In the Search for Renaissance Men

by Bramantyo Indirawan

Renaissance, derived from the French word that means ‘rebirth’, was an age of ideas and culture taking place in Europe between the 14th and 17th century. According to Renaissance and Reformation (2007), it was an age of artistic splendor, a turmoil on humanism and religion, the birth of new knowledges and paradigms, and an age of war that forge modernity.

This age became a bridge between the middle ages and the enlightenment. From the decay left out by the collapse of Roman Empire since 5th century, a process through hardship in Europe called Renaissance eventually advances into the age of enlightenment in 18th century, illuminating the dark ages with science, culture, and even politics—paving the way for the modern world.

When the west was going through its “dark” time, the east, or Islam in particular, were enjoying its golden age (8th-13 century) where education and culture were flourishing. In the Iberian peninsula intellectuals gathered to learn and understand more about the world. This spirit was aligned with the renaissance concept and we can argue that the golden age of Islam had inspired it. According to Sacred Bridge Foundation (SBF), both ages has the triangulation of arts, spirituality, and science—united and achieved greatness.

Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba (Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral); one of the inter-faith manifestations from Islamic Caliphate period in Cordoba, Spain. | Source: Sacred Bridge Foundation

The term ‘renaissance man’ is founded on the basis of an age where great minds challenge the world they live in. It simply indicate a person that has many abilities or at the very least embrace every knowledge and try to develop greatness in multiple areas. Astronomy, architecture, arts, philosophy, and geometry can be seen as the core knowledge that make someone a renaissance man. wrote that it was Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) from Italy who coined the term. Uomo universale, universal man, or renaissance man means that “a man can do all things if he will,” said Alberti, asserting that man as the center of universe must push their capability to the fullest.

Leon Battista Alberti (left), Leonardo da Vinci (right) | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci  is the perfect example of a renaissance man. Born on 15 April 1452, Da Vinci was a polymath who painted The Last Supper and Monalisa, tackled anatomy by creating the Vitruvian Man, and dwell on other areas such as mathematics, engineering, and astronomy. Throughout this period, there are others who has this multiple expertise, such as Michelangelo Buonarroti who was an architect, a sculptor, painter, and writer, Galileo who put interest in multiple areas such as astronomy, mathematics, physics and philosophy, Alberti was an architect, artist, and priest. From the east we have Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar from Mughal empire outside of Europe whom can be easily considered as a renaissance man from having so many expertise: an architect, an artist, a carpenter, and a writer.

Before the term exist, renaissance men have been around the world for long time. A polymath like Aristotle (384–322 BC) was an expert in many subject areas such as physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, and art. In the east there are Imhotep (2650–2600 BC) from Egypt and Zhang Heng  (AD 78–139) from China who are both considered as personas with multiple abilities.

Head statue of Imhotep (left), A stamp of Zhang Heng issued by China Post in 1955 (right) | Source: and Wikimedia Commons

When age of enlightenment finally arrived, great minds still challenged and made breakthroughs that eventually shaped the future—our present. Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin are primary examples of renaissance men or polymaths in this era.

Take Albert Einstein for example, can the scientist be called as a modern renaissance man? | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Flash forward to the modern world, do we still have renaissance men who learn multiple knowledges? Having values such as those polymaths of the past by being persistent, critical, and keep on challenging all that goes around them for the betterment and further advancement of the world.

If the notion that people master only one subject to fully understand and be the best in that area, then we are ignoring the fact that all subjects are interrelated. Once one masters a subject, he or she will see that it is connected to other areas of knowledge. We must be willing to explore it, just like a renaissance man would.

Another problem arises when people try to do a lot of things without  bothering to understand the basic principles. For instance, a self-proclaimed painter who can sculpt and write doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is a renaissance man. The same goes for other subjects such as physics and architecture.

Renaissance was about process, being great at multiple subjects seems the very least. The modern men must thrive throughout their own time, pushing boundaries and their own limit to create or try hard at creating something more advance—making a betterment for the people and the world.

The question is, does modern renaissance man exist? Do we really need to understand about the world we live in today as a renaissance man would do? Share your thoughts about who you would consider as modern renaissance men in the comment page below.



