Strong Libraries, Heritage, and Crises: IFLA in Africa

The World Library and Information Congress in Cape Town

September 23, 2015

The Mzansi Youth Choir of Soweto performs at the opening session of the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Cape Town. Photo: George M. Eberhart
The Mzansi Youth Choir of Soweto performs at the opening session of the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Cape Town. Photo: George M. Eberhart

Storytelling, dancing, and rousing songs by the Mzansi Youth Choir of Soweto set the stage for the 81st International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA) World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) in Cape Town, South Africa, August 15–21. A total of 3,190 library delegates from 112 countries were present for this year’s event, themed “Dynamic Libraries: Access, Development, Transformation.” This is only the third time that IFLA has had an African venue for its WLIC—Durban, South Africa, in 2007 and Nairobi, Kenya, in 1984 were the earlier locations.

The opening session on August 16 began with a dynamic performance by South African actor, poet, and author Gcina Mhlophe, one of the few women storytellers in the country. Against a backdrop of images of African scenery and wildlife, Mhlophe described how creativity and musical rhythm were born long ago on the continent, and people used ancient wisdoms to develop and grow. But as they left their homeland, “people forgot what Mother Africa felt and looked like,” Mhlophe said. “But all peoples of the world will find their way back to Africa—like sea turtles traveling back to where they first hatched. Welcome home! You are no strangers here.”

The Mzansi Youth Choir, a troupe of young men and women ages 12–24 who have sung and danced at music festivals worldwide, followed with a rendition of the late South African singer Miriam Makeba’s 1967 hit “Pata Pata,” accompanied by some dazzling choreography that had delegates rising from their seats and swaying with the rhythm.

Cape Town Declaration

There was indeed much to celebrate, because just two days earlier, IFLA President Sinikka Sipilä joined ministers and cultural representatives from 13 African countries in Cape Town to discuss the status of libraries and access to information on the continent. These talks resulted in a document known as the Cape Town Declaration, which includes resolutions to:

  • provide the necessary resources for the development of African libraries to respond to modern-day challenges by offering access to emerging technologies
  • encourage the use of ebooks and virtual libraries to facilitate cultural and scientific exchange and encourage a culture of reading on the continent
  • promote library policies on access to information as part of a universal human rights approach
  • encourage the collection and preservation of stories from indigenous African communities
  • require the African ministers responsible for arts and culture, libraries, and access to information to meet regularly.

The signatories to the declaration were the countries of Angola, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, South Sudan, and Swaziland.

Expanding the information universe

On hand at the opening session to talk about the declaration was South African Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa, who compared it to “hosting our own World Cup.” He said that libraries do “make a difference” as spaces that can “revolutionize and transform our people’s lives for the better by promoting social cohesion across international borders.” The Cape Town Declaration, he said, was in part inspired by the principles enshrined in the 2006 Charter for African Cultural Renaissance, and the ministers welcomed IFLA’s perspective on the United Nations’ ongoing efforts to develop a post-2015 framework for future global development—an agenda in which “everyone has access to and is able to understand, use, and share the information that is necessary to promote sustainable development and democratic societies.”

Mthethwa said the declaration’s intention was to make sure that “libraries do not get left out of this international agenda.” The goal is to create a global information society “where the culture of reading is the way of life.”

IFLA opening session keynote speaker, nuclear physicist Rob Adam. Photo: George M. Eberhart
IFLA opening session keynote speaker, nuclear physicist Rob Adam. Photo: George M. Eberhart

Another way that the global information society is being created is through the acquisition, storage, and analysis of Big Data, especially in the physical sciences. Opening session keynote speaker Rob Adam gave delegates an update on what he calls “one of the greatest scientific endeavors in history”—the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project being constructed in the deserts of South Africa and Western Australia. SKA will become the “world’s largest radiotelescope,” Adam said, and will “involve the world’s finest scientists, engineers, and policymakers” from at least 10 countries in its design over the next 10 years.

Adam is a South African nuclear physicist who, after being imprisoned in Pretoria for 10 years as an anti-apartheid activist and member of the African National Congress, went on to become a leader in scientific development for the new democratic government. He lobbied vigorously to have his country be a primary partner in the SKA project, and at the end of 2015 he will become SKA’s South African director through 2020.

The SKA will involve a connected series of radiotelescopes with a combined surface area of one square kilometer, hence its name. It will have the imaging resolution of the Hubble telescope, require high-performance computers faster than any in existence in 2015, and “generate data traffic at a comparable level to the current global internet,” Adam said. All this will require a Big Data storage and retrieval plan that is currently under development.

