5 The Borremans Guide to Convivial Tools

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The theme of convivial tools is closely related to that of appropriate technology. E.F. Schumacher, the best known advocate of appropriate technology, published "Small is Beautiful" in 1972, the same year that Illich published "Tools for Conviviality". Both books present the case for an alternative approach to the use of technology. However, while appropriate technology is oriented towards technology for developing countries, convivial technology applies as well to technology in developed countries, including notably the latest digital innovations.

Valentina Borremans and the Reference Guide to Convivial Tools

The strong historical connection between appropriate technology and convivial technology is best represented by the "Reference Guide to Convivial Tools", prepared by Valentina Borremans in 1978. [1] Borremans was co-founder of the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion (CIDOC), and as such one of the closest collaborators of Ivan Illich.

The Borremans "Reference Guide to Convivial Tools" was a 320 page annotated bibliography of 858 books and articles on (in Illich’s words): "possible alternatives to a society dominated by the industrial mode of production." The Draft 1978 Edition is listed by Amazon as "currently unavailable". However, one can find on-line a short review of the Reference Guide that appeared in the periodical Manas in 1979 (it is the last article in the pdf file). [2]

The review indicates a few titles of works listed in the Borremans Reference Guide, which give the flavour of this bibliography:

  • Michael Allaby, Home Farm: Complete Food Self-Sufficiency
  • Judith Glading, Alternative Transportation Modes: Bikeway Planning and Design
  • Skip Laitner, The Impact of Solar and Conservation Technologies upon Labor Demand
  • Lappé and Collins, Food First
  • John and Gerry Archer, article in Dirt Cheap (published in Australia) telling how they built an adobe dwelling from scratch, knowing nothing of construction
  • U.S. HEW translation of the Chinese Barefoot Doctor’s Manual

Valentina Borremans says in a note to the Guide that the models for planning her Guide were the Rainbook volume (put together by the editors of Rain Magazine) and Peter Harper’s "Directory" in Radical Technology". The Manas review also mentions that convivial production was generally considered to be production for use, not for sale, although there are commonsense exceptions.

The Borremans’ Reference Guide thus seems to draw together rather indiscriminately all the same themes that were developed earlier by the advocates of Appropriate Technology and by the editors of the Whole Earth Catalogue.

The Borremans Guide as a Second-Level Reference Guide

As explained above, the themes developed by the Borremans Reference Guide already lacked originality at that time. Moreover, it is the nature of a bibliographic review of this sort to become rapidly out of date. The long-term significance of the Reference Guide is thus less in its content than in its approach.

The Borremans approach was exemplified by the overall operation of the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion. CIDOC was meant to be a centre for an autonomous type of learning, based on self-organized reading and free-wheeling discussion sessions, rather than on imposed reading lists and professorial lectures. The core of such a learning centre is the library, where the learners select their reading material according to their own interests.

Borremans had spent years building up the CIDOC library. Starting with a few filing cabinets she built up four major research collections, which in 1964 were incorporated as the CIDOC. During the next 12 years about 18,000 people came to read and study at the centre, and CIDOC also published more than 300 titles.

When Borremans began to prepare the Reference Guide to Convivial Tools in the early 1970s, most of the studies on intermediate technology and alternative energy were published by amateurs and distributed for love. Moreover, interest in these topics was at that time marginal. In his preface to the Reference Guide, Illich describes his fruitless quest for a two-volume annotated bibliography on windmills, which could be found neither in the libraries of Oxford nor that of Cambridge.

Borremans’ original intention was to produce a Reference Guide containing only second-level reference guides to literature. It was thus to be a "reference guide to reference guides". It was to be published by Bowker, a major publisher of reference materials (although it seems that it was only published in draft version).

However, for the sake of certain categories of intended readers, Borremans made many exceptions to her general rule to include only second-level reference guides. She thus added numerous first-level documents, as well as some other materials retained for their value as historical documents even though they had been replaced by more comprehensive new books.

Borremans described the intended readers as including:

  • Librarians around the world, and in particular those in libraries in poor countries, who could use the Guide for gathering materials needed by their readers
  • Radical technologists who are concerned with the design and selection of tools that increase the ability of individuals to generate use-values
  • Individual researchers who may have no access to any significant library at all

She describes the last category as follows:

    He might be a journalist in the Northeast of Brazil who wants to argue his case against a new power station, or a union member in Italy seeking a list of others who have organized worker control over jobs in a plastics plant.

The above quote highlights the active social orientation of CIDOC.

The Posterity of the Borremans Guide

When the Borremans Reference Guide was printed in 1978, the general context had changed in several ways. International interest in alternative trends such as free schools and appropriate technology waned as the yuppie generation matured. At the same time, the available literature on appropriate technology and environmental issues was growing exponentially, and the need for the Reference Guide diminished as libraries everywhere began stocking shelves of relevant books.

Thus the Reference Guide itself rapidly joined the category that Borremans described as: "materials significant enough to retain their value as historical documents even though they have been replaced by more comprehensive new books." Part of this historical value is the light that the Guide sheds on the intimate relationship between convivial technology and appropriate technology.