Animal “Rights” or Human Obligation

by Pradiva Sawarno

Animal “rights” has been a debatable issue for decades. It covers wide areas of animal-human relationship: hunting, animal experimentation, over-fishing, humane slaughtering, factory farming, pets, to animals used for entertainment. Last year, the issue extended into the art world in an incident where The Guggenheim Museum was urged to pull down artworks that allegedly violated animal rights. Artists argued if Guggenheim should conform to the demand or keep the artworks in display. Guggenheim eventually did pull the artworks down due to pressure and threats of violence toward its staff, visitors, and participating artists.

Along with these arguments, one question comes to mind; what exactly is animal “rights”? To start with, the rights of animals should not include domesticated animals (including pets).  To set the groundwork for this discussion, one must think of the whole ecosystem because this is what actually at stake when humans do not contribute to the well-being of (wild) animals.

But, is there such a thing as (wild) animal rights? Do animals have (or demand) rights, as humans do?


While the concern of animal suffering is not a new idea – many ancient religious scriptures observe vegetarian diet for ethical reasons – animal rights activism in the West have only started in early 19th century. In the modern world, the movement gained traction in 1975 when philosopher Peter Singer published a book titled ‘Animal Liberation’. Singer popularizes the term “speciesism” as comparable to racism or sexism; where it questions why can’t other species have rights just because they’re members of different species? It became the starting point of animal rights activism in the 20th century, paving ways for the establishment of Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Farm Animal Reform Movement, and so on.

One clear point here is that there is no such thing as animal “rights”; what must stand is human obligation. Humans have to do the work to defend animals. Even without the existence of animal rights, there are no justifications for humans to inflict pain on animals. Equipped with a more developed brain, humans have the capacity for critical thinking to establish their own rights. Animals on the other hand, live by the laws of nature. But with a more evolved brain, somehow almost all people have developed a sense of superiority or supremacy over other species, that human is special. When in fact, humans are merely a small part of nature that must, in the words of Sacred Bridge Foundation, co-habitate with other living beings (including vegetation).

Why don’t vegetation have “rights” while animals do?

Once equipped with the confidence in superiority over Earth, humans have continuously disturbed the nature’s order while the ecosystem should not have been interfered in the first place. One example of human intervention in nature is domestication. Its sole purpose is to fulfill human basic need efficiently through the available technology, with a secondary (or tertiary even) hope that it would prevent further abuse of wild life. The quantity has gone massive and required an enormous land area as the technology advances. When it started thousands of years ago, domestication already began to strip wild animals of their natural instincts and put them at the mercy of humans, animals’ new “pack leader”. Meanwhile, humans feel that they have given the animals shelter and protection. It was said earlier that the groundwork to discuss animal rights should not include pets and domesticated animals.

Why? Well, it shouldn’t even be questioned whether pets and livestock animals deserve better, because their “right” as (wild) animals have already been violated when they were domesticated thousands of years ago. So, by default, they should be treated well for their sacrifice.

Wildlife is a Part of Ecosystem

Having intentionally disrupted the ecosystem, everything humans do to nature has its consequences. This is where the Butterfly Effect – the term that was coined by Edward Norton Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist – takes place. It was first used as a concept for meteorology, where it is impossible to accurately predict a large system such as weather because there are too many unknown variables to account for. The name itself comes from the suggestion that the subtle flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one place could affect the weather condition somewhere in a different place. However, this concept applies beyond weather. This describes how the smallest change even only a fraction to a condition can affect large and complex systems.

People living in big cities might not feel that they’re directly impacted by the change in environment due to their ignorance toward nature. Most people, particularly those who live in urban areas, do not even seem to care so long as they can carry on with their daily lives. There are many things that serve as evidences indicating environmental changes of their surroundings. Extreme weather, intensify wildfires, heavy rain, and flood are a few examples that often cost lives. On the other side, indigenous people living in the wild are most likely to be affected by the changes. People living in the forest depend on sounds and conditions of their surroundings for cues to go about their daily lives. They listen to sounds ranging from insects to bigger predators for their survival; to hunt for food, to read animal behaviors looking for changes in the seasons, and to avoid being preyed upon. Because in the wild, the hunter can become the hunted. While Indigenous people rely on the nature to live, people in big cities may not even  aware of or care when a bulbul greets them every morning outside the window.

