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64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 121-103-E
Division Number: 0
Professional Group: Guest Lecture II
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 103.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Towards Edinburgh 75: IFLA Thirty Years Ago
The Dramatic 34th Council and General Conference in Frankfurt Am Main in 1968

Herman Liebaers
Honorary President of IFLA
Brussels, Belgium


Last year in Copenhagen, at the Council and General Conference of IFLA, I talked with the main actors and witnesses of the dramatic IFLA Conference in Frankfurt in 1968: Estrid Bjerregaard, Hans-Peter Geh, Preben Kirkegaard, Klaus Saur and Margreet Wijnstroom. The disturbing element was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 while IFLA was in session.

Before telling the eventful story of the Conference, I should try to recall the image of IFLA within the international library world thirty years ago. The easiest way for me to draw that picture would be to adapt the one I published in my Recollections as IFLA President in Mostly in the Line of Duty (The Hague, 1980), with the knowledge of what happened to IFLA during the last eighteen years.

I would like to start with a comparison of FID and IFLA. In the late fifties the UNESCO director responsible for Libraries, Documentation and Archives was a Soviet engineer, Oleg Mikhailov. We had epic discussions and finally agreed that we never would reach an agreement. He had a good sense of humor and when he was replaced by Arlia Zaher, I regretted his departure.

He equated Documentation with FID and Libraries with IFLA; he considered FID progressive and IFLA as an old-fashioned circle of literary dilettanti. I admit there was some truth in his mistake.

When I became president of IFLA I began to cross swords with my opposite member, Helmut Arntz, president of FID. He was a German who spoke twice as many languages and twice as long as I did. He lived on the Rhine in "Burg Arntz", a fin-de-siècle villa which bore his family name. I once attended a sektprobe, a tasting of German champagne in his house, because he was president of the German wine tasters. I was a rather dry participant because I was afraid to miss the plane which was to take me to Canada next morning for an IFLA meeting. Later he repeated the tasting on the occasion of a board meeting of IFLA and my penthouse on top of the Royal Library in Brussels. It was an enjoyable introduction to the discussions where good wine was needed to smooth the path.

In Brussels he was the spokesman for those professional ideas, to start with his own organization FID and all it stands for, which were born in 1895 in the shadow of my own Royal Library. As a positive result of our endless discussions on the four continents I should mention a full week meeting - with all parties involved like Unesco and the International Council of Archives - in the famous Bellagio International Conference Center on Lake Como in 1973 to explore coordination and cooperation. The main result was that both organizations had their headquarters under the same roof: the Royal Library at The Hague.

Soon after this epoch making meeting I lost sight of FID and was sorry to hear last year in Copenhagen from Martha Stone, the current President, that the situation in the Hague and in Brussels was not as good as one might expect, after FID had celebrated its centenary in 1995.

My predecessor as president was Sir Frank Francis (1963-1969), director and principal librarian of the British Museum and my successor was Preben Kirkegaard, rector of the Royal Library School. Sir Frank and I inherited what I would call a "Bourgeois Club", not referring to social status of senior librarians or directors of national libraries who came to the Conferences, but to Pierre Bourgeois, who was seven years President (1952-1958) - the longest term of any president - and director of the Swiss National Library at Bern. After his death, I published an unfair obituary, because at the time I was already too full of the new IFLA matters I had in mind.

Actually IFLA was not much more than a distinguished gentlemen's club, who met once a year and had a good time, professionally and otherwise.
Between the annual conferences the Executive Board met a couple of times in London, the city where the president and the secretary lived, the latter behaving like a private personal secretary to the president. I refer to Anthony Thompson appointed under my predecessor, who was a brilliant polyglot and had many qualities, except those needed for the kind of secretary general IFLA needed, at least I thought so.

It is easy to round off the profile of the old IFLA by recalling that the former president of IFLA, Pierre Bourgeois, became afterwards its happy and incompetent treasurer for six years. He kept no records of income nor expenses. I am sure that to balance the budget he added quite a lot of money of his own. It was good for IFLA that Preben Kirkegaard took over as treasurer in 1966 and remained treasurer until 1973. This allowed me to back him as a presidential candidate and he was elected when I had to resign in 1974, because I had left the profession. The IFLA he inherited from me had still some Bourgeois features, but it was already quite a different one from the one I had inherited from Sir Frank.

At the Executive Board meeting in Frankfurt in 1968 I was nominated to become the next president. No regular elections at the time, but a simple consensus among the board members. In 1956 I had been appointed director of the Royal Library in Brussels and since that year I never missed the Annual Conference of IFLA, I was chairman of the Section of National and University Libraries from 1959 till 1964; I was coopted a board member in Rome in 1964 and became vice-president in Helsinki in 1965, first vice-president in 1967 in Toronto. It is rather ironical that being nominated president elect in 1968 in Frankfurt, the board decided that in the meantime I would only have a light responsibility, more particularly taking care of international goodwill relations. A few hours later I spent the night commuting between the hotel of the Soviet delegation and the one of the Czechoslovakian participants. This meant in the heart of the Frankfurt drama.

