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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

The Virtual IFLA:
Moving Knowledge Through Time and Space

Robert Wedgeworth


Distinguished guests, IFLA colleagues and friends, ladies and gentlemen: welcome to this Opening General Session of the 60th General Conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). When we last met in Barcelona, we set a new record for attendance at an IFLA Council and General Conference. The success of the 59th General Conference, your support as membe rs and the support of the IFLA sponsors made it possible for IFLA to close the 1993 year with very positive results. Our Spanish hosts from the Barcelona conference are here in a strong delegation and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them once again for their outstanding work.

Since our last meeting we have accepted invitations to meet in Copenhagen in 1997 and in Amsterdam in 1998. Plans for the 1995 conference in Istanbul and the 1996 conference in Beijing are well underway. Much of my IFLA work in the past year has been organizational, therefore, I have had little opportunity to do more with members than travel to future conference sites. However, I can report that work proceeds within the South African library community toward a national conference to lay the basis for a non-racial library system under its new government. I can also report that the superstructure of a magnificent new Bibliothèque nationale de France now rises above the Seine and work proceeds at a feverish pace to meet the 1996 deadline for opening.

Milestones and Turning Points

Moving the IFLA General Conference from Barcelona to Havana is, to some extent, symbolic of another voyage of discovery from the old world to the new. We meet here for the first time in the Latin America and Caribbean region, seeing some of its splendor, feeling the influence of its culture and recognizing that IFLA will never quite be the same after this experience.

There have been other milestones and turning points in the recent history of the IFLA General Conference that we might well remember. IFLA President Herman Liebaers, with the sponsorship of UNESCO, extended special invitations to the IFLA General Conference held in Liverpool in 1971 that expanded dramatically, the participation of developing country representatives in IFLA activities. In 1980 IFL A took its General Conference to the Philippines, meeting for the first time in Asia where Japan brought its largest delegation in IFLA history. Nairobi hosted the first IFLA General Conference in Africa in 1984, attracting delegates from the region who described conditions of libraries and librarianship that changed the terms of reference of the field for many conference participants. Sydney, Au stralia was the site of the first visit of the IFLA General Conference to that continent in 1988 where we were welcomed warmly by IFLA members who traditionally had travelled the longest distance to contribute their experiences to the IFLA Conference discussions.

While each of these was a voyage of discovery that greatly enriched the IFLA General Conference experience, perhaps none will represent the kind of turning point that our Cuban hosts have stimulated this week. This island paradise, whose music influences the world and whose politics remains controversial, can point to great successes in raising the general educational level of its people. It has wiped out illiteracy through its own efforts and laid the basis for education and training from primary school to one of the oldest universities in the western hemisphere, the University of Havana, founded in 1721. Let us now show our appreciation for the courage and determination of our Cuban colleagues to host this 60th General Conference of IFLA under trying conditions.

Recognizing that communications with the IFLA Conference site in Havana presented difficulties for many delegates, the local Conference organizers introduced an electronic mail connection (e mail) to Cuba with the support and assistance of our Canadian colleagues. Building on the successful experiment by the Cubans, IFLA is pleased to announce to the membership its plans to broaden membership com munications capability by establishing an IFLA telecommunications network, IFLANET, following the close of this Conference.

With the technical assistance of a new sponsor, SilverPlatter Information Inc., and coordinated by the IFLA Core Program on Universal Data Transfer (UDT), IFLANET will facilitate communications with and among its members, committees, sections and divisions. Within a short time routine communications with IFLA Headquarters, IFLA members or IFLA units may be addressed to IFLALIST via e mail. The ne xt step will be the creation of an IFLA document server (IFLADOC) that will make available basic information about IFLA, IFLA newsletters and conference papers as they are received. Eventually, we anticipate that IFLANET will transform IFLA into a worldwide communications network for libraries and librarianship that will transcend the barriers of time, place and level of development.

Libraries, Librarians and their Associations

Ninety years ago at an International Congress of the Arts and Sciences held in St. Louis, Guido Biagi, administrator of the Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy, set forth a vision of the library of the future in which he said,

"the libraries of Europe and of America and of all the states of the Postal Union will form, as it were, one single collection, and the old books, printed when America was but a myth, will enter new worlds bearing with them to far off students the benefit of their ancient wisdom."
In the years since 1904 when Biagi offered his vision, many individual libraries have contributed to the sharing of resources with those in other countries. More recently the IFLA Office for International Lending, sponsored by the British Library has stimulated a higher level of activity, but even this has begun to falter due to the costs. In a recent IFLA JOURNAL article, Abdelaziz Abid estimate d that it could cost as much as 30 million (USD) annually to provide access to 1000 scientific journals for 100 developing countries that cannot afford regular subscriptions.

Overcoming this imbalance in the information resources available to students and scholars, is the most important challenge facing the international library community today. Cost is not the only difficulty. Making information resources more readily accessible also requires balancing the rights of users with those of authors and other information providers who are an essential component of the info rmation transfer process. Without some type of collective mechanism that permits the transfer of rights to publish and to copy copyrighted works on a large scale similar to that which prevails in the music field, access to scholarly and educational works will increasingly separate the information "haves" from the "have nots".