Another impact of nature exploitation is excess waste. In a pure ecosystem, nothing is wasted. Everything produced by plants or animals will eventually return to nature. Plants are consumed by omnivores, smaller animals are eaten by predators, carcasses are eaten by scavengers, even droppings are consumed and serve as fertilizers, and the cycle goes on. With excess waste piling up in the environment, nature is left helpless, creating various complications that eventually affect many traditions forged long before mankind began to try to ‘modify’ nature.

One example of inter-dependency of human and animals when it comes to zero waste is the relationship between vultures and the Parsi community in Mumbai, India. This community traditionally exposed the deceased to the vultures in the Dakhmas or ‘Towers of Silence’. It follows a 3,000 year old tradition from the Zoroastrianism of disposing of the dead by exposing it to scavenger birds. However, approximately 97-99 percent vultures have disappeared in the last few decades. Today, the Parsis are desperate to figure out how to continue their 3,000-year old ritual and respectfully take care of their dearly departed in a world with no vultures.

Just like the Parsis, many traditions have a long history of relationship with animals as part of their rituals and sacredness – either wild or domesticated ones.

From Butterfly Effect to excessive waste mentioned above indicate that wild animals existence are very much impact our life.

“Who” is the Animal?

Nature has its way of “responding” to things. Anything that happens within the order of nature will be ‘recycled’ in its own way to sustain its sound ecosystem; anything outside of the order will not be recognized. Today’s climate change is one of the ways the nature responds to unnatural and imposing changes. Like it or not, we are caught in the process because we are the ones making this disturbing change. Humans have created such massive disturbance toward nature’s order, and this is nature’s way of reacting. Inhabitants of the Earth are intrinsic parts of the order of nature, so it must be in compliance with the ultimate common system in which all parts “created” and maintained over millions of years. In this system, no single part functions as the commander in chief as in the military. So, what will happen if we keep dictating nature even after knowing that no single part can ever be the ”pack leader” in the system?

When we talk about wild animals as a part of nature, human’s emotion doesn’t need to play its part, but logic does. Without them, we die – plain and simple. It is our obligation to sustain everything operates within the order. “Animal Rights” on the other hand is just a label (slogan), because it’s impossible for them to fight for their rights. The terms “rights” are human invention only for humanity. Why? Because for us, life matters. And if life matters, do we really think our species would survive on our own? And if we cannot respond to this question, is it still relevant to call our species “Homo Sapiens”?



Stephen Hawking: Returning to the Universe he called Home

[Jakarta, LTTW] Recently the world lost one of the most beloved men of science who constantly questions the universe. Stephen William Hawking passed away at the age of 76 in Cambridge, United Kingdom. The cosmologist was known for his work on black hole, furthering general relativity, and quantum gravity.

Perhaps one of his biggest contributions to mankind is how he successfully reintroduces natural and formal science to the “ignorant majority”—making black hole and big bang as parts of the popular culture. In 1988, A Brief History of Time was published to the world and placed itself as one of the bestselling book of all time. In the book that stood for 237 weeks on Times of London bestseller list, Stephen Hawking explains numerous concepts such as universe, space and time, black holes, and even time travel.

Hawking concludes in the 256-page book; that by principle everyone including philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people can be able to take part in the discussion of why we and the universe exist. He was indeed an author; tackling universe, inviting us to question and answer it together. An “artist” who shows us the wonders of physics and what it can bring to the world.

One of the best minds of our time, Hawking had an exceptional ability to visualize complex concepts and ideas of physics into his head and simplify it. As a scientist he held the honorary Fellow of Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the U.S.A, and was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematic (a position widely known to scientists as the Newton’s Chair, supposedly the most prestigious “chair” in the science world) at the University of Cambridge. He also had several other publications, with The Grand Design (2010) as one of his last books he co-authored.

Behind the brain there is the persona of a man. Sitting on a wheelchair with his head slightly tilted, he spoke with a speech-generating device to verbalize everything in his mind and answers any questions. A Briton who had to suffer amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) from 1963 at the age 21 that progressively paralyze him. The doctor even predicted that Hawking would only have two years to live since the diagnosis, but as we all know, he had lived and contributed for decades before finally passed away. The iconic scientist was also known as a loving family man with a penchant for humor. He once said that it would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love. Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert, and Tim remembered him as a man with inspiring brilliance and sense of humor .

