UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary
Sarah Brouillette



Book Hunger

UNESCO HAS, SINCE ITS FOUNDING, amassed considerable statistics about the global book trades. It publishes an annual Index Translationum, listing book translations by language and by subject, and a Statistical Yearbook, monitoring national levels of import and export of books and other media. In addition to collecting statistics, UNESCO has been a key player in defining what to count and how to count it. It was UNESCO that supported the formulation of the first official definition of a book accepted by the publishing industry: a nonperiodical printed publication of at least forty-nine pages, excluding covering matter. The invention of the International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, to ease the international sale and tracking of titles, was facilitated and backed by UNESCO. International copyright law has been debated, established, and reformed at key UNESCO-backed conferences. UNESCO has also often advocated the treatment of books as a unique category of commodity, which should not be subject to regular tariffs, taxes, or postage. And UNESCO has been at the forefront of efforts to measure and address worldwide illiteracy.

A 1965 issue of the UNESCO Courier, the organization’s central newsletter, states that

books permeate the whole of UNESCO’s programme to such an extent that it is difficult to isolate and define them as a separate factor. They are basic to the achievement of almost all of the Organization’s objectives—universal primary education no less than the mutual appreciation of cultural values or the advancement of science and technology.1

This is certainly true. Yet some UNESCO programs have used books more pointedly than others. Here, the Collection of Representative Works can be usefully compared to a second set of programs that emerged in the 1960s, culminating in the designation of 1972 as International Book Year and the attendant publication of an official UNESCO Charter of the Book. The charter, whose ten articles were made available as a poster to be displayed at International Book Year events, advocated views that seemed to UNESCO essential to the task of aiding the global spread of the printed word. These views included, for example: “A sound publishing industry is essential to national development” (article 4) and “Society has a special obligation to establish the conditions in which authors can exercise their creative role” (article 3).2

UNESCO’s book development initiatives emerged alongside the cultural policy directives discussed in the last chapter, reflecting a new two-thirds majority within UNESCO made up of the recently decolonized and anti-colonial nations. Aimed at feeding what was dubbed “book hunger,” these initiatives soon informed UNESCO’s more controversial support for an emerging New World Information and Communications Order, which complemented an even more encompassing New International Economic Order debated at the United Nations. For UNESCO at this time, books were essentially one of several mass media within an unevenly developed global communications environment. Many working within UNESCO, or in concert with it, saw this as an environment suited to a handful of wealthy, powerful, content-producing nations and argued that its imbalances could only be righted through significant cooperative intervention on the part of international organizations and national governments.

The research backed by UNESCO, which informed the organization’s policy statements and programs, tended to conceive of the book in highly political and embattled terms. Books were positioned as agents of cultural and economic development. By suggesting that the book industries could only be properly understood in relation to such a contested process as “progress,” UNESCO made the book industries themselves the subject of intense scrutiny and debate. The majority of those who participated in this debate used their knowledge about how culture is produced, traded, and consumed as the basis for recommendations about how local and global governments might work to mitigate imbalances in capitalist cultural markets. They invested in research so that it could inform policy making and wanted policy itself to be reformist, forceful, and effective.

In devising its policies and activities, UNESCO became, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, the premiere sponsor, facilitator, and consolidator of research on the book trades, conducting avant la lettre what soon emerged as the self-conscious practice of book history and working with scholars who have since been embraced as important influences on that field, such as Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, coauthors of L’Apparition du livre (1957). The largest portion of the research that UNESCO supported was about books in the developing world. Philip Altbach’s studies of scholarly publishing in the developing world, some of them backed by UNESCO, explored in great detail what he skewered as the Western bias of the international scholarly community.3 It is perhaps this same bias that placed research like his own on the outskirts of the field, preventing studies of the book in the developing world from actively shaping the early book history canon. Otherwise, why would a discipline concerned with the social, cultural, and economic forces that impinge upon the production and consumption of books have ignored UNESCO’s rich and various activities addressing the barriers to the rise of indigenous book industries in the developing world?

Consider the “communications circuit” at the heart of what book historians take as a founding document, Robert Darnton’s 1982 article, “What Is the History of Books?” Darnton’s suggested circuit is derived from his research on Enlightenment-era France, but he writes that with “minor adjustments, it should apply to all periods in the history of the printed book” and argues that book history’s “disparate segments can be brought together within a single conceptual scheme.”4 Darnton’s circuit (fig. 1) became the foundational model within the field, informing much of the subsequent scholarship charting the interaction among those deemed to be the circuit’s key players, namely authors, publishers, printers, shippers, booksellers, and readers. While Darnton’s model is no doubt in some respects a welcome invitation to begin to think about books as material objects that circulate within particular economies, some features of the model made it highly inimical to research on the book in the developing world, and it is also limited as a starting point for any study of the book that seeks an informed place from which to intervene in debates about the iniquitous distribution of cultural and economic resources. The circuit is presented as a neutral depiction of a feedback loop that “transmits messages, transforming them en route, as they pass from thought to writing to printed characters and back to thought again.”5 The visual representation of Darnton’s communications circuit seems to ask us to conceive its very center as the “Economic and Social Conjuncture.” Yet we see in the absence of any arrows pointing from that conjuncture outward—with arrows signifying effective relationships—the conjuncture’s lack of determinative, consequential force. It is less a center than a background, in fact, a background that can or cannot be factored into one’s analysis.