Adam said that current radiotelescopes can detect planets orbiting other stars, but Phase One of SKA (scheduled to be fully operational in 2020) will be able to “detect radar signals from those planets” and Phase Two (scheduled for 2025) will be able to “detect television broadcasts from those planets” (should any exist).

How data sharing transforms lives

Storytelling and data sharing were also featured in OCLC’s Industry Symposium, held on August 16. Erik van Lubeek, vice president and managing director of OCLC’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa region (EMEA), explained that OCLC has a long history of working with libraries to build national bibliographies but that today’s vision extends beyond national borders. “Library networks see the value of working globally,” he said, “because their users are asking for it” and benefiting by it.

This is the basic concept behind OCLC’s new branding effort for its WorldShare platform, the web architecture that provides access to its WorldCat data. Introduced in July, the trademarked catchphrase is that knowledge knows no bounds “because what is known must be shared.” OCLC Director of Sales and Marketing for EMEA Dénelise L’Ecluse explained that advances in technology “change how libraries and OCLC collaborate.” The new goal is to “bring libraries together to share the world’s collective knowledge,” she said, and this session explored several stories about how this sharing has led to breakthroughs in people’s lives.

Perhaps the most poignant was provided by Ebinumoliseh Ifeoma, a postgraduate student in chemistry at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa, who fought for many years for her right to an education. A Nigerian national, Ifeoma had to apply to a South African university to obtain a bachelor’s degree because universities in Nigeria “have outdated books, no internet access, and few of the right chemicals and equipment” she needed. “The South African government,” on the other hand, “makes it easy to study,” she added.

One major factor in her quest to earn a postgraduate degree was UKZN’s vision to become a first-class institution of African scholarship. In order to do this, the university asked OCLC and Sabinet, a South African provider of online documents and journals, to get the library up to speed with scientific publications on the WorldShare platform. Sabinet Managing Director Rosalind Hattingh told the group that WorldShare data migration and staff training was implemented in a record four months, allowing the platform to go live on January 6.

Ifeoma said that this year’s “access to repositories of high-quality scientific information” is making all the difference in her current research on the causes of cancer and diabetes. By using these resources she said she was able to submit an article of her own for publication and is well on her way to an advanced degree. From a student’s perspective, she said, “only when we work together do we advance faster and further.”

A packed exhibits hall

(left to right) ALA Past President Courtney Young, current ALA President Sari Feldman, and ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels in the WLIC exhibits hall. Photo: George M. Eberhart
(left to right) ALA Past President Courtney Young, current ALA President Sari Feldman, and ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels in the WLIC exhibits hall. Photo: George M. Eberhart

Visitors crowded the exhibit hall in search of information, wine, and snacks during the opening reception on August 16. Some 65 companies, libraries, and organizations were available at the WLIC for consultation, including ALA, where Past President Courtney Young, current President Sari Feldman, and Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels often turned up to greet attendees and share information.

Each of the nine provinces of South Africa had a booth, courtesy of the National Library, that showcased the public libraries in their region. The Free State Provincial Library Services, for example, provided brochures about their ebook service, offered through OverDrive, which lets users borrow up to six titles at a time.

Edward Fungo, street librarian

Inside the exhibits space was a special area for product presentations and other demos. The Library Channel, a public television program funded by Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, screened three of its recent documentaries on library initiatives in Namibia and Tanzania at this venue. One of the documentaries on Namibian libraries, Gateway to the World (2013), is available for viewing on the Library Channel website. The other, Library Connection: Vantaa–Windhoek (2014), will be available online soon.

The most recent documentary, Street Librarian (2015), is about an outreach librarian in the Morogoro region of Tanzania who has taken upon himself the job of making the country an information-literate society, one person at a time. Edward Fungo—working with the help of Libraries for Development, a project of the Finnish Library Association in cooperation with libraries in Namibia and Tanzania—travels to towns and villages in rural areas to train teachers in the basics of computers. Fungo says the villagers often have mobile phones but rarely have access to computers with an internet connection. He hopes that will soon change as the government realizes the potential for economic advancement that a computer-literate population enables.

Street Librarian will be available on the Library Channel website after it premieres nationally in Finland.

Strong libraries, strong societies

All seven of the speakers at the IFLA President’s Program on August 17 emphasized the potent links between libraries, information access, literacy, and national economic development. The session title, “Strong Libraries, Strong Societies: Access, Development, Transformation,” highlighted IFLA President Sipilä’s own theme of libraries as essential players in the empowerment of individuals to create sustainable societies.