Some others will also recall him from his humor, which he also acknowledged. “I have developed a desire to make the most of each an every minute. Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival. As has been maintaining a sense of humor,” said Hawking in the documentary Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Mine. Becoming one with popular culture, Hawking also arrange a time traveller’s party, transformed into a cartoon on the popular television show The Simpson, and even played poker with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The man who was born on Galileo’s death and died on Einstein’s birthday was all that he can be; a cosmologist, theoretical physicist, an author, a family man, a husband, a dad, a grandfather, a brother, a teacher, a student, a curios and critical character, a persistent person, and a humorous man who try to make sense of the universe. Farewell Professor Hawking, we wish you a thrilling journey into the eternal that perhaps would lead you to countless amazing discoveries.



The Writing on the Wall

Did humans speak through cave art? New paper links ancient drawings and language’s origins.

Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

When and where did humans develop language? To find out, look deep inside caves, suggests an MIT professor.

More precisely, some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa.

A key to this idea is that cave art is often located in acoustic “hot spots,” where sound echoes strongly, as some scholars have observed. Those drawings are located in deeper, harder-to-access parts of caves, indicating that acoustics was a principal reason for the placement of drawings within caves. The drawings, in turn, may represent the sounds that early humans generated in those spots.

In the new paper, this convergence of sound and drawing is what the authors call a “cross-modality information transfer,” a convergence of auditory information and visual art that, the authors write, “allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking.” The combination of sounds and images is one of the things that characterizes human language today, along with its symbolic aspect and its ability to generate infinite new sentences.

“Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing,” says Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. “You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual.”

Cave artists were thus not just early-day Monets, drawing impressions of the outdoors at their leisure. Rather, they may have been engaged in a process of communication.

“I think it’s very clear that these artists were talking to one another,” Miyagawa says. “It’s a communal effort.”

The paper, “Cross-modality information transfer: A hypothesis about the relationship among prehistoric cave paintings, symbolic thinking, and the emergence of language,” is being published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The authors are Miyagawa; Cora Lesure, a PhD student in MIT’s Department of Linguistics; and Vitor A. Nobrega, a PhD student in linguistics at the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil.

Re-enactments and rituals?

The advent of language in human history is unclear. Our species is estimated to be about 200,000 years old. Human language is often considered to be at least 100,000 years old.

“It’s very difficult to try to understand how human language itself appeared in evolution,” Miyagawa says, noting that “we don’t know 99.9999 percent of what was going on back then.” However, he adds, “There’s this idea that language doesn’t fossilize, and it’s true, but maybe in these artifacts [cave drawings], we can see some of the beginnings of homo sapiens as symbolic beings.”

While the world’s best-known cave art exists in France and Spain, examples of it abound throughout the world. One form of cave art suggestive of symbolic thinking — geometric engravings on pieces of ochre, from the Blombos Cave in southern Africa — has been estimated to be at least 70,000 years old. Such symbolic art indicates a cognitive capacity that humans took with them to the rest of the world.

“Cave art is everywhere,” Miyagawa says. “Every major continent inhabited by homo sapiens has cave art. … You find it in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, everywhere, just like human language.” In recent years, for instance, scholars have catalogued Indonesian cave art they believe to be roughly 40,000 years old, older than the best-known examples of European cave art.

But what exactly was going on in caves where people made noise and rendered things on walls? Some scholars have suggested that acoustic “hot spots” in caves were used to make noises that replicate hoofbeats, for instance; some 90 percent of cave drawings involve hoofed animals. These drawings could represent stories or the accumulation of knowledge, or they could have been part of rituals.

In any of these scenarios, Miyagawa suggests, cave art displays properties of language in that “you have action, objects, and modification.” This parallels some of the universal features of human language — verbs, nouns, and adjectives — and Miyagawa suggests that “acoustically based cave art must have had a hand in forming our cognitive symbolic mind.”

Future research: More decoding needed

To be sure, the ideas proposed by Miyagawa, Lesure, and Nobrega merely outline a working hypothesis, which is intended to spur additional thinking about language’s origins and point toward new research questions.

