World Libraries

The Pioneers: Carlos Victor Penna (1911-1998)

Carlos Victor Penna
Carlos Victor Penna
The death of Carlos Victor Penna on 21 February 1998, meant the loss of one of the most distinguished professionals in Latin American librarianship, as well as the end of his ongoing efforts and accomplishments in the library world of his native country, Argentina. Ironically, the core of his professional development occurred outside Argentina, although Penna returned regularly to the country of his birth, and maintained strong professional ties there with many colleagues and institutions. The early part of his career, strictly national in character, lasted twenty years (from 1930 to 1950), as did the international period of his work, (from 1951 to 1971), although there is no doubt that his most brilliant accomplishments took place during those last years. After his retirement from UNESCO, where he held that organization's highest and most influential position in library matters as chief of the Division of Archives and Libraries, he redoubled his efforts to strengthen libraries in Argentina, returning to his country every few years to consult with his colleagues, to speak at congresses and professional conferences, and to participate actively in planning to insure that Argentines would enjoy a solid library infrastructure, a base which even today is awaited.

Penna's career was a long one, characterized by continuous travel abroad, and participation in any forum which lent itself to fulfilling the plans of the institutions with which he worked: national and international conferences, visits and discussions with influential people of many different countries, seminars, and workshops. He inspired and enlightened those who questioned him, often surprising skeptics with his great passion, his confidence, and his strong desires to address the library needs of the countries he visited. At the same time, surprisingly enough amidst this frenzy of activity, he found the time to write books, journal articles, and working papers for conferences, and to venture into the academic world of teaching. All of this he did with energy and enthusiasm for the profession which he had chosen almost by chance, after a frustrating experience in a military school, where he discovered that his career was ill-suited to the ironclad discipline and technical skills which his superiors demanded of him.

Penna's life, characterized by almost obsessive passions and irreproachable convictions, began in Bahía Blanca, Buenos Aires province, on 1 October 1911. He moved to the city of Buenos Aires in 1927, to study at the Naval School of Mechanical Engineering, from which he was graduated in 1930. An unexpected event, however, changed his life. During September of that year, a military coup had toppled the legitimate government of the country, and the Department of the Navy, preoccupied with the politics of the moment, delayed issuing assignments to its recent graduates. Penna suddenly found himself free and unattached in the Metropolis, which he began to explore for the first time with eyes very different from those of the shy young boy from the provinces. When he finally did receive his long-awaited orders, he immediately resigned from the military service, convinced now that his path in life pointed in a different direction, and that new horizons remained to be explored. He held several different modest positions, all of which allowed him the free time to develop the character of a true porteño, with all of its inherent uncertainties and insecurities.

But in the full bloom of his youth, Penna's life was transformed by a chance occurrence which, oddly enough, brought him into contact once more with the military. When he ran into an old friend from school in the street one day and learned of a job opening in the library of the Navy, Penna did not hesitate to apply. His excellent service record from his student years not only secured him the position, but it also established his relationship with an exceptional supervisor and mentor, Navy Captain Mario Maveroff, (whose career was unfortunately cut short by his untimely death). Maveroff had an intuitive gift for understanding library matters, and he soon discovered that the young man he had just hired had the talent to serve as his right-hand man in the project which Maveroff was, at the time, somewhat blindly attempting to carry out: to turn the Navy library into a modem institution by integrating the scattered resources of departmental offices, naval bases, and warships into a comprehensive bibliographic network-the first such network to be attempted on a large scale in Argentina. Under Maveroff's supervision, Penna proved to be a willing and able worker, quickly mastering typing and foreign languages. He read the works of Argentine writers who, early on, had studied the problems of librarianship in their country, and eagerly immersed himself in the mysteries of the cataloging rules of the Vatican Library, and the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC).

In 1938, Penna, at the urging of his supervisor, enrolled in the library science program at the Museo Social Argentine, and after receiving his degree in 1941, continued his education in the United States at Columbia University's School of Library Service. Unable to pursue a regular course of study, due to deficiencies in his library training and his knowledge of English, Penna was accepted as a "special" student, and for two semesters, threw himself into his studies with the enthusiasm and determination that people came to associate with him. Penna later recalled his fears and loneliness he experienced during those difficult times in New York City, when he found himself without friends in a country which had just entered World War II. He read and studied tirelessly, was singled out for recognition by many faculty members whom he never forgot, such as Harriet Dorothy McPherson, the distinguished professor of cataloging.

Penna returned to Argentina with a mountain of books and a wealth of new knowledge which he incorporated into his first work, Catalogación y clasificación de libros (Buenos Aires: Acme Agency, 1945), a work which marked the beginning of modem librarianship in Argentina. Considered by Argentines as the leading text, it was used by generations of librarians in library schools throughout Latin America. Penna's return to Buenos Aires brought this initial period of his education and career to a close. He always remembered those years with great affection, and he remained profoundly grateful to Captain Maveroff during his entire life.

