via Chicago, via Palestine). Within a couple months we had put out an open call for applications and received more than twice as many as we could accept. Some of us knew each other, but many of us did not. We were indeed conscious of geographical diversity as we pulled together a group from the US, Canada, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago, and Palestine.

Our hopes were manifold. We wanted to explore issues of access to information and cultural heritage, some of which are universal, some of which are common to colonial struggles, and some of which are unique to Palestine. We wanted to share ideas and skills with our colleagues in Palestine, offering expertise and learning from theirs. We wanted to enhance the reach of inspiring projects in Palestine and help educate folks where we come from about the challenges some of these projects face. And we wanted to have a unique voice in support of the Palestinian-led movement for boycott against Israeli apartheid.

How was it funded? Just through the Indiegogo? (Also self-funded?) How does the funding work on an ongoing basis?

LAP: We figured out a total estimated costs, asked folks how much they realistically thought they could pay, and tried to fundraise the rest. The goal was generally for people to fund their own flights and for us to raise the needed on-the-ground costs. We raised money through Indiegogo and a couple donations outside of that campaign. As an ongoing project, we have few regular expenses, and don’t fundraise on a regular basis. We have mostly operated by raising funds for specific projects when needed.

Something that Hannah Mermelstein said ahead of the first delegation was, “One thing that I would say is unique about this delegation is that, rather than situating itself only as a politics of ‘witness,’ it takes seriously and centres a politics of common struggle.” So one thing about “witnessing” is that it’s potentially actionless, it stands outside the situation and reports upon it “neutrally” as it were. But another thing is that it’s uni-directional. It is witnessing but not…being witnessed. Does LAP view itself as multi-directional? That is, in a common struggle, there are things to be gained & learned from Palestinian publishers, librarians, archivists (for instance a brilliant organization such as the Tamer Institute)?

LAP: Absolutely. To learn from the creativity and resourcefulness mandated of those living under occupation and colonization has been truly inspiring. In a place like Palestine, that is so used to being witnessed in a uni-directional manner, it is not always easy to establish the kinds of relationships that are truly multi-directional. A shared professional identity definitely helps with that, but we’ve had to work at building trust and ongoing relationships with our partners on the ground, and some of those relationships have been more lasting than others (like with the Tamer Institute!).

The first visit led to a second in 2015 (correct?). Why, with this delegation, the particular interest in Palestinian children’s literature?

LAP: Based on what we found during our first trip, as well as the specialties of participants who were interested in the second trip (there was some overlap with the first trip but also new participants), our 2015 delegation had two streams. Here’s how we described them in a fundraising email at the time:

In early April, we plan to send a smaller group of people on a more in-depth, follow-up working trip consisting of two streams. One stream will focus on exchanging knowledge and resources around such topics as cataloging and classification, library outreach, research databases, and open access publication; in addition, we’ll learn about and determine best practices for academic and research librarians to work in solidarity with the Palestinian campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel and other campaigns relevant to librarians in Palestine. We’ll be working with Birzeit University and the Palestinian Library and Information Consortium (PALICO), among others.

The second stream will focus on access to children’s literature in Arabic, both in the West Bank and inside ‘48 (Israel), and we will meet with the Tamer Institute, the International Board of Books on Youth – Palestinian Section, Palestinian school librarians in Haifa, and more.

Speaking of resource lists, public and school libraries in the US & UK have sometimes struggled to know what sorts of Arabic books to shelve (and sometimes their foreign-lit sections are, in general, a dumping ground of donations.) Of course every library community has different needs, but could the Matloub lists help non-Arabophone librarians looking to start an Arabic section? And even Arabic-language librarians across the region (who — because of apartheid and other reasons — often don’t have access to Palestinian literary expertise)?

LAP: Yes, we think that the Matloub lists could definitely help expose non-Arabophone librarians and other educators to relevant and high-quality Arab-language literature. Of course, this initial phase of Matloub focuses on children’s literature, but we hope to develop subsequent cycles that highlight books for adults as well.

The 2015 report details a lot of obstacles to readers and writers: the difficulties in getting books past Israeli inspectors; pirating; self-censorship; a need for more local kid lit; a need for more local YA; a need for writers & artists to be able to travel to conferences and events; for translation; for more supportive school budgets; for greater academic freedom; and of course, in Gaza, the outright destruction of books & libraries by bombs. How did you decide, from all this, where to focus your energy?