Regarding the cave art itself, that could mean further scrutiny of the syntax of the visual representations, as it were. “We’ve got to look at the content” more thoroughly, says Miyagawa. In his view, as a linguist who has looked at images of the famous Lascaux cave art from France, “you see a lot of language in it.” But it remains an open question how much a re-interpretation of cave art images would yield in linguistics terms.

The long-term timeline of cave art is also subject to re-evaluation on the basis of any future discoveries. If cave art is implicated in the development of human language, finding and properly dating the oldest known such drawings would help us place the orgins of language in human history — which may have happened fairly early on in our development.

“What we need is for someone to go and find in Africa cave art that is 120,000 years old,” Miyagawa quips.

At a minimum, a further consideration of cave art as part of our cognitive development may reduce our tendency to regard art in terms of our own experience, in which it probably plays a more strictly decorative role for more people.

“If this is on the right track, it’s quite possible that … cross-modality transfer helped develop a symbolic mind,” Miyagawa says. In that case, he adds, “art is not just something that is marginal to our culture, but central to the formation of our cognitive abilities.”

Reprinted with permission of MIT News

Building Reading Culture in Indonesia

An Interview with  M. Syarif Bando, the Head of National Library.

by Bintang Perkasa

Indonesia inaugurated the new building of the National Library, on September 2017 in Jakarta.

Now that we started a new year, the new building symbolizes a new leaf for Indonesia – not only does it serve as the source of information and knowledge, but also as an institution that hopefully would bring back reading habit to our culture because, without it, libraries will render useless.

The new building of National Library of Indonesia.

Indonesia’s reading culture has been a debatable topic. The debate revolves around whether  Indonesia has a low rate of reading culture. According to NOP World Culture Score (2005), Indonesia scores higher in time spent for reading compared to innovative countries such as US and Japan. However, The World’s Most Literate Nations (2016) by J.W. Miller puts Indonesia in number 60 out of 61 countries in terms of literacy.

Reading is defined as the ability to obtain and process information and turn it into a body of knowledge. It takes a good writing skill to turn the raw information into a well-grounded, well-structured body of knowledge. It means, reading and writing skills are two inseparable parts in the realm of reading culture.

Historical evidence hardly shows indications that Indonesia has possessed reading culture. Ancient inscriptions found across Indonesia were mainly created for religious purposes instead of as a means to record knowledge. From those inscriptions, it is safe to say that Indonesian ancestors were indeed aware of the importance of keeping information, but they did not have the curiosity and skills needed to develop the information into a body of science. Perhaps our ancestors had a great deal of knowledge, but since the knowledge is passed down to the next generation orally, then the chance to survive is very slim. Some of them might have already disappeared before we even know it. To this day, oral culture in Indonesia is still dominant. If it did not change, would libraries be still relevant?

Library is Science-based

Library is the manifestation of reading culture. It was invented as part of knowledge institution to collect, store, and manage information and various sciences. Reading culture itself stemmed from people’s desire to satisfy their curiosity, and consequently, created criticism.

Criticism is a form of thinking process in which questions breed questions, and answers breed new questions. Criticism is the core of science. Hence, as a friend once said, science would never reach an end. Science exists so that mankind can understand and solve the mystery in their environment. In the past, only the ones with “magic power” are deemed to understand volcanic activities. But, since the birth of volcanology, ordinary people have a chance to learn about (at least the basic of) volcanoes. The same goes with other sciences.

The birth of science and printing technology have led to dramatic increase in the production of notes, records, and reading materials. This is where library plays its part: as the media where information and knowledge are stored, where people can retrieve them and develop science.

If reading culture in Indonesia were not growing, libraries might become irrelevant, especially since Indonesians have a tendency to abandon the things that they are unaware of the importance.

To encourage reading culture, we first must entice people to become curious and motivate them to be critical. It should not stop at campaigns. There must be a concerted effort that involves different parts of society: families, government, public, and cyber world. The National Library cannot take this burden alone.

If you are curious to know what challenges faced by Indonesia’s National Library, the following interview may give you a little insight.

LttW: Is the National Library under the supervision of Ministry of Education and Culture or the President?

