Monday, August 26, 2013

PL 17/13: IFLA voices 2013

Filed under: #ifladial, IFLA — Tags: , , — plinius @ 3:45 am

I’d like to share some of my reflections on this year’s IFLA conference in Singapore.

The picture is included in the IFLA Express Team photo set.

The event was exciting, enjoyable and very well organized. Speaking personally, I met lots of old friends, got to know many interesting people, was re-elected as statistics secretary and will assist Clara Chu – the successor of Anna Maria Tammaro as chair of Division Four – as division secretary.

But as an organization freak, I’d like to focus on IFLA as such.

Voice your views

IFLA describes itself as the trusted voice of the global library community. I think that is correct. Internationally, IFLA is a strong voice for freedom of expression, for free access to information, for social and economic equality, for development and for human rights in general.

Voice is important. Voice means the will and the ability to speak up. Voice means heated debate and deep disagreement as well as friendly discussion and peaceful dialogue.

Bureaucratic forms

Internationally, IFLA is well aware of this. Internally less so. Communication between central bodies – such as IFLA Headquarters and the Governing Board – and the section officers and members takes a rather bureaucratic form. As an organization IFLA has developed a culture that tends to avoid even well-intentioned and constructive criticism.

The problem is structural rather than individual. Conflict is part of life. It is hard for voluntary and idealistic organizations, with small and overworked staffs, to develop and sustain good conflict management skills. Rules and guidelines, which can be decided by committees, replace the ebb and flow of public debate. In its documents, IFLA asks us to implement decisions rather than to analyze and question.

One week a year

Democracy is more than elections and committees. The formal structures are only the skeleton. Substantial democracy depends on on-going discussions about contested issues. But from a political or civic point of view, IFLA is only in session for one week once a year. The rest of the year only the central bodies work with the organization as a whole.

For the people involved, bureaucracy may seem practical in the short run. It hampers the development of IFLA in the long run. Getting to understand the organization, so as to make a meaningful contribution as an IFLA citizen, is hard work.


In 2013 I was part of a group, with a basis in Division Four, that produced a report on (internal) IFLA communications. The IFLA Dialogue group did not meet formally in Singapore, but from our informal discussions – and twittering – the interest is still strong. The IFLADIAL Report was discussed by the Professional Committee and has been published in English, Spanish, French and Arabic on the IFLA web site (PDF).

The Professional Committee (by the way) is not separate from the IFLA Governing Board, but a permanent committee drawn from the Board members. The five division chairs are members ex officio.

Grey panthers

Young voices are seldom heard – for structural reasons. Young people stay away. I would guess the average age of IFLA participants is above fifty. Being 71, I feel very much at home, unfortunately …

Conference format

I appreciate experiments with World Cafes, twitter tags and excellent photos from IFLA Express (see picture). The main conference format is still backward- rather than forward-looking. “Presenting papers” should not be the default, but an exception granted to exceptional presenters. Use the web for information and meetings for brief presentations + discussion. The fit between room size and audience is often poor.

Seven languages

When we look at the presentations, there is a marked gap between our multilingual principles and our monolingual practice. This year, 97% of the lectures and papers were in English, 2% in French and 1% in Spanish.. Singapore has Chinese as its main language. No papers were presented in Chinese, Arabic, Russian or German …

Could we experiment with full sessions in other languages – but without expensive simultaneous translation?. Could we have World Cafes with language specific tables?

Money, money, money

The high cost of participation excludes most librarians beyond rich countries or big libraries. Their voices are lacking. Some of us speak for them, but I would rather listen to them than represent them. I imagine a low-cost package (minimal conference fee; cheap lodging: hostel/dormitory/couch-surfing + active support/mentoring) – in addition to the standard package.

What do you think?

Could members of the Professional Committee and the Governing Board say something – personally, informally, spontaneously – about their experiences, suggestions and wild ideas about these issues?


Plinius 2013

Plinius 2012

Plinius 2011


1 Comment »

  1. […] Version español de PL 17/13: IFLA voices 2013 […]

    Pingback by PL 19/13: Voces de IFLA 2013 | Plinius — Tuesday, August 27, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

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