Architectural landmark Centennial Hall in Wrocław, Poland, has hosted World Games athletes, Pope John Paul II, and the Dalai Lama. Now add to that list 3,000 library professionals representing 120 countries.
“It is time for you, at this conference, to engage and explore,” said Donna Scheeder, president of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), to the crowd gathered for the Opening Session of the 2017 World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) on August 20. “I’m sure among this group is a future IFLA president somewhere.”
Speakers seemed to agree that Wrocław and Poland, a city and a country that have seen their share of political upheaval, wartime destruction, natural disaster, reinvention, and recovery, would provide an inspiring backdrop for this type of professional engagement and exploration.
“[It’s] a nation undaunted by adversity,” Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski, professor of Polish-Lithuanian history at University College London, impressed upon the crowd. He began his keynote presentation with a question: “Where were you going, Poland, before you were so rudely interrupted?”
Butterwick-Pawlikowski recounted the many times throughout history (starting with the 16th century) that Poland—often suffering under “the prejudice that democracy ‘came late’ to Eastern Europe”—was ahead of its time with regard to women’s rights, neutralizing the nobility, and governmental checks and balances, but kept getting deterred. “The context always changes after an interruption,” he said.
One of those interruptions was World War II, in which Poland lost 70% of all its library collections. “This loss is unequaled in modern history,” said Tomasz Makowski, director of the National Library of Poland in Warsaw. Today, Poland has 32,000 public, school, academic, and other types of libraries—about one for every 1,000 Polish residents—but Makowski says it’s more important than ever to safeguard cultural materials in their diverse forms.
Underscoring the beauty, sadness, and resiliency of Poland’s modern history, a group of local dancers, acrobats, musicians, and vocalists took to the stage at the Opening Session to artistically interpret other catalyzing events, including the Solidarność (Solidarity) social movement that advocated for workers’ rights and the flood that devastated and unified Wrocław in 1997.
IFLA looks to the future
“We will not be successful unless each of us makes an individual commitment to a joint response,” said Scheeder. She sees opportunities for library professionals to collaborate on ideas to close the information inequality gap, for ways libraries can continue to contribute to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and for feedback regarding IFLA’s own Global Vision discussions.
At the plenary session “5 Days in 45 Minutes,” IFLA Secretary General Gerald Leitner launched the Library Map of the World, an online resource that aims to create awareness of the state of the libraries in the world, communicate basic metrics that describe the library landscape, demonstrate evidence of libraries’ impact, and inspire more countries to collect and contribute data and stories. The map so far features data from 95 contributors reporting on 1.8 million libraries in 78 countries.
Libraries overcoming crisis
Day One illuminated adverse times in nations’ histories with the session “Libraries in Times of Crisis: Historical Perspectives.” Among the presenters were Iyra S. Buenrostro, PhD candidate at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Johann Frederick A. Cabbab, assistant professor in LIS at the University of the Philippines Diliman, who shared with attendees the role that libraries had in fighting for people’s freedoms and rights in response to martial law in the Philippines under dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
For instance, the University of the Philippines Diliman Main Library served as a safe haven during martial law, circulating underground and antigovernment publications, pamphlets, and handbills hidden in the “nooks and crannies” of the library or stashed secretly in the rare book section.
Other stories and studies shared included the destruction of the Széchenyi National Casino and its library in Budapest, Hungary; libraries affected by the ongoing Somali Civil War; the National Library of Iran in the War of the Cities during the Iran-Iraq War; and how the Rockefeller Foundation and American Library Association aided in the post–World War II rehabilitation of Asian and European libraries.
Improving access for marginalized populations
The theme of inclusion pervaded the second day of the conference, with presenters sharing research and case studies framing ways that library professionals can improve access to information—especially for marginalized users, including indigenous populations.
“I think it’s very important that users see themselves in the library,” said Richard E. Sapon-White, catalog librarian at Oregon State University. For many, inclusion starts with subject access and bibliography. Sapon-White was on hand to discuss his paper, “Retrieving Oregon Indians from Obscurity: A Project to Enhance Access to Resources on Tribal History and Culture,” and the limitations of Library of Congress Subject Headings when it comes to classifying Indian tribes in the United States.