M. Syarif Bando: The National Library is a non-ministerial institution, operating under direct supervision of the President. So, the Head of the Library is appointed by and directly report to the President. With that said, since our duties are closely related to education, we coordinate with the Ministry of Education for daily works.

But, we shouldn’t be preoccupied with coordination matter. Our main concern is to implement the mandate of the state, which is to combat ignorance and poverty in this country.

What challenges have the National Library been facing?

The main challenge is quantity. Indonesia needs around 125,000 librarians, but currently we only have 3,000 of them.

Secondly is finance. Our budget is not more than Rp700 billion [equivalent to U$51 million. Ed]. For the whole country, it is minuscule, especially when we are talking about more than 200,000 libraries.

“We have yet to make books our heroes, whereas we need to read a lot to have vast knowledge”

Third, is culture. We have yet to make books our heroes, whereas we need to read a lot to have vast knowledge. Without reading, we can’t expand our knowledge. We can’t change people with physical efforts. People have to change on their own by changing their mindset. This is where books play a role.

Books are like a strong doctrine that would drive people to change. Our brains are influenced by books. Human brains are structured based on books, arranged by certain methodology. So, if people read more then human brain will be structured either in deductive-to-inductive or inductive-to-deductive manner.

As we know, Indonesia’s education curriculum does not support reading culture. Have there been any efforts to improve our reading culture?

I wouldn’t go into the curriculum; there’s a ministry responsible for it. I’d rather explain the position of libraries and education in this stance.

Education is an institution that ensures one’s learning process, from learning to read to learn about a particular subject, in a certain structure. Since we have a fixed structure, students don’t get to freely choose to learn what they desire at anytime they want. When the teacher is teaching physics, for example, students in the classroom cannot just  suddenly switch to learning math.

On the other hand, the library is a free space. We can learn anything that we deem important or what we want. Libraries become the stronghold of the most fundamental part of democracy, fulfilling the basic rights of the people, and libraries do not recognize any discrimination of ethnicity, race, and religion.

Various reading areas inside National Library of Indonesia.

There are teachers who teach universal knowledge, but hardly any teachers that teach about Jakarta, Bandung, and Surabaya. But, thousands of books have been written about them.

We can’t neglect the efforts to improve our education quality. Besides learning how to read and learning certain subjects at school, we have to be able to learn independently. It is said that all the lessons we learn from kindergarten to post graduate level only contribute about 15-20% of one’s total knowledge, meaning that 80% of knowledge is learned from books, experience, labs, etc.

Even though books are widely available, the reading culture in Indonesia is very low. Isn’t it the role of education to encourage reading interest?

“I don’t agree that we have low reading interest.”

I don’t agree that we have low reading interest. The reading trend among millennials in the whole world is going downhill because of social media influence. Nevertheless, it’s not correct to say that Indonesia has low reading interest.

I recently met with the Minister of Villages, Disadvanted Regions, and Transmigration. He told me about when his Ministry displayed books on the beaches, strategic places in villages and remote areas; children were “fighting” over the books, and those who didn’t get one cried. So, in what way is our reading interest low? Also, if we look at the history, Indonesia remains the country with the most alphabets to this day.

If you say that we have a gap in terms of books distribution across regions, then you are right. Big cities have many reading facilities; there are bookstores, public and special libraries, and universities. But in remote areas, such as Arfak Mountains, Raja Ampat, South Manokwari, Meulaboh, Pidie, or Anambas, there are hardly any reading materials available, not even newspapers and magazines.

So, distribution is one of the key strategies…

Yes, and the second is to formulate the purpose of reading. When we talk about literacy, first of all, it is about one’s ability to collect reading materials that allows them to exist on their profession. Second, it is the ability to listen or comprehend the implied meaning of the texts. Third, it is the ability to express their ideas about what they know. Fourth, the ability to create from what they know.

“Because the very definition of literacy is the depth of one’s knowledge of an object, not merely to read”

That would be our dilemma if we say that we have low literacy index. Because the very definition of literacy is the depth of one’s knowledge of an object, not merely to read. Either we read from the Internet or books, the important thing is that the person gains beneficial information that may open up various  opportunities.

How should the distribution policy look like?

