Book Review: Christina Lembrecht: Bücher für alle. Die UNESCO und die weltweite Förderung des Buches 1946-1982. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2013 (series: AGB Studien 9).

Published in October 2013. ISBN 978-3-11-030339-1. 608 pp. Available in print and e-book (€99.95 each or €149.95 for a combination of print and e-book).

Review by Corinna Norrick-Rühl, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster


Book cover.

Despite Robert Darnton’s 1994 observation that “[b]y their very nature, books refuse […] to respect national boundaries” (“Book History, the State of Play: An Interview with Robert Darnton”, SHARP News 3 [1994] 3, 2-4, 2), most book history research and almost all of the larger-scale publication projects tend to have a national focus. This deficit was criticized by Sydney Shep in her 2008 contribution “Books without borders: The transnational turn in book history” to Robert Fraser and Mary Hammond’s volume Books Without Borders as well as in her 2010 review essay “Imagining Post-National Book History” (Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 104 [2010] 20). Christina Lembrecht’s meticulously researched monograph about the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and its book promotion policy from 1946 to 1982 stands in contrast to this trend, looking at book promotion from a decidedly international perspective. As Lembrecht argues, the UNESCO is a particularly interesting institution to study, because it has the prerogative to act on educational matters on an international scale – and is supposed to base its decisions on improving the education of the world population. The UNESCO also lends itself well to analysis since it offers continuity regarding its programs and policies, in stark contrast to many other regional, national, or international cultural institutions and activities, which are often short-lived due to lack of funding. In addition, the UNESCO is not primarily a producer or distributor of printed matter. Instead, it is clearly a promotional organization for all forms of cultural production, including printed matter and books.

Besides the extensive introduction (chapter 1) and brief conclusion (chapter 11), the monograph is split into three main parts (books as ambassadors of peace and understanding; books and libraries within the framework of worldwide educational infrastructure; national and regional book trade as a prerequisite for modernization and cultural self-determination). The introduction follows former director of Frankfurt Book Fair Sigfred Taubert’s 1977 maxim that books have the power to “change the world” (qtd. in Lembrecht, 1). To elucidate the widespread influences of books and reading, Lembrecht begins with several interesting examples from around the globe – from a Colombian biblioburro (a mobile library, carried by donkeys) to John F. Kennedy’s support of the U.S. public library system – to illustrate the value that is attributed to books and reading worldwide. The first chapter also offers an overview of previous research, describing the differences between book politics, reading promotion, and book promotion. In addition, Lembrecht names reasons for and strategies of book promotion. Lembrecht also delineates the role of the UNESCO as a global actor in the fields of education and culture. Finally, the chapter comes to an end with a look at Lembrecht’s sources (mainly from the archives of the UNESCO in Paris) and her methodological approach, adding to her observations in chapter 1.1 about the relationship between book promotion research and book studies. This final part (1.5), however, is quite brief, and might have profited from a bit more detail and depth regarding the approach and book promotion as a sub-field of book studies, particularly in respect to the overall length of the book.

Part 1 deals with books as ambassadors of peace and understanding (“Bollwerke des Friedens im Geist der Menschen”: Bücher im Dienst von Frieden und Verständigung). In the introduction to part 1, Lembrecht explains that the UNESCO was based on the idea that the United Nations’ diplomatic endeavors would not suffice to bring peace and safety to the world after 1945. The UNESCO – founded in 1946 – had a complementary mission: to support cooperation in the areas of education, science, and culture. In chapter 2, Lembrecht shows that improving worldwide access to books became an important goal of the UNESCO: “The best way, short of foreign travel, to improve international understanding is by free access to foreign literature […]” (UNESCO, 1952, qtd. by Lembrecht, 61). For example, the UNESCO wanted to guarantee a “free flow of books” (Lembrecht, 62) by re-building library infrastructure in Europe and improving the worldwide library network. Much of this was achieved through donations. The UNESCO also lobbied for the duty free transport of books, and for the reduction of shipping costs. But these measures only improved the availability of books in the original language, thus meaning that the majority of readers could not access the text if they were not capable of reading in a foreign language. Chapter 3 builds upon this challenge, dealing with book content as a stepping stone for a new world order. Through textbook revision activities, for example regarding the content of history textbooks, the UNESCO tried to influence the mindset of teachers and students. Another strategy was the subsidy of translation. “Representative works” of world literature were designated and the UNESCO helped finance the translation of numerous books. Despite acknowledging the long-term benefits of the translation subsidies, Lembrecht also discusses the difficulties and inequities of the translation program.

UNESCO logo.

UNESCO logo.