“There are about 45 or 50 Indian tribes that live or have lived in Oregon. You could search for a specific tribe by looking for topical headings,” he noted, but terminology can be problematic. For example, subject headings may include various misspellings, mispronunciations, or derogatory nicknames that were given to the tribe by other tribes or the government.
Siri K. Gaski and her team at the National Library of Norway are also hoping to give researchers better access to resources on a specific indigenous population: the Sami people, who live in an area of Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden known as the Sápmi region.
“It’s a nation without borders,” said Gaski, who estimates there are between 50,000 and 500,000 people who identify as Sami. “It’s hard to say because of politics and assimilation.”
The National Library of Norway is coordinating a joint bibliography with the Rovaniemi City Library in Finland, the Murmansk State Regional Universal Scientific Library in Russia, and Ájtte, the Swedish Mountain and Sami Museum, to centralize searching and information. The bibliography, which launched this year in English and the most commonly spoken Sami dialect, is managed on the BIBSYS platform.
“The ideal here would that we’d be able to present it in all the majority languages and all the Sami languages,” said Gaski. “We decided it’s better to be able to release something that’s good enough now than wait at least another 20 years for something to be perfect.”
Is your library a safe space for LGBTQ users? Are the stories of LGBQT people represented in your collections? Are LGBTQ community members getting the information they need the most? These questions were top of mind at “Intersectionality: Libraries and the Intersection of LGBTQ+ Lives,” a session sponsored by the LGBTQ Users Special Interest Group.
Raymond Pun, first-year student success librarian at California State University, Fresno, focused his presentation on libraries that are adopting gender-all, gender-neutral, or gender-inclusive bathrooms or bathroom policies at their facilities.
“It’s really important to start having this dialogue with your communities,” said Pun. “Libraries have a responsibility to provide patrons with a space where they’re not at risk.” He was quick to add, however, that the gender-bathroom issue is layered in cultural, political, social, and economic aspects that may be different for every library and its community.
Going beyond bathrooms, it’s important for members of the transgender community to feel like they have a voice, said Jeannie Bail, director of learning and research services at the University of New Brunswick Libraries. Bail presented on the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, formally established in 2011 and the world’s largest and first archive entirely dedicated to material about trans and gender-nonconforming people. She remarked that libraries are underutilized as an information source for and by the transgender community.
Martin Morris, librarian at McGill University in Montréal, addressed intersectionality in his presentation on the sexual health information needs of people who are both LGBTQ and deaf, and how the overlap or intersection of these social identities can exacerbate discrimination.
“Deaf people tend to have much more trust for visual information produced by other members of their own community who may not be experts in the field, who may provide inaccurate information,” said Morris. He says the reason for this is that our culture of audism (discrimination against deaf people) discourages and shames visual communication, and this is especially true when it comes to sexual health information.
A core finding of Morris’s research indicates there is a strong need for information, education, and visibility of HIV resources online and in American Sign Language to increase knowledge and build trust. He thinks that librarians can go beyond mere information requests, such as looking for opportunities to partner with the deaf LGBTQ community or just learning a few words in one of the more than 300 sign languages.
Call for transparency
Questions of transparency and access were explored on the third day of the conference.
“Prior to 2010, the people of Kenya never used to engage with the government,” said Marale Sande, senior research and policy analyst at the Parliament of Kenya, in “Parliament and the People: Transparency, Openness, and Engagement.”
In 2010, the country adopted a new constitution. Seven years later, the Parliament of Kenya is actively working to communicate governmental information to the public and involve community members through outreach and partnerships. These efforts have included exhibitions and trade fairs, an “open day” for the public during Parliamentary Week, public lectures at universities, and county visits.