As soon as the news of the invasion had reached us we had an urgent meeting, which brought all available officers of the federation together. Attending: the President, Vice-President Foster Mohrhardt, the Secretary Anthony Thompson, the Treasurer Preben Kirkegaard and, of course, Hans-Peter Geh, as junior librarian of the City and University Library of Frankfurt and Secretary of the local organizing committee, who would lead the rescue operations. Through my nocturnal visits I knew already that the Soviet delegation was scared to leave its hotel in the morning, fearing the hatred of the local population. The Czechoslovakian participants had decided to withdraw from the Conference. With both delegations I had insisted to take no final decisions under the stress of the first hours. Nobody forgot that we were 300 km. from Prague.

Before leaving their hotel I had requested the Soviet delegation to take off their badges and all other insignia, which they liked so much, in order to avoid the normal monolistic bloc of the Soviet delegation, I had arranged with Hans-Peter to put at my disposal four young German librarians who would escort four scattered Soviet groups. A Soviet delegate of the Ministry of Culture was not satisfied with this disposition and required a police protection. I asked Margarita Ivanovna Rudomino to dissuade him from making this mistake. Instead she gave me an interpreter to talk directly with the civil servant. At the Czechoslovakian delegation Rudolf Málek acted as leader and promised me that all participants would come to the opening session. No incidents occurred during the separate walks of the two delegations towards the University Library. A tentative list of names of the two delegations I remembered or could collect from other sources is given in footnote*.

When most of the delegates had arrived at the Library of the University, Margreet Wijnstroom and Aase Bredsdorff suggested collecting money to help the Czechoslovakian participants, which they actually did not need on the spot. I also caught the rumor that German librarians from East and West Germany had a private meeting, when the Soviet forces penetrated Czechoslovakian soil. Prof. Dr. Horst Kunze, an outspoken communist and a leading librarian, who had moved from DBR to the DDR was appalled by the news of the invasion.

I do not have the slightest recollection of the professional work carried out during the Frankfurt Conference. During the whole conference I remained the link between the antagonistic parties.

However regarding the end of the conference, I have three precise remembrances. On the last day one of our German hosts had organized a reception at the Göthe Haus. The weather was mild, it was full moon, the music in the courtyard garden was wonderful, the local wine was delicious and I brought the two groups of librarians together to shake hands. When the Soviet hand was going to meet the Czechoslovakian one, the delegate to whom this last hand belonged said: "and next time their should not be a tank between us!". It was a douche froide, but the moment of hope persisted, though it did not last long.

Next day at the closing business meeting the tension was dense and nobody cared about catalogues, rare books and other bibliographical matters. Sir Frank's closing speech was low keyed: "IFLA's aims are completely non-political, and try to transcend ideological boundaries. This is not to say that we are not bound to be affected by political affairs as they occur right now. I am reminded of Göthe's: "Meine Ruhe ist hin, mein Herz ist schwer". I would like to say to the Czechoslovakian delegation that they are much indebted to the members of this Council, who shared their fears in what will be an anxious period in their lives".

A proposal was passed unanimously to postpone the 1969 conference to be held in Moscow, which had been approved the year before in Toronto. At this critical moment in the history of IFLA, Preben Kirkegaard, on behalf of a small group of Danish librarians present in Frankfurt, took upon himself, on the spot, to invite IFLA to Copenhagen in 1969. This was a relief indeed and now, thirty years later, I do not hesitate to declare that it saved IFLA's future.

My third recollection is actually two separate items. Circumstances led to the election by applause of Rudolf Málek as a new board member, over Kenneth Humphreys, the board's candidate. Fortunately I was instrumental in finding him a job as librarian of the European University College in Florence. He enjoyed it and carried it out very well. As to Rudolf Málek we remained good friends till today. A couple of months after Frankfurt, in October 1968, I went to Prague and Bratislava, a trip which had been planned before the events of August, during the Prague Spring.

To summarize the atmosphere of the Frankfurt meeting I would like to recall the departure farewell for Prague of the Czechoslovakian delegation. From the IFLA side were present at the railroad station: Aase Bredsdorff, Erik Allerslev Jensen, Kees Reedijk and Margreet Wijnstroom. They remember Vinárek hanging out of the carriage windows and waving his white handkerchief, until he disappeared in the mist just before the IFLA delegation had spent all the money that had been collected in buying, what they could lay hands on in the station shop. During this cookies and souvenirs safari the Westerners had heard that Vinárek and some others had considered staying in the West, but finally had decided to return home and stay with their families. From time to time we had news from one or the other. I myself paid several visits to Rudolf Málek and I remember particularly one meeting. I had spent a day with the new leaders, who had taken over from our friends and after the meeting I had an appointment with him in a restaurant, the best in town.