In 1943, the University of Buenos Aires took an important step toward improving its library system by establishing the Institute Bibliotecológico, known today as SISBI, Sistema de Bibliotecas y de Información (Library and Information System). The institute, brainchild of Ernesto G. Gietz, who at that time was director of the library of the School of Engineering (Facutad de Ingeniería y Ciencias Exactas), received enthusiastic support not only from the administration, but also from various organizations in the United States where Gietz had made a study tour. In addition to his duties as head of the University's central card catalog, Penna assumed the position of assistant director of this newly-created institute.

A glance at how libraries at the University of Buenos Aires were organized, and how they functioned during the nineteenth century, makes clear just how great an impact Gietz's institute-as well as Penna's mission within the institute-had on librarianship in Argentina.

The central library which had served the university throughout the nineteenth century was definitively dismantled in 1885, and its holdings were divided among the faculties or schools. As a result, over the years, many separate libraries were created-a library for each school, as well as smaller specialized libraries for institutes and departments within each school-with no central authority either to establish standardized policies for organization and procedures or to assure cooperation among the various parts of the system. The Institute Bibliotecológico (IB) was created in response to the need for an integrated library system. If Gietz deserves the credit for having conceived and implemented it, Penna is remembered for having served as its principal administrator during those formative years, and for having begun a union catalog of the University's great quantities of diverse bibliographic material. Today, this same catalog is maintained and upgraded by SISBI. The creation of the institute initiated a new era of cooperation among the university librarians, the adoption of modern systems and standards, and numerous other activities related to the dissemination of information.

In only a few years, Penna became one of the country's most outstanding librarians, an effective role model for others and an important influence on the development of the profession. During this new era of "professional interaction," Penna himself took inspiration from three of his colleagues: Emma Linares, Augusto Raúl Cortázar, and Josefa Sabor.

Once the Institute Bibliotecológico was firmly established and running smoothly, Penna moved on to the Biblioteca de Marina, and then in 1947, assumed the directorship of a public library, the library of the Caja Nacional de Ahorro Postal, an important banking institution which focused principally on the poorer economic classes. Under Penna's guidance, this library-today a branch of the Biblioteca del Congreso de la Nación (Library of Congress)- became one of the best organized and most active in Argentina.

In light of Penna's growing reputation and well-deserved recognition, it was not surprising that three years later, in 1951, he received an offer to join UNESCO as a specialist in its Regional Office for the Western Hemisphere, headquartered in Havana. The importance of that organization, the level of library development in Cuba (of which country was understandably proud), and the beauty of the locale tempted Penna to accept the offer, as did the prospect of enjoying a new and different world, a more open and spontaneous lifestyle than that which he had enjoyed in Argentina. Penna saw Cuba as a very pleasing environment, and soon developed a deep affection for the country and a fascination with its culture. Once he had established his home in Havana, and had begun to cultivate new, close friendships which would broaden his personal and professional horizons, it is easy to understand the affection and gratitude he felt for Cuba, and how much he missed it right up to the time of his death. Thus he began a new and definitive stage in his private and professional life, one which would turn out to be the richest and most productive of all.

Penna was given increasingly more challenging positions within UNESCO until, in 1962, he was appointed director of the office. He was deeply involved at all levels with issues of librarianship and shared with of all Latin America his experiences in congresses, conferences, and projects, encouraging with the greatest sense of urgency improvement in the teaching of library science. But most important was his contact in the area of educational planning, which he would soon put to use in librarianship and which would become his principal contribution to the field.

Two of the greatest influences on Penna's ideas during his Cuban period were two educational specialists: the Chilean Oscar Vera, and the Spaniard Jose Blat Gimeno. Similar in the strength of their personalities, but very different in character, the two educators-both of whom enjoyed considerable prestige in their respective countries-immersed Penna in the field of educational planning. This training, which they continued in Paris when the three of them were transferred by UNESCO to its headquarters, yielded great insight for the Argentine specialist. At last he had found what he had been looking for: a theory which could go hand in hand with practice, which would permit the rational structuring of existing educational systems and which would make possible a better use of resources in countries who chose to adopt strategies for planning. If all this were possible in the field of education, why not apply it to the field of library science? And in this sense, no one helped Penna more, nor understood him better, than Oscar Vera. The writings of both Penna and Vera make it clear that the influence was mutual, and that both men believed strongly in the validity of Sarmiento's theory that schools and libraries work together in a complementary way. These men, who had contributed to the ten-year Project for Development and Improvement of Primary Education in Latin America, initiated by UNESCO from Havana in 1957, had also begun to implement projects in other countries; and although many of these projects were later lost to government intervention, nevertheless they represented the first application on an international level of the ideas of educational planning which had taken shape at the second inter-American meeting of ministers of education in Lima in 1956.

Just as the ideas of introducing technology and restructuring Argentine libraries and of modernizing the teaching of library science lay at the heart of Penna's mission during his Argentine period, library planning was at the core of his international period. He devoted himself to planning during the fruitful years he spent at UNESCO, and also produced his best writing on that subject during that time, beginning with an article published in the Boletín del proyecto principal de educación in Havana in 1960 entitled, "Planificación de los servicios bibliotecarios; los servicios bibliotecarios y el planeamiento de la education" ("Planning Library Services; Library Services and Educational Planning").

