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 on August 20. She added, “I’m sure among this group is a future IFLA president somewhere.”
Local dignitaries 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.
“Someone once said that one book can change the world,” said Wrocław Mayor Rafał Dutkiewicz. “I am telling you this in a country where the Solidarity movement was born.”
“[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, ways libraries can continue to contribute to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and feedback for IFLA’s own Global Vision discussions.
“We seek your input to build a global future for the library field,” said IFLA Secretary General Gerald Leitner. This month IFLA is encouraging librarians to vote on the outcomes of regional discussions, and plans to release its Global Vision Report, presenting its findings in early 2018 in Barcelona, Spain.
“IFLA is working on new tools to help you work more effectively and strengthen the position of libraries in communities,” said Leitner.
Libraries overcoming crisis
Day One continued to illuminate adverse times in other 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.
From 1972 to 1981, Marcos imposed a curfew, implemented censorship, gave the military supreme power, and seized public utilities. During this period, approximately 70,000 people were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, and 3,240 killed. “We still suffer from secondhand trauma,” said Cabbab. “It’s changed the reason for being for libraries [in the Philippines].”
Cabbab noted the different roles libraries took on during and after martial law. 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. By contrast, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Center, a monument for martial-law martyrs, has built a library through its Research and Documentation Committee, which is responsible for preparing biographies of victims and reviewing nominations. “Their library is small,” says Cabbab, but each box of case files represents one person who is memorialized on a Wall of Remembrance.
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 1984–1985 War of the Cities during the Iran-Iraq War; and how the Rockefeller Foundation and American Library Association aided in the postwar rehabilitation of Asian and European libraries.
“I want to thank you for these sad but inspirational stories,” said Kerry Smith, convener of IFLA’s Library History Special Interest Group. “There’s so much libraries can do in times of crisis,” she reminded attendees.