President Joko Widodo has made an agreement with PT Pos [Indonesian Postal Service] that on every 17th of the month, we send books for free of charge; under the condition that the maximum weight for each package is 10 kg, regardless of the quantity.

The National Library knows quite well about the low rate of reading interest in addition to the uneven books distribution. Thus we make sure that the government distributes books to places like border areas, village libraries, community libraries, Islamic boarding schools, houses of worship, and correctional facilities.

Does that include foreign books?

We seldom send foreign books because we know that people in remote areas need more of applied knowledge. Applied knowledge is practical, for example, [knowledge on.Ed] how to grow catfish and improve the nutrition, keeping and maintaining, as well as the marketing.

For higher education institutions, we have e-resources that are all written in English. In e-resources you can find journals and e-books. In universities, students don’t speak foreign language that much – except those who are in graduate or post graduate program.

About technology, with Indonesians’ low level ability to seek and manage information, especially now with Internet that store massive amount of information, our bibliographical logic seems to be more confused. Moreover, the information is not necessarily correct. What should we do about it?

You may compose your scientific papers with references from the Internet, but when you quote you have to mention who wrote the book, published by whom, what year, and the page number of the text you quote.

That’s why, to me printed books will not be replaced, and God willing that libraries remain one of the strongholds to keep hoaxes at bay; because we will always have to find the evidence. Even though there are keywords, social media is essentially a media for promotion, business, and advertisement, not for knowledge sharing.

What about e-books?

We have a software called Ipusnas, where books are available in full content. We buy the copyrights since it is regulated by DRM [Digital Rights Management]. If we have 10 copies, then ten people can read the same book at once. If these books are all on the borrow status, the next person in need will be put on the waiting list.

Now, how does the government deal with a book that has a long waiting list?

Well, the person can always buy the original book because we put the name of the publisher. If they don’t want to buy it, then they simply have to wait. If the waiting list is quite long, we will add more copies..

But, won’t the presence of e-books in the National Library make people more reluctant to read print books?

No one knows for sure people would be more inclined to read electronic books over print. But, if you ask of the proof, it’s obvious! Many studies suggest that people tend to endure reading print books longer than the digital version.

So, we have to look into groups of society. Writers, researchers, and academicians may tend to choose hard copies. For me, the joy of reading a hard copy is incomparable because it is easier for me to understand the content.

Moreover, reading hard copies has its advantages: we don’t need any other facilities such as Internet connection, computer, we don’t have to wait for the loading time and so on.

Second, the depth of academic level that we gain from reading [printed.Ed] books compared to digital books is very different. Why? Once we read a book, we completely trust the book. But, if it’s on the Internet we still need to verify its accuracy. No academician would say that they quoted this and this from the internet.

What about the criticism culture in Indonesia? We often see research in Indonesia lacking of its originality. Most academics simply parrot the world’s leading experts, but they hardly arrive at a conclusion based on their own experience.

So, if people simply quote someone, then they are nothing more than a messenger.

To me, a nation’s level of independency is measured from its people’s ability to express their opinion as knowledge evolves. So, if people simply quote someone, then they are nothing more than a messenger.

Writing for international journals is also a factor. When we send our research to an international journal, we have to pay for it and there is no guarantee that it will be published. That has become the burden of academics to ensure their universities maintain an international standard.

The development of knowledge in every country is a direct, inseparable part of the competition among nations. It means, when Indonesians declare they are experts in certain fields, other nations will announce their strengths too, even though they are actually curious.

Supposed I wrote an academic piece on the lifestyle of people in a tropical country where the climate doesn’t change much all year round. Then came experts from a country where people only see the sun three days in a year, or experts who only see the rain three times a year. Would people like them be able to judge our work or the originality of our work? We all come from different countries where each has different setting and condition.

So, there must be a competition…

Competition…and other countries would show their dominance in their own way, that they are greater than us. This is unavoidable. So, we can’t just show the theory. Indeed, UNESCO has a program called Memory of the World, where all knowledge is listed and become the property of the world. But one should not forget that each country has its own way in treating the application of knowledge.

Indonesians are actually smart, aren’t they? But, why do we neither stand out in science nor flourish in national product?