Resource sharing among libraries that responds to individual requests for limited portions of copyrighted works without permission of the copyright holders and at low administrative costs can only scratch the surface of the needs of millions of users around the world. The need to establish large scale systems for transmitting copyrighted works at low, or no cost makes the work of the IFLA Copyrig ht Adviser crucial to our future. As knowledge institutions central to the process of preserving and transferring the world's cultures from one generation to the next, libraries have an obligation to be more actively involved in establishing more effective means for this transfer process to occur.

However, the reality of the status and condition of many libraries, especially in the developing regions of the world, is that they have too few resources, serving too many users and are only authorized to carry out a limited social and education role in their society.

Under these circumstances, library associations that represent individuals and institutions collectively, become an essential element for the empowerment of libraries and librarians. Library associations can voice a stronger appeal for greater government support for an expanded role for libraries in social development. Library associations can supplement the education and training of librarians a nd other information workers. Library associations can set standards that make it possible for institutions to cooperate more effectively.

The loss of state sponsorship for library associations in many parts of the world has weakened the international library movement. Individual institutions have stepped forward into leadership positions to try to overcome the effect of some of these losses. However, the long term health of libraries and librarianship will require collective action at the national and international level. Revitaliz ing national library associations is a second challenge the IFLA must face.

Toward a Virtual IFLA

IFLA cannot alter the basic situation that exists for libraries and librarians in its member institutions. However, IFLA can inspire its members to reach for more ambitious goals. Many of you are aware of the concept of "virtual reality". It means the creation of an accurate simulation of reality within a machine environment. For example, many banks employ automatic teller machines to interact wi th customers and carry out all of the normal functions of a bank clerk. Increasingly, many computer programs for such activities will be activated by your voice and will utilize sound and full-motion video to simulate reality.

For many IFLA members involvement in IFLA means corresponding with IFLA Headquarters and attending IFLA General Conferences to hear scholarly and professional papers and to confer with colleagues. As IFLANET develops, it can create a means to share professional experiences on a more immediate and continuing basis than the sporadic member communications during and between General Conferences. The establishment of IFLANET will create the means for member associations, institutions and individuals to participate in IFLA in far greater numbers than current limitations on time and expense will permit. It will allow developing library communities to communicate more readily with library communities with similar situations as well as with those with every different situations.

The tools and resources made available via IFLANET will create a "virtual IFLA" for those who, for example, are unable to attend the next General Conference. Imagine being able to access important IFLA documents and conference papers as they are produced. Imagine being able to comment on IFLA conference papers and have your opinions shared with those at the Conference site. Imagine being able to make access to IFLA less costly for all members. Admittedly, nothing could replace the experience of actually being in Cuba. But for those colleagues who are unable to attend conferences due to obligations at work or at home, IFLANET will be a welcome substitute.

We recognize that not all IFLA communities have ready access to international telecommunications networks (INTERNED). We also recognize that some will interpret IFLANET as another advance that will widen the gap separating developing library communities from others. Our response is that it will be far easier to extend IFLANET capabilities to a greater membership than to achieve more active member participation in IFLA as it is now organized. Increases in travel costs and increases in the cost of published documents already eliminate many library communities from active participation. Providing a means for many more members to be actively involved in the "virtual IFLA" will require only a computer work station, some basic software and an international telecommunications connection.

Providing the means for many more libraries and librarians to actively participate in the "virtual reality" of Biagi's vision will bring benefits to all members of the IFLA community. Remaining steadfast in support of the principles that guide IFLA and in our commitment to assist in the development of libraries and librarianship worldwide will replace the present uncertainty with a renewed sense of purpose within the federation. Our experience in North America has been that even the smallest libraries have benefitted from the development of automated systems that connected the m routinely with other institutions. From these connections among libraries come many new programs and services that respond to the needs of library users.

Securing Our Future

Securing a future for IFLA will involve developing a more confident profession, leading more capable institutions, providing extensive services to the world's users of library and information services. Having greater access to the various programs and services of IFLA via IFLANET will act as a stimulant to national and local library activity. There will always be variations in the extent to which associations, institutions and individuals will be able to exploit the resources and opportunities that IFLA presents. Our objective is to establish a basic level of participation that will support all of members while providing the basis for building a more coherent and cooperative international network.

Finally, the potential impact of an effective international network of libraries and librarians capable of providing unprecedented access to scholarly and educational works provides substantial leverage for reaching agreement with authors and information providers on a collective mechanism for the administration of copyright rights and permissions.

In the long run, securing our future means securing a future for learners, a future that exposes them to the hearts and minds of countless numbers who have gone before them from many different lands and cultures. Jose Marti recognized even earlier the value of Biagi's vision of broad exposure to knowledge in saying, "A knowledge of different literatures is the best way to free one's self from the tyranny of any of them."

It is up to us to move this vision closer to realization.

Thank you.