The Global Voice Of The Profession: Personal Reflections From IFLA 2017

Ralph Adam

What’s the collective noun for librarians? A collection? A search? An answer? Perhaps, a silence of librarians?

I have just returned from a very big gathering of librarians: the 83rd IFLA World Library and Information Congress held in Wroclaw, Poland. It was certainly not a ‘silence’; more a ‘gaggle’, perhaps. Or even a giggle! The conference’s theme was: Libraries. Solidarity. Society: unlimited access to information, education and knowledge, ironic in the light of recent Polish government policy. Over 3,000 information professionals from 110 countries took part. More than 500 papers were presented as well as 169 posters. IFLA’s first-ever live stream brought in an additional audience of around 100,000.

What is IFLA?

IFLA (The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), which was founded in Edinburgh in 1927 and now has its headquarters in The Hague, claims to be the leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users: ”the global voice of the profession”.

Not everyone has been a fan of the organisation. S. R. Ranganathan, for example, in a hard-hitting article¹, castigated IFLA for its lack of involvement beyond western Europe and north America. For him, nationals of other regions were expected by IFLA, on the one hand, to be ‘meek’ whilst, on the other, not suited to inclusion amidst the ‘inner bodies’. Ranganathan claimed such members were “treated in a courteous and condescending manner in much the way that benevolent rich men are to their poor relatives ….The comer of the eye suggests, ‘Don’t be presumptuous’ ”. If, in those days, this attitude existed amongst IFLA’s management there was no sign of it in Wroclaw: a significant proportion of delegates hailed from Africa and Asia (131 from China alone), some in executive positions.

Ranganathan went on to recommend how IFLA might become a truly effective international body. One suggestion was to do away with study trips. He considered fellowships to be often wasted on undirected ‘blitztravel’ by immature youth picked from “undeveloped countries”. Another of Ranganathan’s bugbears was the annual conference: he felt these to be not only inconvenient and a waste of resources, but he couldn’t understand what librarians might find to discuss each year. His suggestion was to hold conferences no more than once every five years. Again, things have obviously changed. This year the world’s information specialists could benefit from bursaries and there was certainly much to discuss. But where did those discussions take place and how effective were they?

The location

The venue was Wroclaw’s imposing Centennial Hall, designed by the eminent architect Max Berg, added to Unesco’s World Heritage List in 2006 and considered one of the most important 20th century architectural works. It was constructed in 1913, when Wroclaw was part of Germany and named Breslau. The aim was for an international exhibition centre to commemorate the centenary of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. The authorities felt that an expensive, over-the-top, exhibition hall would show Germany to be, once again, a world power.

On completion the Gothic-style Centennial Hall had the world’s biggest dome and was Europe’s largest ferroconcrete structure. Since then major events have ranged from speeches by Nazi leaders, including Adolf Hitler (who in 1944 insisted the city be defended at all costs), to services held by Pope John Paul II during his 1997 visit. In 2010 the Getty Foundation paid for the structure’s refurbishment. Nowadays, it is an internationally-recognised venue for, amongst other things, concerts, operas, trade-fairs and prestigious sporting events. Regular IFLA-goers said they were impressed by the Centennial: everything on one site and a venue with character, unlike recent years’ events in ‘characterless’ modern structures dispersed across the host cities.

Wroclaw is a fascinating city. It survived the Second World War virtually intact, but afterwards was largely destroyed by a long siege (and devastated again by a major flood in 1997). Between 1939 and 1946 the population fell by roughly two-thirds, many inhabitants having either been killed or evacuated.  it was left a ghost town.

The smallness of the population created major problems for urban planners. The council took advantage of the opportunity to create parks, sports areas and woods. They also opened important museums and art galleries (there are three within the grounds of the Centennial Hall – notably the spectacular Museum of Contemporary Art in the restored Four Domes Pavilion), as well as encouraging the development of independent galleries and film studios. There is a fascinating range of both public and academic libraries, including a large, recently-opened one, in the beautiful main railway station (many of these libraries were the subject of post-IFLA visits). Indeed, Wroclaw is a city of words: not only was it Unesco’s World Book Capital for 2016-17, but literature is visible everywhere. As well as the libraries there are many bookshops, with the independents working together to gain support from publishers and create fun events. There are also book exchange bins (informal libraries) throughout the city. In one restaurant (with library shelving) you can even find a random volume on every table for diners to read while they wait!

When you arrive in a strange town for an event you can feel confused and at a loose end. So it is important that the organisers of international conferences focus on helping delegates connect with the local environment by giving insights into its history, people, culture, food and customs. At IFLA much effort was put into this side of things with detailed introductions to both Wroclaw and Poland in the programme and on the web site. As well, of course, as the visits which provided contact with local librarians. In addition to the formal presentations, the conference featured an opening party and a splendid cultural evening.

The conference

Having reached Wroclaw in one piece (no thanks to the airline or the airport authorities!), how did I find the event?

IFLA produced an excellent conference handbook including the programme plus much handy information about IFLA, its staff, the venue and the city (with really useful maps, including one of the city centre complete with bus and tram routes). In addition, the delegates’ badge served as a weekly travelcard, giving everyone the chance to connect with the locality. However, with the participants’ average age being fairly high, they may not have had much use for the travelcard: anyone over a certain age travels free in Wroclaw without any formality. Brilliant for us oldies!

The high-spot of the event was the cultural evening with vast amounts of food (much, unfortunately, uneaten), Polish music and dancing, culminating in an amazing multimedia display centred on the Centennial’s famous musical fountains. This was designed by Karol Rakowski. using sophisticated software to incorporate light, sound and visualisation. Rakowski, who has previously collaborated with Brain Eno, somehow even managed, very effectively, to combine Wagner’s music with that of Michael Jackson’s!

The conference had attracted a great variety of fascinating people from around the world.  However, I spotted hardly andy of the ninety-seven British delegates! The programme included an entry for: “Session 060: Caucus-UK”.  A British Caucus?  I’m familiar with caucus races, my favourite sort of race: as the Dodo explained to Alice, every competitor wins and all get prizes. But a national caucus? The OED describes one thus: “In U.S. A private meeting of the leaders or representatives of a political party….”. Hmm. Other nations also had caucuses (cauci? The OED doesn’t help on plurals!).

Despite the wide range of information topics covered, not all were at a high level or presented in easily-understood spoken English. I should have liked better coverage of information management issues as well as more discussion of the impact of technology (RFID and NFC, for instance) and, with May 2018 approaching, something on GDPR. IFLA has plenty of subject groups and sections, but many of their fields were barely represented (info-ethics and children’s libraries, for example). Other meetings, such as the KM day², were satellite events in Wroclaw, but not in the programme. Strangely, some satellite events took place as far away as Bergen, Berlin and Vilnius.

It was very interesting to hear of IFLA’s drive towards sustainable development. On KM, one politician suggested that, in government, factual accuracy or scientific evidence is not a priority: information (and fake news?) supporting policy objectives is more important..

The management of the event had been sub-contracted to a German company which, to me, lacked the expected German efficiency. For example, they took so long to register me that I was in danger of not finding a flight (I heard similar comments from others). The logistics proved a problem, too: on one morning, I had planned to hear three presentations but missed them all: one room was locked, a second proved empty and I failed to find the third altogether. Following the signage did, however, give me an interesting view of the kitchens! Perhaps that was because I’m rubbish at both geography and information retrieval! IFLA staff advised me to ignore the handbook and download the app. But that didn’t help much either. I was told that inadequate site inspections, resulting in the venue’s management deciding to reallocate rooms, was to blame.

Finding one’s way around should have been simple: although over three-hundred ‘volunteers’ were employed (with, for the first time, many from abroad), I found them eager to help, but lacking knowledge of the event and its layout. English was the conference’s official language, but some lacked basic linguistic knowledge. I was told that Polish ‘volunteers’ had had to be paid, as their professional body was against unpaid work. As a result, and for legal reasons, they were branded as Ask Mes.

The event’s official language may have been English. But we were in Poland: I heard very little Polish spoken (and spotted hardly any Polish contributors, although 461 were registered): the largest delegation (the US was second with 390 according to IFLA). Perhaps, the conference fee was too high for many locals.

The conference was accompanied by a trade show, but with only seventy-one exhibitors of which few were Polish. The exhibition was in a circular format with one side almost invisible to visitors, few of whom discovered it. Had this area been used as a catering zone, visitors might have been attracted to it. Another problem was access to the trade show for local librarians, presumably the key market for exhibitors: non-delegates were not admitted to the exhibition without paying the equivalent of fifty euros. Several local librarians told me they could not afford that.

Lunch was a smaller problem: the nearest restaurants were a tram-ride away, but an open-air food-shack zone was available. I subsisted on non-descript kebabs and German sausages: a Polish catering area would have been nice.

Was it worth it?

Despite a few disappointments, I found my trip to Wroclaw an excellent experience. I learned much, made valuable contacts, experienced a new city and learned about IFLA. It was a bit of a giggle, too!





K & IM Refer 33 (2), Autumn 2017


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