Pablo Morales Peillard, economic coordinator at the Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile, spoke about how Chile’s national library created a budget data visualization tool in 2016 to make the national budget more accessible and transparent to citizens. The tool, which is used both by citizens and legislators, aims to show how taxpayer money is being managed, provide parliamentarians with data for informed decisions, explain functions that government performs, and increase citizen participation in the political process. Morales Peillard said he thinks transparency will further governmental accountability, integrity, inclusiveness, trust, and quality.
Libraries and fake news
“Are you willing to be the arbiter between what’s fake and what’s real?” asked Gerald Beasley, university library at Cornell University, at the “Hot Topics: Academic and Research Libraries” workshop. “We know, as information professionals, that the deliberate distribution of misinformation existed long before the term fake news,” he said. But he cautioned that it travels much further and faster now.
Librarians and LIS students had lively discussions as to what duty the library has to preserve false or disproved materials in the collections, what methods it should take to curate or annotate misinformation, and whether the library’s commitment to accuracy and transparency conflicts with a mission to stay neutral.
Beasley drew an interesting comparison: “Perhaps future historians will find fake news harder to study than silent films are,” he said, as only about one-quarter of the silent films produced in the US have been preserved.
Sustainability and libraries
“More Than Green” was the theme of a community-of-practice session presented by the Environment, Sustainability, and Libraries Special Interest Group. The program explored what it means for public libraries to be sustainable and how their efforts can further the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
In her session “A Few Things Libraries Can Do about Climate Change,” Veerle Minner Van Neygen, a Madrid, Spain–based district manager for the Climate Reality Project, warned of the environmental impacts of a warming Earth and highlighted a handful of mitigation efforts that libraries should pursue: reducing the library’s carbon footprint, building green collections, conserving energy, and being proactive about educating colleagues and patrons on climate change.
Aside from a lack of awareness, she said misinformation and denial are also prevalent. Libraries can turn the tide by hosting programs and events to educate the community. The organization that she volunteers with, Climate Reality Project, offers live presentations free of charge, available in more than 100 countries. Many environmental films, such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood, can be screened for free.
“I hope you will be convinced, when you get out of here, to start doing something,” said Van Neygen.
One of the libraries out there “doing something” is the Vaggeryd Public Library in Sweden. The library installed a Green Corner with the purpose of providing information on sustainable development, said Library Manager Lo Claesson.
Vaggeryd is particularly creative in its approach to education. The library has hosted events where children make toys from recycled materials, educated patrons about superbugs, planned activities for Earth Hour, suggested alternatives to the waste created by Christmas decorations, and introduced the community to vegetarian and sustainably produced food.
The session closed with the announcement of IFLA’s 2017 Green Library Award. First place honors went to the Stadtbibliothek Bad Oldesloe in Germany, for its “Harvest Your City” program, a three-year sustainable library commitment that combines urban gardens with makerspaces and community building efforts.
Science misinformation in media
“Science reporting is very popular,” Ewa Bartnik, biologist and researcher at the University of Warsaw, told attendees at her plenary session, “True or False: Science in the Media.” But with that popularity comes exaggerated discoveries, stories that overpromise findings, and the confusion between correlation and causation, she said.
Bartnik—who was awarded the Polish Association of Journalists’ distinction of “most media-friendly scientist”—gave lighthearted, ripped-from-the-headlines examples of lurid claims and misinformation that even high-profile media outlets like The Economist and Wall Street Journal are guilty of publishing.
What can libraries do, Bartnik asked, in an era where everyone thinks they’re a scientist thanks to the “University of Dr. Google”? Direct patrons to credible science blogs and videos, and recommend good, simple books on science for patrons—including children.
Making scholarly research and library spaces accessible to all
Chris Hartgerink, PhD candidate at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, wants to upend the current system of academic publishing.
“The legacy of the paper era is two opposing forces: what’s good for science and what’s good for the people who communicate science,” he told attendees at the “Being Open about Open: Academic and Research Libraries, FAIFE, Copyright, and Other Legal Matters” session.
“The paper era is done for; it’s been dead for several years,” and the problems with scholarly research are many, declared Hartgerink—paywalls and inaccessibility, nontransparency, redundancy, and impact score, to name a few. “We have these duct-taped solutions, we have all these elements inside the paper that want to break out,” he said. “If we reshape how we communicate we can make science much more efficient.”
