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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 16. IFLA, bullies and other monsters

By Shiraz Durrani

As I reflect on my experiences at IFLA, I recall the reasons I gave to CILIP for wanting to attend the IFLA Conference:

  • Information for Social Change is organising a number of sessions on the theme of IFLA Conference;
  • To represent Diversity Council point of view and establish links with others;
  • The theme of the Conference is one on which I have written many articles; * Establish connections with others for Quality Leaders Project for Black LIS Workers.

At the same time, CILIP wanted to know in which areas of IFLA's work I was interested. I had indicated my interest in "Diversity, Equality, Social Exclusion, WTO and globalisation, alternative sources of information, empowerment of excluded communities...". All this was in the context of the Conference theme that carried the principles of "democracy, diversity, and delivery" - all three I am deeply interested in. I was also interested in finding out what the "leaders" of the library world would add to the needs-based approach we are developing and implementing in Merton. This report provides an opportunity to assess if IFLA met my expectations.

Getting started I had been well prepared for attending the conference. CILIP very thoughtfully organised a pre-conference meeting to teach the "first-timers", as we came to be called, on how to survive the week-long ordeal. It made you feel like a child going to school for the first time into the hostile world of bullies and other monsters. The theme of the conference may have been "democracy" but the sharp "class" divisions between those who had been attending the IFLAs for decades and us new comers were made painfully obvious. I wondered what I had let myself into: a mission impossible to wonder aimlessly in the presence of thousands of people who all know where to go for coffee and cakes, and me sitting all by myself not knowing how to order coffee. I was not disappointed by the IFLA organisers, either. Very helpfully they provided a label which I was supposed to carry around me saying I was a "First Timer" so that some kind old timers could rescue me every time I looked a little lost at the deep philosophy expressed by the old worthies. I did not see anybody carrying the label "tenth timer", but I may have been too dazed to look.

The process of registration revealed another hidden aspect of IFLA: the deep inroad that business had made in the work of IFLA. I was provided with a name badge, which said in big bold letters something like "ESCOM". I protested to the registration person: "Surely there is some mistake here - my name is not ESCOM". She very helpfully suggested that perhaps I could hide the ESCOM bit by covering it over with my name badge - which I promptly did.


There are two IFLAs. One IFLA is, as the name suggests, an organisation of library organisations. Most of its members are associations. This of course means that a large part of its business is carried out as between organisations, years before IFLA meets, and usually behind closed doors. This is the rather hidden part of IFLA work and ideas of democracy and diversity tend not to be the guiding principles in many of the member organisations. CILIP itself has a rather opaque version of these principles. If IFLA is to have a real meaning to library and information workers (professionals?) in the UK, then this mist on working with IFLA needs to be cleared and more transparency needs to be brought in.

The other IFLA, in contrast, is human, transparent, democratic and reflects world diversity. This is perhaps the most dynamic and living part of IFLA; it is here that the real future of IFLA belongs. Just as the UN needs to be transparent and needs to practice (as opposed to preaching) principles of democracy, so does IFLA if it is to become relevant not only to information professionals, but also to the communities and peoples on whose behalf the profession is supposed to work.

Some sessions

Attendance at some of the sessions was a useful experience. Giving a CD-ROM with conference papers sounds a good idea and removes the necessity of having to carry tons of paper with you. But it also means that few people have had time to read or glance through papers in advance to see if they were really relevant to their needs. Perhaps a summary of all papers should have been included in the registration pack to allow for a quick look at themes being presented.

Alternatively, sending the CD-ROMs in advance of the conference would have ensured that those who attend the meetings are a little more aware of the issues under discussion. After all, the purpose of a conference is not to lecture or to be lectured at, but to have a meaningful debate on ideas and experiences. This, I felt, did not take place to the extent it should have. Having said this, many sessions were interesting, informative and creative. Some sessions that made an impression me (for the right or wrong reasons) included:

  • The "public libraries; democracy, delivery and diversity" session was interesting for me for the simple reason that the talk "Public libraries in the United Kingdom" had little meaningful to say about the actual theme of the Conference: democracy, delivery and diversity and lacked details of what libraries in UK were doing to address democracy and equality. I had expected details of Stephen Lawrence Inquiry recommendations, Race Relations (Amendment) Act, Human Rights Act, the Equalities Standard, DDA, etc
  • Women's Issues: "Women, democracy and participation in the information society". This provided a useful opportunity to hear about developments in an area where perhaps we have not developed many creative ideas and practices in the UK. Also good to meet some progressive women activists from around the world.
  • Africa: "delivering information to the community in the new millennium: a challenge for librarians in Africa", together with the final session of the Africa section of IFLA provided a valuable opportunity to meet several friends from Kenya (including the Chair of IFLA Africa Section) as well as people from other parts of Africa. It was obvious that African librarianship needs to liberate itself from the colonial-imperialist mould it seems to be sitting in.
  • Poster sessions provided an interesting insight into the reality of information work around the world. This section was in sharp contrast to the highly commercialised displays from the major companies who see IFLA as a vast source of profit. The posters session, on the other hand, represented grassroots, activist librarianship with themes like political conflict and Sri Lankan libraries; Library Service to Mobile users; Access to online resources in the developing countries (Cornell University); A for Accessibility (USA); International Friends of the Alexandria Library; Diversity through Exchange (USA); Mobile and Outreach Library Services in Thailand; Setting up an International Leadership Institute (USA); Virtual Libraries for Economic Development (Ghana); The PADDI Project (N. Ireland); training for a future (Iran); all worth a deep study, and there were many lessons for British librarianship. This should have been kept for the whole conference period and not removed by Thursday.