When it comes to nation, public space is also an important element to train us to process information and directives since early age [for instance, traffic signs in Western countries are part of children education]. How does the National Library run this public space?

Well…we collaborate with correctional facilities under the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, as well as [donate books.Ed] to the houses of disadvantaged people, empower women by educating both children and mothers. We also donate books to early education learning centers and reading communities. It shows that we have set our foot on those public spaces, but this is just the beginning. We still have to think about the mechanism, procedures, and review the results and outcomes.

“To buy, keep, and respect books are still a ‘luxury’”

And we have to admit that our people do not have the awareness about the importance of having knowledge evenly distributed in the society. To buy, keep, and respect books are still a ‘luxury’. It is said that parents would be embarrassed for not buying their children mobile phones, even buy them credits four to eight times a month. But they [parents.Ed] are not embarrassed for not buying books, in fact even complaining that books are expensive.

We have to eradicate this culture together.

Everything indeed starts from education..

Yes. As Malala [Yousafzai.Ed], the Noble Prize winner from Pakistan said we don’t have one problem, but thousands. And there is one way to solve it: through education. And education is the heart of library.

She likened it to adding salt into a glass of water. The taste of the salt will be overwhelming. But, if we pour that salt into a lake, it won’t change anything. That is an analogy for the extent of our knowledge. The less knowledge if we have, the more problems will overwhelm us. A simple matter can become an issue. But, if we have a vast knowledge, everything will be easier to tackle.

How do we teach people that knowledge is important?

We can look into the history of Japan, [South.Ed] Korea, Singapore. Now, these three countries have incredible technological advancements and are recognized all over the world.

If we want to go down that path, we have to learn from their past. How the Japanese respect teachers, books, and how they still stick to their root. Japanese are also aware that without knowledge they would die out, because they have no more than 10% of natural resources. This is deeply embedded in their mind. The same goes with the French. This is a stone, and if you can’t turn it into a diamond, you’ll die. It’s their doctrine.

“There is an anecdote that goes like this: why aren’t Indonesians rich? Because there’s one breadwinner for nine freeloaders. Why are Chinese rich? Because there are nine breadwinners but only one freeloader.”

How about us? We’ve been cuddled with a song that says stick and stone will feed you. No wonder people are getting lazy. So, our problem is not only ignorance, not only poverty, but it all begins from laziness. There is an anecdote that goes like this: Why aren’t Indonesians rich? Because there’s only one breadwinner for nine freeloaders. Why are Chinese rich? Because there are nine breadwinners and only one freeloader. It’s that simple.

To be able to achieve what those countries have achieved, all spheres [government, education, public, families, even digital] must be integrated. What are the plans for this?

“It’s easy to talk about coordination in Indonesia, but to actually do it is another story.”

That’s the dilemma. It’s easy to talk about coordination in Indonesia, but to actually do it is another story. We don’t seem to want to get there.

This library obviously exists to give a space for the whole society. And the only thing that is sophisticated about this library is the ‘case’. We expect in the future, the human resources and the content will suit the necessary sophistication. That’s why we invite people to come, give us suggestions and criticism of what they want this library to be like in the future.

So societies have to play their parts too, don’t they?

We keep on promoting this, but [the National Library building.Ed] is only a symbol of civilization. There is no way people of Bekasi would come here every day, let alone those in Bandung, Surabaya, eastern Indonesia, Papua, and Sumatra.

What we hope is that we will have libraries, as mandated in the law, across the country. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but we should have plenty of them where they can serve the community well, to provide the community with the needed reading materials. And there should be an education on how to implement the applied knowledge. At the end, the library will become the bridge of past, present, and future knowledge – it will take the people to a civilized society.

Last question, are there any programs in which volunteers or interns can be involved in the National Library?

We are very open to synergize. Recently, we had a meeting with world-class librarians. They are the volunteers of reading culture. Some of them donate from their own pocket, some raise their own funds or get the funding from a CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility.Ed] program.

We designed this library to have plenty of rooms for public discussion. And if you would like to invite experts, you can hold the discussion here. You’re most welcome.

Thank you for your time, Sir.

The pleasure is all mine. Please, support us. We are on the same boat.

M. Syarif Bando, The Head of National Library of Indonesia.


English Translation by Riri Rafiani