Domini Effect: An Interview with Rachel Mattson

Interviewed by Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz

A student enters a library for a book, and instead finds a three-dimensional, multi-formatted box set with a flash drive, comics, zines, catalog cards and other fun objects. She uploads the flash to find digital images from across the world of artifacts and ruins. Published by Booklyn Artists Alliance, this box set is now collected by colleges across the world, including Harvard, University of Toronto, Yale, and Columbia, to name a few. In the spirit of “The Domino Effect: Chain Reactions/Events,” what led to this publication across the globe was a trip in 2013 (or some would say a war in 1948, but let’s not go that far back). Let’s reflect on the last year.

In 2013, a group of radical librarians and archivists answered a call for participants that led to a journey to Palestine for the purpose of learning from and building potential collaborations with the librarians and archivists within occupied territories. The binding factor for all participants was solidarity with the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions or BDS; the trip was not meant to help participants come to terms with Occupation, but rather to deepen their solidarity work.

Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, non-fiction editor interviews one of the twelve delegates from the Librarians and Archivists with Palestine (LAP) 2013 Delegation. Dr. Rachel Mattson is an historian who began a second career as an Archivist. In 2013, Rachel was in a web-design course for library school, and used the dual affiliation to create the website http://librarianswithpalestine.org/

 

Ozone Park Journal: What was it like, being in the delegation? What were the goals as you saw it?

Rachel Mattson: Well, we wanted to learn about what archivists and librarians in Palestine are doing, and how they connect their work to the project of liberation. We wanted to begin to imagine ways that information workers in the West and in Palestine could learn from each other, and connect through a kind of mutual support.  We also wanted to learn stuff that we couldn’t otherwise learn because of the particular way that the Western media reports on Palestinian issues about what’s happening in the Occupied Territories and in Israel. And we wanted to understand the ways in which librarianship, libraries, and archives all have the potential to intervene in political conversations.

OZJ: And why did you choose to go all the way to Palestine?

RM: I’m Jewish, and I was raised by Zionists in the suburbs of NYC. In my 20s, I started discovering that a lot of what I’d learned about Israel as a child was deeply problematic, factually inaccurate stuff, and I started working on anti-Occupation projects of various kinds. I have continued to do that on and off in the intervening years. But I never visited Israel or the Occupied Territories, and recently I began feeling like there were things I could only learn by going there. Also, I was really interested in learning more about the ways in which Palestinians are thinking about using archives to hold Israel accountable for its crimes and as a way to intervene into the classic tropes of the Zionist narrative.

Incidentally, one thing I came to believe after going on this delegation was that the American and Zionist objections to calling Israel an Apartheid state are really unfounded. During the delegation, we went to Haifa and talked to a group of librarians who detailed the nature of Israel’s separate school and library systems. Did you know that Palestinians and Jews do not go to the same schools inside Israel?  They also don’t go to the same libraries. There are separate systems. And –surprise!– the Jewish schools and the Jewish libraries have better funding than the Palestinian ones.

OZJ: Give me an example of your findings, and why you find that the delegation was so important.

RM: Palestinian information workers are doing all kinds of archival work to recover documents that challenge the traditional Zionist narrative about who was present when, and what kinds of communities and institutions existed in Palestine before 1948. Historical documents can play a really important role in upending traditional Zionist narratives. But to a great extent, the Palestinian Archive has been dispersed and destroyed—in some cases bombed to oblivion or stolen by the Israeli military, and in other cases left behind when people ran away from war. There’s a real collection effort happening now, and our delegation was excited to learn about the way different groups are contributing to this effort.

A totally different challenge faced by Palestinian librarians is: how can we keep serving our communities during moments when the Israeli army invades or otherwise demands that we close our doors to the public? One of the school librarians we met in Haifa, for instance, told us about how the school she works at is using Moodle, an online learning management system (LMS) commonly used in universities in the US. This school is a private parochial school, so it has way better funding than most Palestinian schools– many Palestinian schools can barely afford books or computers. So this example is an outlier. But what’s important about this example lies in the reason the school uses Moodle. I never would have thought of this, but in addition to all the traditional reasons schools use LMSs, school administrators have found that when the army shuts the school down (and there have been many times in the recent past where Israel has forbidden Palestinians to go to school) students who have access to computers can still study, and through Moodle, they can even attend class. This is just one of many examples that illustrate the ways that occupation impacts libraries, archives, and access to information in Palestine.