Hartgerink was calling for no less than a revolution—not just open access, but a remodeling of the academic publishing process, so that each part of the paper is “seen as a bigger network,” everything is made accessible to everyone in the world via peer-to-peer networks, and the stages of research initiate the research of others.
“Publish or perish has not lost much momentum,” said Reggie Raju, deputy director of user services at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, who stressed the practical applications of accessible resources. Expensive textbooks are a barrier to education in South Africa, a nation where 54% of people live below the poverty line and 60% of college students drop out of school, mostly because of cost.
“Open access textbooks address the challenging issue of decolonization,” said Raju.
Spaces designed for everyone
The “Public Libraries as Place Makers in Today’s Cities: Urban Development, Resiliency, and Social Equity in Metropolitan Libraries” session discussed a different kind of openness and accessibility—making sure the library’s physical space is one that welcomes all.
For Steve Dickson, senior director at FaulknerBrowns Architects, the firm that designed The Word: National Centre for the Written Word in South Shields, UK, that accessibility started when it was decided to plan the town’s new layout around a centrally located library.
“People thought we were mad leading with a library as the main building,” said Dickson. “It was a great and visionary approach.”
The idea behind the National Centre for the Written Word was to create a “democratic space” that promoted community connectivity and content creation. The library contains spaces for sharing, gathering, meetings, and contemplation, as well as a fab lab, play area, IT studio, local history section, Skype room, TV and sound studio, and terraces.
“It’s the sense of belonging that makes you come back, and we call that humancentric design,” said Dickson. “When you get a 13,000% increase in teenage membership, you’re doing something right.”
The Free Library of Philadelphia is another example of a library transforming its space to make facilities and services more accessible and equitable—in this case, for the younger set. Data Strategy and Evaluation Administrator Joel Nichols and Chief of Youth Services Christine Caputo presented “Making Space with Play: Designing and Evaluating Early Childhood Library Playspaces,” an initiative their library is piloting at three branches.
“In Philadelphia, we don’t have a lot of free spaces where kids can play,” said Caputo. “Play is the work of children. This is how they engage with the world, this is how they learn.”
At each library, both children and parents were asked what they envisioned for the play areas. Kids were asked to construct their ideas by building them with cardboard and fill out Mad Libs–style story prompts to describe their ideal space. Adults were asked to respond to a survey. Much of what kids and parents wanted aligned: a bright, big, and active area with sections for art, reading, storytelling, and pretending.
Countdown to Kuala Lumpur
“There is no truly sustainable development without access to information, and no meaningful, inclusive access to information without libraries,” Scheeder told the delegation at the Closing Session.
Scheeder, addressing the crowd for the last time as president before Glòria Pérez-Salmerón’s term begins, emphasized the organization’s commitment to supporting the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and strengthening regional strategy during her term. “I never imagined we would travel so far together, so fast,” she said. “You create the kind of change that you want to see for your libraries and yourselves.”
Datuk Rashidi bin Hasbullah, the deputy secretary general of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture for Malaysia, was on hand to promote the 2018 IFLA WLIC, to be held in Kuala Lumpur. “It is exactly one year from today,” he said to applause. “I’m very positive that the WLIC in Malaysia will continue the same tradition, and we’ll show you that Malaysia can offer the best meeting experience to all delegates.”
The location for the 2019 IFLA WLIC was not announced at the Closing Session. The IFLA governing board is giving candidates more time to develop their bids, and an announcement is expected by the end of 2017.
Do widzenia, Wrocław
Leitner announced that the conference was attended by more than 3,000 people, and more than 23,000 tuned in to the livestream.
The Polish National Committee thanked the delegation for making the trip. Wrocław Mayor Rafał Dutkiewicz professed his own commitment to multiculturalism and the importance of organizations like IFLA. “I deeply hate everything that is connected with nationalism,” he said to a crowd representing 120 countries, to a standing ovation.
See our full coverage at bit.ly/alwlic2017.