Former IFLA President Ellen Tise noted that on August 2 the member states of the United Nations reached a consensus on an intensely negotiated and ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that spells out steps governments must take to eradicate poverty, take action on climate change, achieve universal literacy, safeguard cultural heritage, and expand access to useful technologies.

Target 16.10 of the 2030 Agenda, Tise said, ensures “public access to information and protects fundamental freedoms”—a clear opportunity for libraries to help fulfill their country’s national development plans through access to information, as outlined in IFLA’s 2014 Lyon Declaration. The UN will adopt the 2030 Agenda during its summit in New York on September 25–27.

The next speaker, Rejoice Mabudafhasi, South African deputy minister for arts and culture as well as a former librarian at the University of the North, said that people in her country are “looking forward to the changes” that the UN agenda promises. Many of them are embodied in the multinational African Union’s Agenda 2063, a global strategy to optimize African resources for the benefit of all Africans (“The future we want for Africa” is its tagline). Mabudafhasi said her goals were to put as many libraries as possible in rural areas and encourage youth to become librarians.

Libraries as a force for development

Getachew Engida, deputy director-general of UNESCO, reminded delegates about the IFLA/UNESCO Manifesto of 1994, a document that “hasn’t aged a day” and that proclaims the “public library as a living force for education, culture, and information.” Today more than ever, “public libraries are becoming core actors in providing lifelong opportunities,” Engida said, and “by 2030, some 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Public libraries will then be hubs for talent, support, and collective action” that will drive economic growth. “President Nelson Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. I say that libraries are the most powerful weapons in that arsenal that can attain that goal.”

Stanley Simataa, Namibia’s deputy minister of information and communication technology, spoke eloquently about libraries and information as a “better way to extricate people from the deep depression of poverty and income inequality.” His country also has a development plan, Vision 2030, that recognizes the role played by libraries in helping Namibia become an industrialized and knowledge-based society, but, he admits the overwhelming challenges they face in achieving this goal. “One thing that frustrates our efforts,” he said, “is the pervasive lack of appreciation of the significance of reading. If you put $1 million in a library book and reshelved it, no one would find it.”

Simataa also lamented the “pervasively high illiteracy rates” in Africa. “Governments must snap out of their meditative stance on libraries and information hubs,” he said. “They are not an afterthought; they are vital cogs in our national transformation and development. Information is the oxygen that ventilates the developmental hopes and aspirations of all peoples.”

South Africa’s National Library

National Librarian of South Africa Rocky Ralebipi-Simela wound up the President’s Program with an overview of the National Library of South Africa and its predecessor institutions. “The history of the national library mirrors the development of the country itself,” Ralebipi-Simela said. “It reflects the changing leadership, thinking, and needs of the nation over time.”

In 1818, the South African Public Library was established in Cape Town by the governor of the Cape Colony and was soon enhanced by a collection of some 4,500 volumes brought to the continent by settler J. N. van Dessin. Its purpose was to “educate young people and promote religious education,” Ralebipi-Simela said. A state library was established in Pretoria in 1882 (then in the separate country of Transvaal) that became a depository library in 1898. These two libraries later formed the basis for the creation in November 1999 of the National Library as it is today.

Ralebipi-Simela emphasized that the role of these libraries prior to democracy in 1994 was Eurocentric: “Ninety percent of the collections of some 5 million items said little or nothing about indigenous peoples. They reflected the lives and experiences of essentially foreign cultures.”

Today in democratic South Africa, the National Library is under the umbrella of the Department of Arts and Culture, which has “social cohesion and nation building” as a national strategy. Ralebipi-Simela said that the library’s major programming objectives are to “promote an awareness and appreciation of the country’s national documentary heritage and to promote information awareness and information literacy.” A new focus on home-grown literature has included the reprinting of 100 popular books in indigenous languages for use in local public libraries. “The democratic role of the National Library of South Africa,” she said, “is to contribute to socioeconomic development” and “provide access to the nation’s information resources.”

Ralebipi-Simela summed up the entire session: “Strong nations have strong libraries, weak nations have weak libraries.”

Poster sessions and a portal

Shingi Muzondo explains the Africa Portal. Photo: George M. Eberhart
Shingi Muzondo explains the Africa Portal. Photo: George M. Eberhart

One useful and entertaining feature of the IFLA Congress is its poster sessions, where individuals and groups can showcase their work through printed posters or graphics and discuss their projects with other congress attendees. This year’s sessions featured 132 posters from 44 countries.