OZJ: Name some of the general issues for libraries in Palestine.

RM: Issues that librarians in Palestine are dealing with include (this is not an exhaustive list):

Libraries in the Occupied Territories have a hard time getting high quality Arabic-language books. This is in part because one major publishing center in the Arab world is in Lebanon, and Israel considers Lebanon an enemy state, and prohibits direct trade it. Thus, in order for Palestinian librarians to acquire books from publishers in Lebanon, they have to do this whole rigmarole—they have to get them imported through a third or fourth country. But even then, the Israeli army routinely quarantines books destined for libraries in the occupied West Bank. We were told by various librarians that Israel quarantines books for up to a year, all the while charging the library who had ordered them exorbitant storage fees.

As a result, Palestinian libraries have a hard time getting Arabic language books. And inside Israel at least, we were told that a lot of the books that the young people are reading are in Hebrew, or materials translated from Hebrew into Arabic. It’s much harder for them to get really awesome Arabic literature.

 

OZJ: And that’s the Arabic reading that they do get?

RM: Right. I’m speaking quite generally. My point is that there are obstacles to a)getting any books into the Territories (since Israel controls the borders) and then b)there are also obstacles to getting access specifically to high quality literature originally written in Arabic. Which to my mind constitutes a serious violation of human rights—as well as the right to preserve one’s cultural heritage. People should have a right to access and read books written in their native language.

OZJ: What is the urgency for archiving in Palestine?

RM: Palestinian archivists face special issues in the area of access. Palestinians are just an extremely dispersed people. And they face incredible barriers to free travel. Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories can’t travel freely into Israel, and Palestinians living in Israel can’t travel freely into the Occupied Territories. Meanwhile, Palestinians who live in neither location have a very hard time traveling into Israel or the Occupied Territories. So, if an archival collection is just a physical collection, it’s really hard to make it accessible to all Palestinians. Palestinian archivists are using digitization to begin to make materials available to an incredibly dispersed population.

The other thing driving digitization in Palestinian archives is that there’s a real sense that the Israeli army could destroy these materials at any time. This isn’t idle paranoia; archival materials have been destroyed in the past —things have been seized, illegally; or, buildings have been closed, shut down, illegally, unprovoked; or archival collections have been bombed. The kind of catastrophes that are threatening archival materials in Palestine are not those things that endanger US-based archives, like climate change or accidental fire. The Occupation itself endangers Palestinian archives. So, digitization becomes a preservation strategy in the face of that kind of threat.


OZJ:
Now that the Delegation has met, what is the Domino effect? What have you all done already, and what happens now?

RM: We did a bunch of report backs. Some delegates published articles about the trip and related matters. Others presented at conferences and radical bookstores. We’ve just launched a new, information-rich website, and are in the process of developing a larger network of information workers who want to work in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation. (If you want to join, sign up via librarianswithpalestine.org!) In the next several months, we’re also hoping to launch a set of campaigns targeting issues of information access within Palestine. One of our campaigns is going to be library-focused and one of our campaigns is going to be archives-focused.

We’re also creating an alternative methods of reporting-back. We didn’t just want to create a dense text, scholarly document that won’t reach too many people. We’re more interested in speaking to as many different kinds of audiences as possible, using as many different formats as possible. So when we were approached by the folks at the Booklyn Artist Alliance to collaborate with them on creating a fine art box set, we were into it. Over several months, members of the delegation designed a series of posters (many of which Kevin Caplicki hand-printed for us at the Bushwick print-lab), made zines, curated and annotated photographs from our trip, and collected ephemera and objects. These box sets are, at the moment, being sold to libraries and special collections—but anyone can buy them.

 

OZJ: That’s great! Is there anything else that you want to say?

RM: I feel really psyched to be a part of this group. I think it’s a really good time to be doing BDS and Palestinian solidarity work. It feels like we’re in a moment when the conversation around Israel in the US is shifting: large organizations—like the American Studies Association and the Presbyterian Church—have recently passed divestment resolutions.  For me, as a Jewish person, and an American citizen, I feel like my job is to provoke conversations, and figure out new ways to do solidarity work in the US context, and to work in solidarity with Palestinian folks from this place. And I think that there’s a way that talking about the real struggles of Palestinian people to access information changes the conversation a little bit. Because we’re not talking about somebody with a rock or a gun, we’re talking about somebody who wants to read a fucking book.

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