The Norwegian pioneer project
The Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression (1995 2001)- NFFE -, was the originator of the database project and the web site Beacon for freedom of expression. NFFE was shut down in 2001, and up to 2006 the project was managed by a Norwegian Steering Committee hosted by the Norwegian Library Association. From 2006 the management is in charge of The National Library of Norway and an international board.
NFFE (1995 2001) was established in Spring of 1995 as an independent centre of documentation and information committed to defend freedom of expression world-wide, entirely funded by the founding organisations. NFFE was shut down in 2001.
The following 15 organisations were the initiators of NFFE:
Association of Norwegian Editors, Norwegian Press Council, Norwegian Specialized Press, Norwegian Writers for Children and Juveniles, Norwegian Union of Journalists, The Norwegian Author Union, The Norwegian Association of Literary Translators, The Norwegian Booksellers Organization, The Norwegian Helsinki Committee, The Norwegian Library Association, The Norwegian Non-fiction Writers and Translators Association, The Norwegian Playwright's Association, The Norwegian PEN Centre, The Norwegian Rushdie Defence Committee and The Norwegian Publishers Association, later to be joined by The Norwegian Society of Composers, The Resistance Press Society (W.W.II) and The Association for Public Information in Norway.
International electronic networking a vital strategy
In 1995 NFFE became a member of IFEX International Freedom of Expression eXchange Clearing House, the worlds largest network of independent freedom of expression organisations. On behalf of the member organisations, NFFE in 1996 established the IFEX ALERT INTERNET SERVICE. The service provides free access to the expert documentation on the current state of freedom of expression and censorship world wide, supplied by the IFEX member organisations on all continents.
Visit www.ifex.org for in dept information on IFEX, the member organisations and the state of freedom of expression.
Filling an information gap
In 1997 NFFE conducted a world wide survey with the intention of both mapping available sources on censorship past and present, and sources of indexed books and newspapers not easily accessible to the public. Simultaneously, NFFE wished to determine the need for a bibliographical database documenting the history of censorship and freedom of expression. The survey, limited to queries about censorship on printed material, included Internet, National Libraries, international non-governmental organisations, institutions for research and culture, government bodies and international institutions.
Generally, the historic records on censored or prohibited books and newspapers are held by government bodies or university and national libraries. The survey confirmed that such information in all too many cases still only exists on paper lists or in manual archives. This is indeed the situation in a great number of libraries in countries having emerged from the extensive and strict censorship of the former USSR.
Whereas libraries in most parts of the world are striving to keep pace with the digital information revolution, libraries in poor countries or countries in transition often have to cope with meagre recourses in the face of increasingly high demands to do more. Consequently, undertaking the demanding task of transferring paper archives of forbidden literature to electronically available databases remains a far cry for many. Hence, the query of the NFFE was met with positive response from a great number of libraries. However, the survey also confirmed that the issue of censorship still is sensitive, mainly to national government bodies, but surprisingly also to some libraries.
Much of todays important documentation of the state of freedom of expression and censorship is produced by independent international NGOs. Through the latter part of the 20th century, the number of independent freedom of expression organisations have been steadily growing, most rapidly in countries of the Southern hemisphere. Consequently, the amount of quality reports and documentation have been mounting. The survey confirmed that these invaluable publications are frequently mainly obtainable through the organisations own network, and thus are not easily available to the public through libraries or bookstores.
NFFE concluded that although a huge variety of sources are to be found many freely available on Internet there evidently was a need to compile and make accessible in one database the historic and current records of censored books and newspapers, as well as the publications from independent organisations and international bodies such as the UN. No less important, there was a need to systematically compile bibliographical data on the vast and invaluable amount of literature published through the ages on the subject of freedom of expression and censorship on all continents. The majority of these books have long since gone out of print, but are still obtainable in many world libraries.
NFFE, realising the importance of knowledge of past censorship for todays prevention of censorship, began planning the ambitious database project aimed to fill the information gap. Aware that the new library of Alexandria, designed by the Norwegian architects Snøhetta was to be inaugurated before the turn of the millennium, the project was initially entitled Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Thus honouring the ancient library, and celebrating the coming of the unique world library, dedicated to fostering a spirit of openness and the quest for knowledge, as stated by the UNESCOs International Commission for the Revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria in the Aswan declaration.
UNESCOs Unit for freedom of expression and democracy, represents an important supporter of the Beacon for freedom of expression database project.
The all important network of co-operation
Regarding the establishment of an electronic network of co-operation spanning a variety of professional fields as fundamental to realising the aims of the database project, NFFE in early 1998 invited more than 300 international organisations and institutions, human rights organisations and institutions of research, education and culture to participate in the project. The response was overwhelmingly positive and confirmed that as the project emerged, the network of partners, contacts and sources would be constantly growing.
This initial response also constituted the basis for NFFEs selection of partners for close co-operation as well as the selection of countries and periods of time to be included in the Norwegian pilot project.
In regarding partners, NFFE paid particular attention to libraries, aware that the expert knowledge of the worlds libraries as invaluable to ensure the professional quality of the database. Consequently, co-operation with selected national or university libraries on all continents was established in 1998. Evidently, modern libraries do not subscribe to censorship. But libraries have at certain times and places through history been regarded by governments as important instruments of censorship, hence some libraries today still keep national archives on former censorship, while in some libraries such records are kept as part of the national history.
Also libraries that do not hold information on censorship, such as the British Library and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C, represent invaluable supporters of the project, as well as being the most comprehensive sources of literature on freedom of expression and censorship.