Connecting to POEM: Interview with Jérémy Lachal on Bibliothèques sans Frontières

The Participatory Memory Practices (POEM) project, is a EU-Horizon 2020 transdisciplinary research venture that examines participatory and socially inclusive approaches to memory-making. It takes the perspective of memory institutions (e.g. galleries, libraries, archives and museums), people and groups in different settings, as well as digital media technologies to explore how we can envision socially inclusive future(s) through culture. Jérémy, in your key-note speech during our online POEM Knowledge Hub in September 2020, you talked about the work of BSF. In this short interview we would like to ask you to elaborate on some key aspects of your talk that engage our POEM work.  
  1. To begin with, could you briefly introduce the vision and the mission of BSF? 
Bibliothèques Sans Frontières is an international non-profit that strengthens the capacity of people in vulnerable situations by facilitating access to education, culture, and information. In more than 50 countries, we create innovative cultural and learning spaces that allow those affected by crisis or in situations of structural precariousness to learn, to play, to build communities, and to construct their futures. We develop digital tools, curate resources, and train facilitators, creating access to knowledge for those who need it most.  
  1. As we read on your website, BSF has a long-standing experience in supporting the “creation and implementation of innovative educational and cultural policies for underserved populations in France”. Within the POEM project, we share this aspiration and work with and through memory institutions to advance social cohesion and inclusion through memory and culture. Are there some key-learnings and best practices that you would like to share with other cultural institutions/organizations that align with your mission?
As an organization, we have thrived on giving voice and choice to our local partners, at once in the design, training, and execution of our programs. BSF has learned over the last fourteen years to identify those partners, and to customize and tailor programs and contents to the needs of local communities. These practices are essential when seeking to leverage the library as a space of social cohesion, as well as of memory and culture.  As far as key-learnings are concerned when it comes to designing and implementing cultural programs, I could not insist enough on the importance of putting sufficient time and effort in the needs assessment and initial context analysis phase, because the consequences of being off-target in such programs can be really damaging.  
  1. How do you evaluate the social impact of your project(s) (e.g. Participatory evaluation)?
Our evaluations and assessments depend on the project, but combine both external and independent measurements with our self-reported data. In some cases, we can trace precise outcomes. For example, in the case of our Ideas Box project in Colombia, we were able to measure the impact of these twenty “pop up” and autonomous media centers on the peace-building efforts between the ex-Farc and local communities in the demobilization zones thanks to a Randomized Controlled Test procedure.  
  1. In your keynote speech you presented your new project in Marseilles, Entre Générations. Could you briefly explain how this program was created and what social issues it aims to address in the local community?
  The Between Generations project is a video production project that enables intergenerational dialogue and helps to dismantle stereotyping and prejudice in an underprivileged neighborhood in Marseille. About fifty young men and women interviewed and filmed their elders in trying to imagine the France of tomorrow. Produced under the artistic direction of photographer Jean-Pierre Vallorani, these videos investigate the sense of belonging to a shared history, with a common identity, while living with others. See the videos here: https://www.bibliosansfrontieres.org/2020/02/25/marseille-serie-documentaire-dialogue-intergenerationnel/  
  1. How do you secure the sustainability of your projects in the local communities you work with in the long-run? Could you give us a concrete example (through the project in Marseilles or any other)?
As I said, we work closely with local partners and we strive to “hand off” programs and tools after training facilitators and mediators on site. This sustainability is the result of a long process of planning and development shared with local communities, associations, schools, libraries, or government bodies. For example, after one year in the field with our Ideas Box, we just transferred four kits to our local partners inside and outside the refugee camps in Bangladesh.   
  1. What kind of digital infrastructures are central in BSF’s projects? (e.g. in the case of the ideas box or any other initiatives)?
Our tools are one element in a three-pronged strategy that includes delivering curated resources (over 35,000 items in 27 languages), and building training platforms for community organisations’ staff who are looking forward to leveraging our tools and contents to lead outreach programs on the field. Our digital tools include award-winning technologies like the Ideas Box (the portable multimedia center), the Ideas Cube (an offline server providing Wi-Fi content), Kajou (a library on a micro-SD card), and others. We’ve also translated and adapted Kahn Academy videos in France and Belgium, developed our own Digital Travelers platform of online resources, and trained more than 5000 librarians on the digital platform of the BSF Campus. So digital tools are certainly important to our projects, but so is the curated content that we develop.  
  1. How does your project embrace openness and accessibility of knowledge (e.g. reinvigorating participatory design)?
Access to knowledge and information is a guiding principle of BSF, and we pursue projects that enable accessibility wherever it is needed, from refugee camps in Burundi to rural libraries in Mexico to inner cities throughout the industrialized world. To create this access, to expand the reach and very definition of the library, we work with local partners from conception to execution, and we create the conditions to sustain programs once our partnerships end. Besides, all the technology we develop (software and hardware) is open-license, and so is the content we produce in the framework of our projects.  
  1. Is there anything else you would like to add or communicate to our readership? Maybe a project you are currently working on, or any future opportunities for the BSF and how someone can collaborate with you?
We always welcome inquiries of all kinds. We’re working on exciting projects now including turning laundromats across the United States into learning centers, creating digital libraries in public housing staircases in France, and multiplying our Ideas Box projects around the world. I’m happy to hear from your readers interested in collaborating or volunteering – jeremy.lachal@bibliosansfrontieres.org       The interviewers,  – Angeliki Tzouganatou & Elina Moraitopoulou and the POEM network express their gratitude to Jérémy Lachal for taking the time to answer these questions.

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Concepts, strategies and media infrastructures for envisioning socially inclusive potential futures of European Societies through culture.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764859.