Editor’s Note: This week’s blog post is an excerpt from Jim O’Donnell’s “Back Talk” column in the April 2022 issue of Against the Grain, v 34 #2, pg 73-74.
By Jim O’Donnell, University Librarian, Arizona State University.
Fiesole, the hilltop town overlooking Florence, first claimed the stage of world history when the Roman populist Catiline made it his headquarters. For the library world, the town is famous rather as the home of Casalini Libri, the entrepreneurial bookselling enterprise founded after World War II by the memorable Mario Casalini (d. 1998) and now led with great energy by his children, Barbara and Michele. Among their many accomplishments is the hosting for more than twenty years now of the annual Fiesole Retreats, organized in partnership with the Charleston Company and bringing together thought leaders and rising stars in the world of libraries and publishers to monitor the present and anticipate the future of our collections.
The retreats return to Fiesole itself regularly, but they also explore other venues of hosting on the principle that the conversations can be enriched by choosing different countries and cities to host and nurture ideas. Thus, there was nothing truly remarkable when the 2020 retreat was scheduled to be hosted by the new National Library of Greece in its stunning facility in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, a few yards from the Aegean coast in the traditional port of the city of Athens, whose historic core lies a handful of kilometers inland. NLG Director Filippos Tsimpoglou managed the move four years ago from a stately facility in central Athens to the new location, and has led a radical rethinking of what a national Library can and should be.
Reality intervened. COVID cancelled the 2020 retreat and, as plans kept adjusting, cancelled several rescheduling opportunities in 2021. But the first week of April 2022 finally saw familiar and new faces gathering at the Niarchos Center, joined by a large group of Greek librarians, for three days of remarkable conversation.
Director Tsimpoglou set the keynote, in a wide-ranging and inspirational talk he made vivid by imagining a “Streetcar Named the Future” — the vehicle of innovation. When a general strike took down Athenian public transit on the day of his talk, we could joke about this streetcar being the only one running in Athens. In response to his vision, Martina Bagnoli (Chair, Supervisory Board of Europeana) spoke of a vision the retreatants shared of an “open, knowledgeable, and creative society,” a vision all the more necessary in time of burgeoning war, lingering COVID, and the struggle of everyone from journalists to librarians to find ways to counteract the fake news plagues of our time.
When I review my notes from the presentations and discussions, I find always various things I learned and did not expect. Who knew, for example, that open educational resources (OERs) have not only the power to provide better and more affordable learning materials to traditional students, but also reach as large an audience of what we would traditionally call the middle-aged. We were jolted awake by Nikolas Sarris, a conservator at NLG showing us the power of linked data to make conserving print collections a genuinely collaborative and more effective enterprise than only the traditional handicraft approach of local facilities. Maria Georgopolou (Gennadius Library at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens) gave a riveting tour of the records of the origins of modern tourism — invented in Athens — when in the 17th to 19th centuries, travelers from the wealthy worlds of western Europe found they could travel to impoverished Ottoman Greece — a place well known to them from their classical educations, well stocked with astonishing monuments, and just in a traveler’s reach.
The most dramatic and timely presentation came from Quinn Dombrowsky (Stanford University), one of the leads of the international SUCHO (Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online) project — a project that didn’t exist six weeks before we met, but was galvanized into action by the outbreak of the Russian assault on Ukraine. An international team of dedicated supporters is working around the clock to archive Ukrainian cultural heritage from the web, to avert literal destruction and to make Ukrainian culture better known and accessible worldwide. The interplay between material and digital archive in Museum of the Lay of Igor’s Campaign, a real museum in Novgorod-Siversky in northeastern Ukraine — very much in harm’s way — and a digital representation of the same museum on the web. Now at least the latter is safe. Dombrowsky spoke movingly of SUCHO’s mission of “digital repatriation”: bringing Ukrainian heritage back to Ukraine and out to the wider world at the same time.
You can also read Leah Hinds’ report: Fiesole Retreat 2022 – Tradition Meets Innovation