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64th IFLA Conference Logo

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


Code Number: 155-92-E
Division Number: -
Professional Group: OPENING SESSION
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 92.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Babel as a blessing? Strategies for Communication within the World Library Community
Presidential Address, Amsterdam, 17 August 1998

Christine Deschamps
President of IFLA


It is exciting to be at the podium here in Amsterdam and to address you formally as President for the first time. The 64th IFLA General Conference marks the third time that IFLA has met in the Netherlands, the first, in 1939 with Marcel Godet as President; the second in 1966 with Sir Frank Francis as President, and now, in 1998. It is interesting to note what my predecessors stressed in their addresses to the delegates at the IFLA Conferences held in the Netherlands. As you know, the year 1939 was the last pre-war Conference and Mr Godet's grave address was concerned mainly with totalitarian regimes and democratic constitutions. Noting that all library tasks ought to be undertaken in the service of freedom and human decency, he raised the possibility of further cooperation, pointing to the love of the book shared by all and to IFLA's achievements, that had proven its capability to surmount all barriers. In 1966, Sir Frank Francis pointed toward the future, and dwelt on the unheard of changes facing the modern library community, brought about by the new possibilities of automation which enabled libraries to speed up information retrieval and bibliographic control in the interests of readers' demands. His speech ended in an appeal for ever more active cooperation in order to make available modern electronic techniques for speedy scientific information and literature retrieval without, however, neglecting the human and humanistic tasks that, arising from the noble traditions of the library profession, still formed its very core.

Democratic ideals, personal interaction, and an ongoing need for international cooperation are still values to which I would aspire during my Presidency, and I hope I will demonstrate this to you.

It is therefore a great pleasure for me to welcome you to this conference, with the challenging theme, "On Crossroads of Information and Culture". Although many of the problems facing our colleagues in 1939 and 1966 are still with us be it in different guises, the theme and the sub-themes developed by our Dutch colleagues remind us of the great resources we bring together here in Amsterdam, both intellectually and physically.

Allow me first of all to take a quick look back at what has happened since our Copenhagen meeting. I am proud to state that IFLA remains a growing and vibrant organization and we have been able to welcome a number of new members from various parts of the world. Of course the sustained interest of the independent countries in Eastern Europe must be noted. IFLA has also welcomed a number of new members from countries as far apart as Brunei, Guatemala, Guinea Bissau, and Madagascar. On the other hand, IFLA does not exist in a vacuum, and we have seen the consequences of the economic crises in a large number of countries reflected on our members, which may cause them to terminate their membership.

I would like to make special mention of the possible role of sponsors in this context. Recently, IFLA has greatly extended its search for general sponsors, though it appears to me that some of them might also be encouraged to finance the membership in countries in difficulty. This is a path which IFLA intends to take up again, in order to come to the aid of the worst off, though without depleting its own resources. It has a great enough need for these itself!

Mention must also be made of the constantly increasing number of individual members. It seems that this new category fulfils a genuine demand. At the same time, however, it must be ensured that IFLA does not lose its status as a federation of associations or institutions.

Professional activities are still our core activities. We only exist by means of these activities - activities which work for the good of the profession. The manner in which each actor participates is now well practised, from the Standing Committees right up to the Professional Board, at the very top of the pyramid. Round Tables become Sections when the need arises. For example, there has been a growing interest in Management and Marketing, and a new Section has been established to address this interest. The Executive Board puts into effect the top priority policies defined by the Professional Board, just as the executive body in a government would work together with the legislative body. The Core Programmes continue their specialised activities as effectively as before. At this point, I would like to thank the institutions which accommodate them, as well as their dedicated staff members.

As you know, IFLA has been working for three years on the creation of 2 new Committees: the Committee on Copyright and other Legal Matters (CLM) and the Committee for Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE). Since last year, these Committees have had a Chair (Ms Marianne Scott, National Librarian of Canada for the CLM and Mr Alex Byrne, Director of Information Resources of the Northern Territory University in Australia for the FAIFE). At this point, I must again thank the Danish government, the Municipality of Copenhagen and the Danish Library Community for the establishment of the FAIFE Office in Copenhagen.