We did do one short-term campaign to bring two Palestinian librarians to the American Library Association conference in June 2016. Some of the other issues seem too large to tackle in a direct way as a small group of people. One of the reasons we love Matloub is that it is a way to raise awareness about many of those issues around access to literature while at the same time responding to a direct need.

How do LAP members meet? In sort of a nitty-gritty way? Can you help me visualize it?

LAP: LAP is a small organization with an international membership, but there is a core group based in Brooklyn, NY. We have attempted many different meeting formats for our dispersed membership, including phone calls and video chats. We have also had several in-person meetings where we have supported LAP members financially to travel to Brooklyn so we can meet in person. Over the years we have found that there is more energy and direction in the organization when at least some of our meetings are in-person.

To develop Matloub we had regular monthly phone calls with all the collaborators, which meant that we had to find meeting times that were reasonable in Brooklyn, Palestine, Sweden and England.

How did Matloub come about? Do you remember what sort of discussions it emerged from? Any specific anecdotes? And why the name matloub?

LAP: The Matoub project emerged from conversations that happened during the 2015 delegation. As we developed the project in the months following, the core concern was to create a project that would provide material support to libraries as an act of solidarity, not charity. Having Palestinian libraries choose titles that they were interested in adding to their collections was a central component of the project’s vision, which is reflected in the name Matoub/Wanted. During our 2013 delegation, we visited libraries where international donors had essentially dumped excess books, such as out of date textbooks. These books were unwanted by the recipient libraries, completely inappropriate for the libraries’ patrons, and took up a lot of physical space. We have attempted to create a structure in Matloub for Palestinian libraries to make specific requests of international donors for meaningful and useful material support.

We also liked the double entendre, present in both the English and Arabic words, of “wanted” in a crime sort of sense. Literature is as much subject to Israeli criminalization and oppression as are the other dimensions of people’s lives, creative and otherwise, and we want this project to make that clear. Matloub isn’t about providing charity to underserved libraries abroad.

How did you choose the libraries you’re working with? Who finds out about their needs? Is it Tamer Institute that stays in touch with them? And they decide what they want, I suppose, as any library does…reading review, looking at awards, taking the temperature of reader interest…

LAP: Tamer Institute is working with the libraries on the ground to identify their needs.

Your website said that, in addition to material support, you’re also hoping to raise awareness about the conditions under which Palestinian libraries operate. What then? I mean, what do you hope awareness transforms? What needs to happen with that awareness?

LAP: We hope that the act of donating through the Matloub site will be a hook which will instigate visitors to the site to learn more about the conditions under which Palestinian libraries operate. The website include some background information framing the issues, and we hope to build this information out over time. We have dreamed of resource lists, web comics tracing the journeys that books can take into the West Bank or Gaza, and even animated videos! However, the reality is that we are a very small group of people with limited funding. It remains to be seen how we scale these dreams to match our reality. Broadly speaking, we have found throughout our work as LAP that discussing libraries, literature, access to information, and archives is a good point of entry to draw new people into conversations about Palestinian self-determination. In additional to supporting libraries in the West Bank and Gaza, we absolutely hope that this project will, in a small way, help build the international movement against the Israeli occupation and support Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

At checkout I saw this notice, “Please note that book titles will be purchased as prioritized by the participating libraries. The title you’ve selected may not be the book purchased with your donation, though all titles will be purchased in turn.” So… after I click Ghady & Rawan on my side, then what happens on your side? The donations build up, the library requests are examined, and someone (at Tamer?) decides what it’s most feasible to purchase? What are the considerations?

LAP: Yes, donations build up, and Tamer coordinates the actual purchase and delivery of the books. The primary consideration is that all libraries receive relatively equal numbers of books, as opposed to receiving books based on what is purchased on the front end. Additionally, as we developed the website with minimal funding, we didn’t fully build-out the backend of the website to allow for tracking similar to an ecommerce site. However, we want to emphasize that all of the titles on Matloub were put together via collaboration among LAP members with subject expertise (in this case, Arabic-language children’s literature), partners in Palestine including Tamer Institute staff, and employees at the participating libraries. So even though there’s not a one-to-one relationship between the book that someone “buys” on the Matloub website and the book that will be sent to a given library, the overall project operates on that essential concept of supplying wanted books to the Palestinian library collections.

For more about Matloub, visit matloub.librarianswithpalestine.org.