Indeed, the article that elucidates how the circuit should be understood relegates to its margins the question of how the circuit’s entire functioning relates “with other systems, economic, social, political, and cultural, in the surrounding environment.”6 These “other systems” are not the object of study, analysis, or intervention, in other words. It is rather the circuit itself, connecting the primary actors within the book industries, that is central. Any other features, “economic, social, political, and cultural,” are simply the possible context in which the circuit functions, and no particular “system”—no “Economic and Social Conjuncture”—is presented as crucially impinging upon the free agency of the actors who make up the circuit.

Darnton’s article also importantly conceives the book trade as a network that has “evolved” toward an ideal symbiosis, in which productive capacities exist to supply the needs of readers who in turn inform what comes to be produced subsequently. The questions that Darnton asks book historians to try to answer suggest the communications circuit’s ineluctable “evolution” toward its free functioning as a commercial book trade that meets readers’ needs without the menacing interventions of particular individuals or government officials.7 “At what point did writers free themselves from the patronage of wealthy noblemen and the state in order to live by their pens?” he asks; and what characterizes “the evolution of the publisher as a distinct feature”?8 Here Darnton presents the book trade in the wealthy Western countries as a highly developed, perfected model, a model in which individual agents freely participate in a market unconstrained by anything other than consumer desire and commercial ingenuity. Despite claiming that book history must necessarily be “international in scope,”9 the model ignores how the book trade functions outside Europe, while presenting what exists in Europe as the result of centuries of progress toward an ideal order of free-market exchange in which commercial interests work to produce and disseminate enlightened ideas to willing readers.

Figure 1. The communications circuit. From Robert Darnton, “What Is the History of Books?” Daedalus 111, no. 3 (Summer 1982): 65–83, figure on 68. © 1982 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Reprinted with permission from MIT Press Journals.

The studies of the book trades that UNESCO backed have quite a different inflection. They tend to highlight the constitutive roles played by international organizations like UNESCO itself; state-based agencies like the British Council, the Ford Foundation, and the French Ministry of Culture; trade organizations like the International Publishers Association; and aid agencies like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Soviet State Committee for Foreign Economic Relations, both of which had major competing book donation schemes in place throughout the Cold War period. We have already seen that even the World Bank was involved, as it began by the 1970s to advance perspectives on education, literacy, and development that shaped the kind of aid that the book industries in the developing world would receive. Meanwhile, local book trade representatives appeared before UNESCO because they sought exemptions from international copyright agreements, exemptions that would allow them to publish foreign works in less expensive editions, just as the United States had done when it for many years studiously avoided adhering to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and thereby built its publishing infrastructure via piracy.10 If we were to turn all of this thinking about the book and underdevelopment into a Darnton-style model, it would feature not a perfected system of free exchange but rather a complex network of private-sector interests, propped up by state policies supporting the dominance of some and the marginalization of others. Less a circuit, then, than a fortress. Less the free movement of individual agents through a network of voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange, and more a situation where the flourishing of some entails the domination and exclusion of others, with the terms of inclusion being dictated by the hegemonic powers.

Darnton glosses his communications circuit with a definition of book history as “the social and cultural history of communication by print,” and writes that “its purpose is to understand how ideas were transmitted through print and how exposure to the printed word affected the thought and behavior of mankind during the last five hundred years.”11 Book history is, for Darnton, concerned with understanding how things have happened in the past, but not with any intent to turn that knowledge into informed policy making. This delimitation of scholarly inquiry to a noninterventionist role, combined with an absence of any reference to how hegemonic power blocs and local and international governments, along with nongovernmental organizations and institutions, shape cultural and economic development, means that Darnton’s communications circuit even further affirms the ideal of an unregulated market-based economy. This exact ideal, of an economy made up of autonomous agents unhindered by any influence aside from the market’s own logic, is what representatives of the more powerful nations pitted against what the UNESCO Secretariat and the majority of member nations at the time were envisioning. It was one of their sticks. And of course, an emphasis on the ideal of individuals acting without any determination or constraint, voluntarily interacting to advance their own interests in a progressive and propitious circuit, went on to become one of the central affirmations of the neoliberal governance strategies that would begin their global ascent in the early 1980s and become dominant at UNESCO starting in the latter half of that decade.


1. Behrstock, “UNESCO and the World of Books,” 21.

2. UNESCO, “Charter of the Book.”

3. Altbach’s publishing record in this area is extensive. Relevant research includes “The Dilemma of Success: Universities in Advanced Developing Countries”; “Key Issues of Textbook Provision in the Third World”; “Servitude of the Mind? Education, Dependency and Neocolonialism”; “Third World Publishers and the International Knowledge System”; and “The University as Center and Periphery.”

4. Darnton, “What Is the History of Books?” 67, 75.

5. Ibid., 67.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., 78.

8. Ibid., 76.

9. Ibid., 81.

10. On UNESCO’s copyright reform advocacy, addressed further in chapter 6, see also Altbach, “Literary Colonialism,” 226–36; Barker and Escarpit, “Copyright,” 94–98; Ravelonanosy, “New Copyright Revision,” 32; and Wirtén, Cosmopolitan Copyright, 49–67.

11. Darnton, “What Is the History of Books?” 65.