Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Back Talk — Around the World with IFLA

Back Talk — Around the World with IFLA

by | Feb 1, 2024 | 1 comment


Column Editor:  Ann Okerson  (Director, Offline Internet Consortium) 

Against the Grain V35#5

My 2024 calendar has a hole in it.  When I look forward to August 2024, I keep expecting to see a week blocked out for travel, travel that’s been a turning point of the year for me almost since I became a  librarian.  Officially, it’s called the IFLA World Library and Information Congress, WLIC for short.  That’s the annual in-person meeting of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, the closest thing we have to a world library association.

It is, in fact, an association of associations, as the name indicates, founded originally in Scotland in 1927.  When it started, it was international without being at all global, but by my lifetime, it truly has spread its wings around the world.  The annual meetings in August were for many years conducted in Europe, with the first real exception being Toronto in 1967.  Only in 1980 did a convening in Manila go beyond what was conventionally thought of in those days as the “first world.”  Four times in the 80s, six in the 90s:  an average of four times a decade since IFLA has met well beyond its original geographical limits.

WLIC has grown and now it brings some three thousand people to a major city with a good-sized convention center for most of a week of meetings and networking.  It’s always a high point of the professional calendar.

Some of the success of WLIC is the way it introduces attendees to places we wouldn’t have gone otherwise, but most of it is the people.  I’ve always found it enriching to get outside my geographical professional zone.  Meeting and getting to know and listen to librarians who follow the library profession in places I’ll never visit, appreciating how so many of our issues overlap and sometimes how our interests compete or even conflict — broadening for the work I do.  Over time, because of being involved in IFLA committees and various times having served in officer roles, IFLA contacts there have led to other invitations or travel.  There were those exciting times of doing international workshops on coping with the onrushing new reality of electronic journals and books:  how to license them, how to make them available to library patrons, how to help library patrons become skilled at their use.  Those were some heady times.

Some of the WLICs came with adventures in their own right.  My very first came when IFLA met in Moscow in 1991.  I jumped with a young professional’s glee on the chance to attend, because it meant I could detour afterwards to Kyiv to meet in person the Ukrainian relatives I’d grown up hearing about in distant San Francisco.  That was the most eventful WLIC in history, because, a day before it was to begin, Moscow was brought to a standstill by the anti-Gorbachev putsch.  Everyone was instructed to stay indoors and avoid public spaces.  My roommate friend Barbara Von Wahlde and I nonetheless charged out on the (empty) Moscow metro to see what was going on.  In consequence, we have astonishing photos taken with Soviet tanks on the streets of Moscow.  (WLIC itself was cancelled then, as one country after another called their delegates home, but I did get to Kyiv, and my newly-met cousin Slava and I were able to join the crowd outside the Ukrainian parliament the day that country officially declared its independence.)

The pandemic and post-pandemic years have been challenging for WLIC, when we lost 2020 entirely, had 2021 as an all-virtual conference online, and struggled back with meetings in Dublin in 2022 and Rotterdam in 2023.  We were set to convene in Dubai in August 2024 but lost the opportunity when a cloud of controversy over program restrictions was dispelled by the host committee determining the event could not go forward.  That decision has reminded us of the tensions and distances that separate people in the world, but also of the complexities of bringing thousands of people together in any one place.  The costs of travel, differences in local laws and customs, and the beady eye of skeptical visa officers all conspire to make almost any location difficult for some and less inclusive than we wish it could be.

I’m sorry to see us come to such a pass.  The Moscow sojourn was an adventure, but much of my global cultural and professional education has taken place in these meetings.  Two visits to China a decade apart showed us still-Maoist society in 1996 (when we were glad to have the Hard Rock Café across from our hotel for meals) and a very different world for a preconference in Shanghai 10 years later, when we stayed in a sleek hotel on the famous Bund facing the explosively wealthy Pudong neighborhood across the river, before going on to the equally advanced world of Seoul, South Korea, for the main event.  A year after that, we were introduced to the realities of emerging democracy in South Africa with a conference in Durban, a city strongly marked by the difficulties that nation was bravely facing in building a truly inclusive society.  Meeting the many African librarians who came to that WLIC (easier for them because it was in their region) was eye-opening.

The professional encounters and opportunities are to be cherished.  I’ve now been working for a few years (and wrote about the work in this column) on the Offline Internet Consortium, a band of innovators and explorers working hard to bring network-quality information to the half of the world’s population that doesn’t have or can’t properly use broadband networks.  The idea for that consortium was born out of a session at WLIC in Wroclaw, Poland, in 2017 when we happened to hear Japri Masli from Sarawak in Malaysia (he was then a rising star and now director of the state library there) describe a low-tech and high-touch project he was leading to bring offline internet to rural Sarawak.  I had already heard of two similar projects, one based in Arizona and another based in France, and had the impulse to see what we could do to identify more such groups and bring them together with common interests.

I’ve served on multiple IFLA committees in various roles, including three stints on the  IFLA Professional Council that oversees the work of many hundreds of volunteers who come together in the professional sections (committees, one could call them) and special interest groups that facilitate meeting, information sharing, and collaboration among like-minded people from around the world.  The Library Publishing Special Interest Group is close to my heart — starting with an IFLA preconference in Ann Arbor in 2016, when the main WLIC was in Columbus, Ohio;  then taking off two years later with an organizing meeting in Kuala Lumpur;  and since then hosting exciting programmatic meetings in Dublin in 2019, in Oslo in 2020 (the week before the pandemic landed on us), and Rotterdam in 2023.  In 2024, we’re looking at Istanbul as a venue, because we’ve seen the energizing results of librarians finding ways to support modest but targeted publishing projects — usually open access in distribution — that give voice to communities not advantaged by the mass media and record and disseminate cultural history of people who might otherwise be forgotten.

Istanbul has been chosen because of its fledgling library publishing programs, because of its location straddling Europe and the Middle East, the relative ease of attracting a wider audience (beyond Europe and North America), and in lieu of gathering for the annual WLIC.  We’ll be sorry not to see as many friends and colleagues as we usually do.  These networks of people brought together around the world are precious opportunities for librarianship to find ways to reach out further and support users more effectively in communities of every kind.  You might not be reading this column if the Charleston Conference weren’t some part of your life and you know what is possible on that scale.  The global work of IFLA is like Charleston but with hugely wider horizons.  

1 Comment

  1. Derek Law

    I too remember Manila and Moscow. Like Charleston the great thing about IFLA was meeting old friends and meeting new ones. And I also loved tasting different foods and finding different cultures


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