When I arrived he was already sitting at a table and he started by telling me that most probably the people I had just left would also appear in the restaurant and that I should not be worried because they would ignore us. That was the way life was going on in Prague. When librarians, who had shared the same office crossed one another in the street, they did not dare to greet one another. For sure the group entered in the restaurant half an hour after me and they passed our table with their noses in the air, ignoring us totally.

By the way: all our Czechoslovakian IFLA friends lost their jobs, and had to earn their living one way or another. The former National Librarian - for instance - kept himself and his family alive by editing a puzzle-magazine...

Among the Danish librarians in Frankfurt, Estrid Bjerregaard had caught my attention by her sharp remarks during the difficult discussions, because she always looked at them from a broad international angle. Privately I asked her if she would be interested in secretarial work for IFLA. Her answer was simple and direct: "No, though I am interested in international relations, I want to carry out them from my home base in Copenhagen".
Estrid Bjerregaard ended her career at the top of the department of international relations in the Ministry of Culture.

To conclude this first part of the dramatic 34th Conference of IFLA in Frankfurt in 1968: I should repeat that Margreet Wijnstroom was not yet Secretary General, that Klaus Saur was not yet IFLA's publisher, though he was already present in Frankfurt, that I was not yet president and that Hans-Peter Geh was a young librarian who had mastered efficiently a major crisis in his home town.

I could stop here, but that would only be half of the story. The Frankfurt drama precipitated the awareness of the weaknesses of IFLA. I casually dropped the name of an American librarian, Foster Mohrhardt from Washington and here I should add Bob Vosper from Los Angeles, another vice-president of IFLA. They were also two senior board members of the Council on Library Resources and wonderful advocates of IFLA at CLR. They convinced president Fred Cole to attend IFLA conferences. Foster, Bob and I looked for financial means to hire a full time secretary general, which was an absolute necessity if we wanted to turn IFLA into a real international non-governmental organization representing the whole profession. To cut a long story short, CLR gave a three year grant allowing IFLA to recruit a secretary general and a typist. I knew Margreet Wijnstroom well through joint Dutch and Belgian librarians meetings and appreciated her leadership in the Dutch Library community of which she had been a delegate at the IFLA conferences since 1960. Jim Haas, successor of Fred Cole as president of CLR reported accurately on the Council's support in the Margreet Wijnstroom issue of IFLA Journal vol. 13 (1987), no. 3.

It was also my firm belief that IFLA should have permanent headquarters and should stop with a secretary following the president to the city where he lived. Margreet being Dutch and living in The Hague, I encouraged her to stay in her own city, where she could also enlist the logistics of the Dutch Library Association. It was not very difficult to convince her to stay in The Hague and it was even easier to persuade her that she would not be my secretary.

Margreet was on friendly terms with Erna Jacobs, who was a staff member of the Royal Library in Brussels and as a good linguist, she belonged to a team of library-interpreters, which was set up after the financial disaster with the UN-interpreters in Toronto. An additional advantage of working with library-interpreters was the fact that it brought younger librarians to the IFLA conferences. As soon as I became president, Erna stopped being an interpreter and she became my international secretary in the Royal Library. Hence the foundation was laid for a new IFLA. I guess that was the Dutch teaparty, as former secretary Anthony Thompson coined it.

Margreet had already worked for IFLA in the capacity of secretary to the Programme Development Group, who developed the structure of what would become the Professional Board. The PDG based their vision on Leendert Brummel's "Libraries of the World". Brummel's imaginative guidelines were ardently praised by Sir Frank Francis in his opening speech of the eventful Frankfurt Conference in 1968. Although Margreet Wijnstroom was not yet appointed officially as Secretary General that was in the year 1971, she assisted in the preparation of the Moscow Conference in 1970, which was also the first one over which I presided. Margreet retired after the Brighton Conference in 1987, I resigned as president after the Washington Conference in 1974, one year before the end of my term, because I had left the profession.

Hans Peter Geh told me last year in Copenhagen that 490 delegates had registered for the Frankfurt Conference. I told him that after I had seen how he handled the crisis as a junior staff member of the City and University Library of Frankfurt, assigned to the secretariat of the local organizing committee I was sure that one day he would become an IFLA president. Indirectly this Frankfurt crisis and directly the CLR support were the godfathers of the new IFLA.
In Moscow de records mention 800 delegates and in Washington four years later the figure was 1000. As outgoing president Bob Wedgeworth remarked last year in Copenhagen: "Since Copenhagen 1969 the growth of IFLA has been steady" 2976 delegates from 141 countries in Copenhagen 1997, participated in an outstanding professional programme.


  1. Czechoslovakia:

  2. USSR: