The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) this year was held in friendly, design-minded Helsinki Finland on August 11-17. The stellar conference brought together library professionals from all over the world with a diversity of interests but also, as the conference theme— “Libraries Now! Inspiring, Surprising, Empowering”—suggests, with common ground. Presentations on innovative initiatives from around the globe, and sometimes linking several parts of it, offered a broader view of library concerns worldwide and replicable takeaways to implement back home. American librarians especially could learn a great deal from the international approach on offer at WLIC and the cooperative endeavors facilitated by IFLA.
One notable example of international cooperation was the “Sister Libraries” program for public and school libraries. Started in 2009, this program now has 78 libraries paired up for collaborative projects. It even has honorary “Godmothers”, overseeing librarians that help to facilitate sister relationships. All one needs to do to start is register at the IFLA website to benefit from new international connection possibilities. Presenters demonstrated how a library in Paris partnered with a library in Togo to share books and information about their programs. Public libraries in Sweden and Russia created a day in the life (or 365 days) photo blog .
The librarians of Finland showed off the many innovative services they are providing in their libraries in plenaries, poster sessions, “library boulevard,” and several large book mobiles parked outside the conference center. One surprising hit of the conference was Börje, a therapeutic-reading dog of Espoo, Finland’s Leppävaara library. For those who still wanted more, participants could sign up for a local library tour through the conference’s Library Visits Program.
Librarians in academic settings assessing their services were informed by professor Yrjö Engeström’s plenary titled “Towards Knotworking: Designing a New Concept of Work in an Academic Library.” Engeström is from the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki. He showcased his knotworking model as a way to redefine the work done by academic librarians and make it continually relevant to researchers. In one example, Engeström held Change Laboratory work sessions between research groups and their campus librarians at the University of Helsinki. In these, necessary services for researchers were identified and implemented in a very short period of time, such as a collaboration between librarians and cognitive science researchers to develop a quick reference guide to improve researcher data storage and management practices.
Finland’s library professionals are also quite active internationally. An example of this is a collaborative project between Finland and Namibia that has provided information literacy teaching and programming expertise to the University of Namibia. The project, funded by Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had librarians from University of Helsinki and University of Tampere collaborating with those from the University of Namibia to work on areas of needed assistance, including developing content for information literacy instruction, pedagogical skills for library staff, strategic planning, providing electronic resources, marketing, collection development, benchmarking, and research and academic writing. Finnish librarians visited Namibia in November 2011 and there was a strong showing of Namibian librarians this year at IFLA.
Another big topic at the conference was library services for traditional knowledge and cultures. As Dr. Loriene Roy, convener of the SIG for Indigenous Matters and former ALA president, said, “The I in IFLA stands for Indigenous.” The programs on this topic were highlighted by President Ingrid Parent, who noted in her Opening Address IFLA’s commitment to the preservation of indigenous knowledge with efforts aimed at organization, ownership, and stewardship. In “Empowering library services for indigenous people,” Sarah Stang and Adrienne Vedan of the University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus presented on the library as a partner for Canada First Nations student success. The “Aboriginal Access Studies Program provides an opportunity for Indigenous students who would not otherwise qualify for admission to enroll in university studies,” according to the abstract of the paper Stang and Vedan submitted to IFLA.
Their plan is holistic, and one feature of library support for student study skills is that the librarian makes a more personal, directed effort to meet the students in their preferred environment and preferred way of learning, in order to connect with students on their own terms. For example, she will go to the student center to work on her laptop, so she can be present where students are and answer questions or help them in a context outside of the library. Stang also teaches a class called “Digital Tattoo: Highly Visible and Hard to Remove” about personal privacy in the digital world.
In “Civil Rights in a Digital Environment,” the President’s Theme Session, one speaker was Anna Troberg, the leader of the Swedish Pirate Party. Troberg spoke passionately and eloquently about the need to change current copyright laws and the complications of wanting to think globally about data control even though laws are developed nationally. Troberg said it has always been difficult making a living off of culture but has never been easier than today, when publishers aren’t necessarily needed: an author can take charge of their own career and have their work on Amazon (and in English) in about two days. She ended with a plea to librarians to stand up to book publishers and “don’t take crap” from politicians, because together as a profession we have the voice to negotiate better terms than those politicians and publishers are trying to dictate.
A multimedia “Banned Books Video Calendar” was presented by the Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) Committee. This committee created video shorts to promote and endorse books that have been challenged. The project was supported by a number of organizations, including the National Library of Scotland, National Library of Finland, IFLA, National Library of the Netherlands, Europeana, and the American Library Association.”
WHY IFLA MATTERS
Attendees said of the conference that it was good to be “a part of a global professional group (library people) who in general have the same goal (providing access to information) but have different challenges and solutions around the world” and “absolutely worth going to,” though others said the conference was “too big” and some sessions were “too general.”
IFLA 2013 will be held in Singapore, and the librarians attending from Singapore were rallying the crowd to join them next year. At the closing ceremony there was a video welcome to “Future Libraries: Infinite Possibilities” showing highlights of Singapore to look forward to. The anxiously awaited announcement was that IFLA WLIC 2014 will be held in Lyon, France, prompting that country’s participants to literally show the flag!
I did meet a few Americans at the conference – most notably Miraida Morales and Anjali Goyal, MLIS students at Rutgers University who presented a very interesting study they did on the Arab Spring and transliteracy practices in their poster, “Identifying Key Skills of Transliterate Users.” I also met post-doctoral researcher Sarah Webb and some friendly students from Syracuse School of Information Studies. Webb and the students had just come from Florence, Italy, where they had just finished an international study opportunity in an international librarianship course.
Unfortunately, I don’t know of any opportunities for scholarships to attend IFLA. This is a shame because I think it is increasingly important for American library professionals to be globally aware and involved. This connection is absent from the conferences I have attended at the local and national level. While these conferences keep me abreast of shifts in academic library efforts and methods in the United States, they don’t connect American librarians to the broader network of library professionals throughout the world the way IFLA did. This was echoed by two IFLA officers who offered their advice at the Newcomers Session as well. FAIFE Chair and former president of IFLA, Alex Byrne, characterized the gathering as “like other conferences, but more.” Ian Yap, Information Coordinator for the Libraries for Children and Young Adults Section, from Singapore characterized IFLA as a family and a way to connect with the best practices of the world. Inspiring and innovative work is happening in libraries around the world, and this congress of like-minded professionals brought home just how much we can learn from beyond our borders.
Jennifer Ward is Outreach Services Librarian / Associate Professor of Library Science University of Alaska Southeast Juneau