Part 2 analyzes books and libraries within the framework of worldwide educational infrastructure (“Das Buch ist der Lehrmeister”: Bücher und Bibliotheken als Grundbestandteile weltweiter Bildungsinfrastrukturen). Lembrecht introduces part 2 by explaining that from the beginning the UNESCO’s support of educational infrastructure focused on developing countries. The fight against illiteracy – and for “fundamental education” worldwide – was central to these activities, as Lembrecht shows in chapter 4. For instance, the Centro Regional de Educación Fundamental para América Latina (still known as CREFAL) published easily legible books for neo-literates. The books often contained non-fiction texts, conveying basic information to help neo-literates improve their day-to-day lives, though some publications also reproduced excerpts from biographies or classics such as Don Quixote. Another project Lembrecht presents is the “Reading Material Project” implemented in Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, which included newspapers and magazines for neo-literates. Later, the focus shifted towards supporting the establishment of book-related infrastructure. Chapter 5 deals with the public library system and its significance as a “living force for popular education” (UNESCO, 1949, qtd. in Lembrecht, 191). The UNESCO had published a “Public Library Manifesto” in 1949, highlighting the importance of the public library within democratic structures and for universal access to education. In keeping with the small budget of this branch of the UNESCO, much of the work focused on publishing informational material such as the “UNESCO Public Library Manuals” (17 manuals published between 1949 and 1970). The UNESCO also instated “pilot public libraries”, however, for instance in Delhi (India) in 1951. This library was marketed as a “model for an entire continent” (qtd. in Lembrecht, 206). Lembrecht also discusses some challenges these pilot public libraries were confronted with, such as in Medellín (Colombia) or in Enugu (Eastern Nigeria). In the 1960s, the pilot public library program was replaced by support for library systems within the framework of national educational policies. In chapter 6, Lembrecht briefly considers the shortage of textbooks and reference works in the third world, focusing on a case study of African schoolbooks in the 1960s and 1970s.

The final and most extensive part of the book (part 3), focuses on national and regional book trade as a prerequisite for modernization and cultural self-determination (“Goldener Schlüssel für nationales Wachstum”: Ein einheimischer Buchhandel als Voraussetzung für Modernisierung und kulturelle Selbstbestimmung). In chapter 7, Lembrecht shows how in the 1960s, the UNESCO started viewing books as mass media (due in part to the introduction and success of paperback books in Europe and North America); with this new understanding, “book development” became a major goal. The UNESCO identified a “book gap” (the predecessor to today’s “digital divide”) between Europe/North America and the rest of the world. Books were equated with sustenance in the metaphor “book hunger”, which was applied to third world countries. As a culmination of book development activities in the 1960s, 1972 was pronounced the “International Book Year” (IBY) by the UNESCO and the UN. Chapter 8 offers an extensive case study of book development activities in Latin America, showcasing one of the clear strengths of Lembrecht’s study: on the one hand, she is able to give an overview, but she also makes a significant effort to delve deep into specific case studies, offering readers insights and material that has never been dealt with before. The Latin American case study shows how much potential lies in the archives of the UNESCO for further book policy research. Lembrecht digresses in chapter 9, offering a brief but fascinating glance at the role of books in Cold War cultural policy. Chapter 10 returns to book development, focusing on the decade between 1972 (marked by the IBY) and 1982. Copyright was one of the points on the UNESCO’s agenda for this decade, as not all countries were bound by international copyright law. At the time, another point of debate was the influence of government on the national book trade – governments can take on the role of supporter, large-scale client or publisher, and each of these roles has its advantages and disadvantages for the book industry. For instance, in many countries, governments choose to promote books by granting them a lower VAT rate – or even foregoing VAT on books altogether.

In her brief conclusion (chapter 11) entitled “A Reading Society as a Glimpse of a Better World” (Eine lesende Gesellschaft als Vorschein einer besseren Welt), Lembrecht discusses progress, challenges and failures of the UNESCO’s book-related policy between 1946 and 1982. While the UNESCO initially had relied on book development, the 1980s, as Lembrecht shows, introduced a new focus by turning to reading promotion, for instance with the 1982 “World Congress on Books” scheme “Towards a Reading Society”. Finally, Lembrecht observes that the long-term expectations that the UNESCO (and other national and international stakeholders) connect with book development and reading promotion – namely the improvement of mankind, and a better future for citizens of the world – may seem exaggerated and unrealistic at first glance. Nonetheless, as she argues, these hopes reflect actual political and societal needs, and the projects are grounded in the belief that books and reading are an important element in global educational and cultural policy.

Cover of the 1972 UNESCO Courier commemorating the International Book Year. Full scan available at:

Cover of the 1972 UNESCO Courier commemorating the International Book Year. Full scan available at:

The text is followed by an extensive documentation of Lembrecht’s archival work on the basis of the UNESCO archives, as well as the bibliography. Both the appendix and the bibliography will certainly offer scholars interested in pursuing sub-topics relating to the UNESCO’s book policy a wealth of material and ideas. It is to the author’s credit that the book includes three indices: an index of book trade organizations and publishers, an index of persons, and a subject index. The extremely complex and multi-faceted topics dealt with throughout the book can be handled and referenced more easily as a result.

Overall, the monograph can be considered an important contribution to 20th-century book history. It elegantly intertwines politics, global history, book history, and cultural studies. In addition, the entire study offers insight into the organizational structure and working methods of the UNESCO and will thus be of interest to scholars beyond the realm of book history. Nonetheless, it is a shame to see this monograph, which is clearly relevant to people involved in book policy worldwide, in German – without even offering an English summary or abstract. I can only hope that the author will take the time to publish parts of her research in English so that the results of her study become available beyond the German-speaking world.

Published on June 22, 2014

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