Some fringe meetings

I found the fringe activities rather more interesting and relevant than the official programme. These included:

  • The Information for Social Change (ISC) and LINK organised a fringe meeting whose theme was "The profit virus: globalisation, libraries and education". This well attended meeting heard speakers from the World Development Movement, President of the Norwegian Library Association, the IFLA representative to the WTO Seattle Ministerial, and past President of the Canadian Library Association. I don't think CILIP officers were present - a pity, as the organisation needs to take leadership and come to grips with this important topic which library associations around the world are actively discussing - and taking necessary action. ISC found IFLA undemocratic in that information about this highly relevant meeting was not allowed to be advertised in the daily IFLA paper, IFLA Express. So much for censorship hiding under the guise of some petty technicalities.
  • A number of individuals and organisations, including ISC, met to discuss the need for supporting Palestine libraries. A network of interested people has been set up to explore how the librarians can support the development of libraries in Palestine. IFLA also agreed to send a delegation to Palestine to prepare a report on the library reality there.
  • Perhaps the most fruitful "fringe" meetings I took part in were held in the café where it was possible to meet old and new friends. This provided the most important opportunity to connect with the large number of progressive people attending IFLA.

Some people, some organisations

I met a large number of interesting people and groups. Information for Social Change has been working closely or will work closely with them. They came from many countries, including Cameron, Cuba (Marta Terry, the President of ASCUBI, is a very inspiring person. She is very much aware of the wider political world in which libraries operate. She should certainly be invited by CILIP for the next AGM as we have a lot to learn from her), India, Iran, Kenya, Malawi, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, South Africa, Tanzania, USA and Zimbabwe. And of course lots of people from UK.

Some positive outcomes

ISC was able to make personal contacts with many people and organisations we have been in contact with for a long time. Thus we consolidated the International Progressive Librarians Group. I also established links with many African librarians and we are in the process of forming the Progressive African Librarians Group. The Network for supporting Palestinian libraries was another notable achievement.

Is IFLA ready for change?

A case study to give a flavour of how IFLA puts into practice its slogan of "democracy, diversity and delivery": A librarian from Ethiopia needed to be in a wheel chair. She had to come with her daughter to push the wheelchair; they had to walk from the place their taxi dropped them to the IFLA office where wheelchairs were stored. We went for lunch to a local restaurant once, and the wheelchair had to be pushed for about 20 minutes through hazardous traffic. They had to hire a taxi to attend the ISC fringe meeting which was held some way off from the conference centre. I would not be surprised if the daughter never ever goes near a library. No arrangements had been made for the librarian to be taken to Edinburgh as part of a tour organised by IFLA, as the organisers had not prepared for a person in a wheel chair, although this had clearly been indicated.

Does IFLA know about DDA? Could they not have organised electric wheelchairs so daughters do not have to be dragged into the conferences? Could an IFLA volunteer not have been programmed to support people with disabilities? Questions, and more questions...

So, was it worth it?

The final question then: did IFLA meet my expectations? The answer is yes - and no. The official IFLA was remote and beyond approach, shrouded in mists and mysteries. It is particularly important for the organisation to open itself to all, especially to first timers - and this does not mean only organising formal introductory meetings. There has to be a genuine transparency, empowerment and democracy in the way it operates.

An organisation like IFLA needs to focus on real issues that prevent free access to information, knowledge and opportunities for development to people everywhere. It cannot turn its face away from conditions that create poverty, oppression and inequality on the world scene. It has the potential to be a powerful voice for social justice on a world scale. I think it has not risen to the challenge and the real potential for leading and influencing change is being lost.

Yet there was enough life in the unofficial IFLA, in the commitment and enthusiasm of individuals who participated, to make this a conference well worth a visit. And there is always hope that the "big organisation" can be woken up from its deep sleep and make its mark in a world of oppression, smart bombs, stealth wars and inequality - and join the forces that are daily facing death in order to create a just and equal world.


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