The Africa Portal is a good example of a poster project that was both relevant and well described. Started in 2011 by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Canada and the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), the portal provides free, open access policy information on Africa by reputable research organizations that might otherwise be difficult to find. Subjects include climate change, health, migration, energy, conflict resolution, and economic development.

SAIIA Partnership Coordinator Shingi Muzondo said that portal managers upload documents from 56 global partners (primarily Africa-based) and catalog them online for easy discovery. “Part of our work,” Muzondo said, “is to train librarians to make the best use of the portal for their students and patrons. We recently finished training 28 librarians at the University of Botswana as well as staff at the National Library of South Africa.” Special libraries, news libraries, and government and diplomatic libraries also benefit from the information, as do universities.

Another poster had content that would be quite familiar to US librarians: “Documenting Ferguson,” a project of Washington University in St. Louis. It is a freely available resource that preserves and makes accessible the digital media captured and created by community members following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. The project seeks to provide diverse perspectives on the events in Ferguson and the resulting social dialogue.

Expressly about the Marrakesh Treaty

On August 18, the IFLA Committee on Copyright and Other Legal Matters (CLM) held a panel session on the Marrakesh VIP Treaty, an important international copyright agreement signed by 51 countries in Marrakesh, Morocco, on June 28, 2013. Representatives from IFLA worked closely with delegates from the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to provide a library perspective on the treaty, which allows (without the express permission of the rights holder) the production of accessible copies of books for visually disabled persons, even across international borders.

Anne Leer, WIPO deputy director for copyright and related rights, said that the reason the treaty was so massively successful was because “IFLA members were so active in promoting it. This is a good example of what we can achieve if we communicate what is needed on national and international levels.” The message was simple, she added, “because it addressed a single issue”—providing information to the visually challenged community.

Leer said that WIPO continues to serve these users through the Accessible Books Consortium, which attempts to ensure that publications that are “born digital are also born accessible.” It is “building an international database of titles in accessible format,” the Trusted Intermediary Global Accessible Resources (TIGAR service) that contains more than 286,000 titles in more than 55 different languages.

Tobias Schonwetter, director of the Intellectual Property Unit of the Faculty of Law at the University of Cape Town, noted that the Marrakesh Treaty was the “first treaty that, instead of expanding the rights of copyright holders, actually focused on copyright exceptions.” For those unfamiliar with treaty law, he explained the differences between concluding, signing, and ratifying or accessioning a treaty: “To conclude a treaty means that negotiating countries agree on the final text. Signing a treaty is a preliminary endorsement and signals the intent to examine the terms of the treaty more closely. When a negotiating country ratifies a treaty, that means it agrees to adhere to its terms. If a country accessions a treaty, it agrees to become a party to a treaty already negotiated and signed by other states.”

Schonwetter said that the Marrakesh Treaty requires 20 ratifications before it enters into force. To date, 10 countries have ratified it and 10 others are likely to do so by 2016.

Colleen Cook, dean of libraries at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, clarified that the Marrakesh Treaty will go into general effect three months after 20 countries ratify it. She explained that Canada, which has long supported legislation for individuals with disabilities, “played a large role in the Marrakesh negotiations,” with Canadian delegates “involved in most of the discussions.”

The final panelist was Peter Jaszi, a copyright expert on the faculty of American University’s Washington College of Law, who “felt compelled” to point out some “significant challenges ahead” in implementing a treaty that is “widely regarded as a famous victory.”

Libraries in times of crisis

The IFLA Congress always provides a “cultural evening” that offers a musical, culinary, and choreographic taste of the host country. The musical highlight was a powerful performance by 3 Tons of Fun, Cape Town’s most popular all-female group, who belted out American soul classics as well as South African pop tunes. Photo: George M. Eberhart
The IFLA Congress always provides a “cultural evening” that offers a musical, culinary, and choreographic taste of the host country. The musical highlight was a powerful performance by 3 Tons of Fun, Cape Town’s most popular all-female group, who belted out American soul classics as well as South African pop tunes. Photo: George M. Eberhart

The IFLA Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) held a panel discussion August 18 titled “The Role of Library and Information Workers in a Time of Crisis.”

Simon Edwards, director of professional services for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in the UK, said the scope of potential crises that librarians face worldwide is vast, ranging from personal crises to community, national, and global crises that threaten the entire species. “Government agencies also classify crises as sudden (with an immediate impact) and smoldering (a long-term crisis of attrition),” he said. “Libraries play subtly different roles in supporting communities in each.”

