There seems to be no limit to what books can offer readers: providing knowledge, magic and entertainment about the past, the present and the future.
The intercultural libraries of the Association for Books Without Borders Switzerland use them as a tool to further integration. swissinfo.ch met a promoter of such an institution in Lugano on World Book Day on April 23.
The United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organisation, Unesco, says it is not afraid of the challenges of change – e-books and downloadable content – which the old technology of books is facing.
“Unesco’s responsibility is to explore the repercussions of change and make the most of it, while preserving those values and forms of expression that we share and cherish,” Unesco director-general Irina Bokova said in her message for the 2011 World Book Day.
Books are after all a rich heritage for mankind. “We must make their wealth available to the 800 million adults that still do not have reading skills,” she said. “[Books] are the best voices of tolerance. They provide the strongest signs of hope [and] are pillars for free and open societies.”
Crossing language borders
The same ideas were the driving force for an initiative of the Association for Books Without Borders Switzerland.
Back in 1988 a group mainly comprising parents and teachers founded the first intercultural library, Globilivres, in Renens in western Switzerland. This suburb of Lausanne has about 20,000 residents and, what is unique in Switzerland, more than half of them have foreign passports coming from more than 100 countries.
The idea of offering books in all the languages spoken by locals in the region has been making its way over the years. The network now includes more than 20 such institutions across the country. In fact the latest intercultural library opened in the southern city of Lugano in Italian-speaking Switzerland earlier this year.
“There is a real need for such an intercultural library in Lugano, a city with an even higher proportion of foreign residents than in Bellinzona,” said Fredy Conrad, founder and director of the Intercultural library in Italian-speaking Switzerland (BISI).
In Bellinzona, where they launched their project seven years ago, the library with its more than 4,000 volumes in some 30 languages has become a cultural and social centre.
In addition to the books, a variety of activities are available to “broaden the horizon” and provide “mutual benefits”, as Conrad put it.
Foreigners can find books in their own language and appreciate their culture. Swiss users have an opportunity to learn about other languages and cultures and to explore new worlds, according to Conrad.
It is an exchange that also takes place between the four Swiss national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh.
The public success confirms one thing: here the book has certainly lost none of its importance.
“We are not concerned about the rise of the digital culture. It is not a threat but it more like one thing is supplementing the other,” Conrad said.
Dismissing a general perception that pupils no longer enjoy reading books, he is convinced that with the guidance of teachers and parents the young generation takes great pleasure in books.
Financial constraints have forced the library enthusiasts to curb their offer. The political world at the moment is not very open towards granting funds, Conrad said.
The library is run by volunteers, participants in a programme for the unemployed and the proceeds from the sale of second-hand books. The funds the library receives from organisations or institutions barely cover the recurring fixed costs such as rent.
But the volunteers with their commitment, enthusiasm and creative minds have worked wonders against the persistent shortage of funds.
The situation in Lugano is a case in point. The opening hours of the Lugano library with its two staff members have been reduced temporarily due to sickness.
But it takes far more to discourage Conrad, who has a part-time job at a public library in Bellinzona and who dedicates time to the promotion of knowledge and culture.
Without fail he sees the positive aspect of the new challenge in Lugano.
Thanks to Laura Raia, a teacher who spends much of her free time for the intercultural library, there are now also special activities for toddlers on the local premises.
“Interestingly there is no similarly strong support for children that age,” Conrad said.
Instead, Bellinzona is focusing on its close links with Unesco and its worldwide network of libraries. A trademark that carries prestige but also lets the library benefit from international exchanges programmes.
Conrad is preparing a book swap with a school in Romania.
Facts and figures
There are about 500 publishers in Switzerland with an output of around 10,000 books in all four national languages.
Books (excluding newspapers) are the most important sector of the Swiss culture industry and generates annual sales of about SFr2 billion ($2.3 billion).
About 40 million books worth about SFr1 billion are sold in Swiss bookshops every year. Four out of five books are imported.
Some 1,500 books by about 2,500 Swiss authors are published every year.
More than 50 million books are available to the public by more than 5,000 libraries in Switzerland.
Surveys in previous years found that 40% of adults read no books at all.
(Source: Book Lobby Switzerland)end of infobox
World Book Days
The annual event, first celebrated in 1995, takes place on April 23 and is organised by Unesco to promote reading, publishing and copyright.
It is based on a tradition in the Catalonia region of Spain where clients in a bookshop receive a rose on St George’s Day.
Authors Miguel Cervantes, William Shakespeare and Garcilaso de la Vega, a 16th-century Spanish poet, all died on April 23.
It is also the birthday of Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov and Halidor Laxness of Iceland.
The event has been introduced in Switzerland by the Book Lobby group which was set up on April 23, 2004. The group is an umbrella association for libraries, authors, publishers and culture and media promoters.end of infobox
(Adapted from Italian by Urs Geiser), swissinfo.ch