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Not Your Typical Librarian: An Interview With the United Nations’ Francesco Pisano

By Mehrdad Damavandi

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

During our class, “Non-State Actors” I was very lucky, alongside the rest of my classmates, to listen to a lecture from Francesco Pisano regarding the role of the UN today and how it has developed since 1945. Mr. Pisano has an academic background in international relations with a specialization in diplomatic studies and conflict resolution, as well as with a focus on public international law. He has worked for the UN since 1993, starting in humanitarian affairs, and is now the director of the UN Library in Geneva.

Now, one might think being the director of the UN Library would just mean dealing with a lot of books. However, I assure you that it is much more than that. After his lecture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Pisano and spoke to him regarding his previous work in the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, where he saw the conflicts in Syria and Yemen going in the future, his role at the UN Library and how he viewed the UN’s role in managing one of the great power struggles of our time.

The following is my interview with Francesco Pisano, which I have edited for clarity:


Mehrdad: Mr. Pisano, thank you for participating in this interview with me today, I hope you are well and that you are having a lovely time in Reims with Mr. Dungan. Now, I would like to start with your background, I understand that you have a professional background in humanitarian affairs and actually worked in the Department of Humanitarian Affairs for the UN. Can you describe what you did in the organisation and what your role was?

Francesco Pisano: I started working with the Department of Humanitarian Affairs in 1993, which was replaced by OCHA soon after. My job was in the area of disaster reduction policy.


M: Right, now because of your background I think I may ask also about what is happening in the world right now. What do you make of the crises in Syria and Yemen and how will you see it develop in the future?

FP: These conflicts cause immense suffering and grave humanitarian consequences. While working for peace, the other important role of the UN in conflict-affected countries is to coordinate and facilitate humanitarian assistance to those in greater need, and this is most important during a conflict affecting civilians. When a conflict deescalates or ends with peace accords that can hold, the role of the UN is to facilitate rehabilitation and reconstruction.


M: So, how would this apply to Syria and Yemen in what we’re finding right now in the respective countries?

FP: These conflicts are ongoing tragedies, so they affect us more vividly, but I don’t think Syria and Yemen are different from other cases in which a war-torn society needs the help of the international community to emerge from conflict with prospects of rehabilitation, development, and also the hope in the future.


M: Nevertheless, would you see any progress in the near future regarding these two countries?

FP: Well, each conflict is different and one should not generalize. The conflict in Syria is terribly difficult and this is why it has lasted for such a long time, and there is no indication that we are any closer to a conclusion of the hostilities. Yemen is also a very complicated situation. In both cases it is the generation of young people born during the conflict that will pay the highest price. This is a very grave responsibility of the parties in the fight, but also for the international community at large. This doesn’t mean that we should give up working for peace, to the contrary. I think, as many others, that UN member states should try harder.


M: Thank you, now, Mr. Pisano, you were working in humanitarian affairs and now you are the Director of the Library of the UN. First of all, for our readership, can you tell me what the UN Library is and why you made such a change in career?

FP: The change is less dramatic than it seems because between my humanitarian jobs  and the Library I was the director of research, knowledge systems and technology applications at  the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). In fact, a Library is a knowledge system of sorts, an organic body of knowledge that is a not entirely digital nor  entirely printed. So for me it was more a transition than an orthogonal change. I am not a librarian by training, but I bring with me competencies relating to knowledge systems and technology applications.

The UN Library in Geneva in one sentence is a center for research and an instrument of international understanding. This has been our motto since 1919 when we were established as the Library of the League of Nations. Today the Library is a recognized specialized library for international affairs created to support the international community.  As such, we serve every year some sixty-five thousand customers, and we are also responsible for the the archives of the UN in Geneva and those of the League of Nations.


M: So I’d just like to delve into this a bit more and ask: Why does the UN feel that it needs to create and collate all this knowledge about itself?

FP: Well, we were created by the member states of the League of Nations essentially as a research and resource center. In 1945 the Library transitioned to the UN Office in Geneva. The first reason to have a library like ours is because it specializes on resources relating to international affairs, and in particular peace, human rights, and development. We have many resources on the United Nations of course, but that alone does not define our collection.  We have 1.7 million books and seventy-five thousand online journals and resources to meet the requirements of diplomats and staff in Geneva but also researchers and academics worldwide.


M: So, would you feel that a country with fewer resources would be better off by using the UN Library resources to learn about your institution?

FP: No, of course not. Researchers do not have to come the UN Library in Geneva to access our catalogue. They can do so online, and let’s not forget that the UN has regional commissions. So for example, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean have libraries that serve the research communities in those regions. We keep in touch with them and work to harmonize our electronic systems. Thanks to the web researchers have access globally to the knowledge of the UN, whether it is stored in Geneva or elsewhere.  Of course, for print materials it is a different thing, but through the online catalogue at least you know which books are kept where, which is really important.


M: And for my final question I’d just like to touch on a global geopolitical issue which will interest our readership. What role can the UN play in stabilizing the resurgent “great power” competition? We have America on one side, Russia rising on another, China on another, how can the UN create a balance of power, and can the UN stop such countries from doing what they want to do?

FP: Well, the UN is an association of 193 member states, but I don’t think the role of the UN is to enforce a balance of power. I think the UN is a place where these powers, big or small, continue to meet and continue to nourish the multilateral dialogue. How long will it take for all the actors to come to an equal standing and level playing field I cannot tell, but I would certainly say that seventy years of international dialogue at the UN have moved the world closer to this goal, not further away. I believe that the UN deserves recognition at least for this merit.


M: So, how do you see that it has become closer then?

FP: By never abandoning the dialogue. I really believe that dialogue and understanding among nations and peoples is really the key to building peace and prosperity.


M: Do you believe that people will actually listen then?

FP: I think so, with constructive journalism, online tools and the  global village of social media and the rest, I think we have the best chance in millennia to really understand each other.


M: Thank you so much for your time Mr. Pisano, it has been an absolute pleasure.

FP: Thank you.


I would like to thank Nicholas Dungan for helping arrange the interview and Mr. Pisano himself for allowing me to conduct this interview despite his busy schedule.

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