From this moment on, Penna tirelessly expanded and polished his ideas in meetings held in American cities between 1960 and 1967, where he presented papers and participated in debates, always exchanging ideas and refining his own theories. Of the seventeen conferences held during those years, the most important was the gathering of library planning experts in Quito in 1966. Although Penna had invested much time and energy in organizing that meeting, he was unfortunately unable to attend for health reasons.

By this time, Penna had left Cuba and was working at UNESCO headquarters in Paris where he had been transferred in 1964 as director of the Division of Libraries, Archives, and Documentation. From his new position, he redoubled his efforts to promote his ideas on planning for library services, and finally published Planeamiento de servicios bibliotecarios (Madrid: Oficina de Educaci6n Iberoamericana, 1968). A second edition appeared two years later, on which Penna had collaborated with the distinguished European librarians Philip H. Sewell and Herman Liebaers. UNESCO adopted the edition for its collection of library handbooks, Manuales de bibliotecología, and this assured its use by libraries throughout the world.

Penna did not limit his ideas on library planning to the theoretical sphere, but also participated directly in implementing projects in several countries, including Venezuela, where library planning produced particularly dramatic and important results. There, aided by the efforts of Virginia Betancourt Valverde and the support of the national government, library planning was successful to an extent not often seen in Latin America. The decree of 19 November 1974 authorized the formation of a committee to develop a national information system (SINASBI); the committee presented a final report to the president of the country the following year. Penna collaborated in the preparation of this report, and served as permanent consultant to SINASBI until 1978.

Penna's influence in the field of library planning extended well beyond the boundaries of the Spanish-speaking world. Following the 1966 Quito meeting, UNESCO commissioned him to organize international conferences in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1967; Kampala, Uganda, in 1970; and Cairo, Egypt, which he planned before his retirement in 1971.

Penna's retirement did not signify in any way his withdrawal from the profession. He continued his struggle to promote library planning by writing articles such as "National Planning for Library and Information Service: Reality or Utopia?" which appeared in Third World Libraries in the fall of 1992. Penna used that forum to respond to Josefa Sabor who, fifteen years earlier, had expressed the fear that library planning might simply end up being "the great Utopia of Latin American librarianship." His conclusion, although encouraging, nevertheless points out that the idea of planning lacks the philosophical and intellectual foundations necessary to avoid becoming an "impossible dream" for the people of Latin America.

During the last years of his life, Penna worked on creating a federal system of libraries and information systems in Argentina. He also attended the meetings organized each year by the Association of Graduate Librarians of Argentina (ABGRA), in which not only librarians from throughout Argentina but from abroad as well participated. At those forums, he explained, discussed, and put in its final form his Estrategia para la creación del sistema federal de servicios de bibliotecas e información, (Buenos Aires: ABGRA, 1997). In addition to presenting a summary of the ideas he put forth at each of the ABGRA meetings, Penna included in this work the draft "Anteproyecto de ley sobre creación del sistema federal de servicios de bibliotecas e información," which had been circulated a year before to various national legislators for presentation to the National Congress.

A few months after the publication of this study, Penna died in his home in Tampa, Florida, where he had retired with his family. The project to adopt his draft legislation must now be carried to completion by Penna's colleagues and fellow citizens, with the adjustments and modifications which the passage of time and new circumstances may require.

Library planning was not the only focus of Penna's professional activity. But it was the project to which he was most committed, and the one which gave him both the most satisfaction and the most anxiety. A study of Penna's other projects would require more space than is available here; but at the very least, mention must be made of his role in the development of the teaching of library science, both in Argentina and abroad; his creation of the Biblioteca Pública Piloto for Latin America, in Medellín, Colombia; and his decisive participation in the founding of the first library research institute in Latin America, a joint project with the University of Buenos Aires which took shape in 1967, when the Centro de Investigaciones Bibliotecológicas (today the Institute de Investigaciones Bibliotecológicas) was created.

Penna's professional life-so productive, so intensely-lived-included dozens of lectures, study programs, trips, participation in conferences and meetings both as organizer and as principal speaker, and evaluations, as well as his writings-books, pamphlets, and articles-a complete list of which is yet to be compiled. Throughout his work, the clarity of his thought and his professional knowledge stand out, but most important were his passion, his ability to fight, his faith in the triumph of his ideas, and his charismatic personality, which always knew how to find the most appropriate settings in which to present his ideas and communicate his enthusiasm. For him, the struggle, motivated by clear ideas supported by firm convictions, was always worth the effort.

Penna was a fighter who was never frightened off by the indifference and the skepticism of others, still less by the mediocrity of a few, because he believed so strongly in his ideas and his actions. Among his compatriots of that generation, he was special, not only for the rhythm of his life, but also for the importance of the mission which he succeeded in completing. We may hope the generations which follow him can learn a lesson from his constant struggles, and will be able to carry out some of the projects which he left unfinished. Such accomplishments would undoubtedly be the most worthy of his triumphs.

Translated by Jane Carpenter

About the Author

Josefa Emilia Sabor is Professor Emerita, Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, Univesity of Buenos Aires, Argentina

© 1999 Josefa E. Sabor


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