Edwards said that US libraries in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas played vital roles in providing services before, during, and after the 2005 season that spawned the devastating hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. They served as information and safety hubs that helped people locate individuals, fill out Federal Emergency Management Agency forms, find disaster information, obtain supplies, and recharge electronic devices.

IFLA Policy and Projects Officer Julia Brungs said that documentary heritage is often a primary or secondary target during a conflict, and IFLA works closely with the Blue Shield international organization and UNESCO in affected regions and countries to minimize damage to cultural heritage. After the April 25 earthquake that destroyed library buildings and books in Nepal, IFLA worked to find funding sources in the region to help the Nepalese rebuild their libraries and restore their collections.

Brungs said that IFLA was building an online Risk Register for Documentary Cultural Heritage that identifies unique collections worldwide so that when a natural or man-made disaster strikes in the area, heritage workers will be able to respond more quickly to determine the extent of the damage. “This is a secure database that is not accessible by anyone but the IFLA staff,” she said.

Five librarians selected as OCLC Fellows

On August 18 at the WLIC, OCLC, along with IFLA, named five librarians to participate in the Jay Jordan IFLA/OCLC Early Career Development Fellowship Program for 2016. The program supports LIS professionals from countries with developing economies.

The 2016 fellows are:

  • Idowu Adebgilero-Iwari, Elizade University, Nigeria
  • Željko Dimitrijevi, National Library of Serbia
  • Penninah Musangi, Karatina University, Kenya
  • Rhea Jade Nabusan, Tarlac College of Agriculture, Philippines
  • Shaharima Parvin, East West University, Bangladesh

The fellowship program offers advanced continuing education and exposure to a broad range of issues in information technologies, library operations, and global cooperative librarianship. With the selection of the five fellows for the class of 2016, the program has now welcomed 80 LIS professionals from 38 countries.

Hypatia and the philosophy of knowledge

Chi Mhende as Hypatia and David Muller as a journalist in The Hypatiad. Photo: Natalia Molebatsi
Chi Mhende as Hypatia and David Muller as a journalist in The Hypatiad. Photo: Natalia Molebatsi

IFLA delegates were treated on August 19 to a dynamic performance of a one-act play written by Richard Higgs, a guest lecturer at the Library and Information Studies Centre at the University of Cape Town who has considerable acting experience. The Hypatiad was written for and first performed at the 2014 Annual Conference of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) in Boksburg.

The play centers on the life of Hypatia, a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who lived and taught in Alexandria, Egypt, and was killed by a Christian mob in AD 415. In introducing the play, former LIASA President Naomi Haasbroek said that after its first performance it resulted in many provocative discussions “about access to information, knowledge, politics, philosophy, and the role of myths and legends” in society.

The play was performed by the actors Chi Mhende as Hypatia and David Muller as a journalist who summons Hypatia up from the shadows to shed light on a fictional postrevolutionary world in which rebel librarians race against time to digitize and preserve literary works that have been proclaimed “degenerate.” After the performance, playwright Higgs was on hand to answer questions. He said he had always been fascinated by the Hypatia story as well as the Library of Alexandria, but his real inspiration was the burning of a number of South African public libraries during civil demonstrations in the past 10 years and how the concept of burning libraries enters into the collective consciousness.

Rewarding the past, looking to the future

The closing session took place August 20 as current IFLA President Sipilä, secretary general of the Finnish Library Association, handed over the gavel to incoming President Donna Scheeder, president of Library Strategies International in Washington, D.C.

Awards at the closing session included naming IFLA Past President Ingrid Parent, university librarian at the University of British Columbia, as Honorary Fellow, IFLA’s highest award. The award noted her “landmark work” in producing the 2013 IFLA Trend Report, which identified five high-level trends that are shaping the information society.

Among other awards, the IFLA Professional Unit Communication Award went to the IFLA Public Libraries Section for its communication strategies and roadmap to a digital future; and Best IFLA Poster for 2015, which went to Brigitte Doellgast and Niall McNulty of South Africa for their “Digitized Memory Toolkit,” a free resource to assist community projects.

The 2016 World Library and Information Congress will meet in Columbus, Ohio, August 13–19, with local hosts the Columbus Metropolitan Library and the Ohio State University Libraries.

Sipilä announced that the 2017 World Library and Information Congress would be held in Wrocław, Poland. The mayor of Wrocław, Rafał Dutkiewicz, was on hand to encourage delegates to attend. He reminded everyone that the city is pronounced “Vrotslove” and that all will love their experiences there.


Workers remove rubble and earth from the foot of a temple destroyed in the April 25 earthquake in Nepal. Photo:

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