These 2 committees will hold their first official meetings during this Conference. I do not think that they will be at a loss for things to discuss. Copyright problems for one, as well as freedom of expression and the struggle against all forms of censorship - these are highly crucial problems for the activity of libraries throughout the world, which call for urgent attention. Let us wish them much success. You can rest assured that the President of IFLA will follow their activities closely with great interest, and will take their problems to heart. It is unlikely that we will manage to overcome all these difficulties in a hurry, but these Committees are not just there as tokens. I await concrete, visible action from them.

Finally, as we do every year during IFLA's annual conference, the Executive Board will meet with representatives from UNESCO, as well as sister organisations such as the International Federation for Documentation and Information and the International Council on Archives, as they inform us of their interest in our activities and of joint action programmes. The Beijing Agenda, inaugurated with the International Council on Archives by Robert Wedgeworth, my predecessor, shall not be forgotten. Indeed, we shall continue to examine possibilities of joint action. We shall also go on to define the joint or separate responsibilities of IFLA and ISO in the preparation of cataloguing standards.

We are continuing our participation in UNESCO activities in the form of contracts, and IFLA is represented on a regular basis at the General Conference and at meetings of the Bureau for the General Information Programme.

In the area of publications you have all seen the disappearance of the IFLA Annual and the subsequent enrichment of the IFLA Journal. Moreover, you have all been able to consult the first edition of the biennial Council Report, which, as well as presenting a precise account of our activities, also serves as a promotional tool in order to present our association to people outside it, to associations or institutions, to NGOs or to sponsors. The first attempt has been a success, and we look forward to the next report with great interest.

The dynamics of IFLA as an organization are also reflected in its staff. As you know, a number of IFLA staff have left us this year. We wish them all the best, and I would quickly like to introduce their successors to you: Firstly, our new Professional Coordinator, Mr Sjoerd Koopman. Some of you know him already, others will have read his biography in the press release published by IFLA upon his appointment. Sjoerd has been very quick in dedicating himself wholeheartedly to his day-to-day work as a co-ordinator, and you will all have the opportunity to make his acquaintance during the course of the week. You will also be able to meet Charlotta Brynger, IFLA's new Membership Officer; Josche Neven, the new Paul Nauta IFLA Fellow; and Karin Passchier, the new Administrative Assistant. A new team, though happily still under the inspired leadership of Sophie Felföldi, Carol Henry and Leo Voogt.

After this short overview, I would like to inform you of a certain number of activities, which I have undertaken this year, and to draw some conclusions with you.

I must say that when you are elected President of IFLA, you become inundated with invitations to all kinds of conferences, workshops or just visits - everybody wants to see and meet the new President. I have therefore had a year which was particularly rich in journeys and meetings of all kinds. First of all, I would like to point out that, up to the end of December 1997, I had to perform the double function of Director of a University Library and President of IFLA without any extra help, so that, apart from attending initial briefing visits and meetings of the Executive Board, my first months after Copenhagen were necessarily of an introductory nature. However, Leo Voogt and I made a site visit to the venues of the 2002 IFLA Conference in Scotland: Glasgow and Edinburgh promise us a warm welcome, and the United Kingdom Library Association is working hard to ensure this.

My second journey was, quite symbolically I like to think, to an African country: Ghana. I was invited to participate in a seminar on access at the global information society for all the countries of West Africa. This visit was a direct testimony to my commitment to developing countries, a first contact with librarians from sub-Saharan Africa, and with their problems in getting connected to the Internet. Later, I will inform you of the conclusions that I drew from this visit with regard to the priority activities for IFLA in this region of the world.

After Africa, I went to visit another part of the world where IFLA must undoubtedly redouble its efforts: Latin America. Chile and Argentina both welcomed me with open arms, and I had meetings in these countries with the Ministers of Education and Culture respectively. In these two countries, I found remarkable professionals, working with unequal, though not non-existent resources, with the feeling that they were slightly excluded from the community of librarians, being in countries situated at the end of the world. These two countries have little or no public library network, they have national libraries which also have to take on the role of large public libraries, and it is not uncommon to meet mothers in the corridors of the national library, searching for information to help their children do their homework... I laid great emphasis on the need for development of public reading networks in these countries, to construct a national identity, to develop democracy and to foster economic and intellectual development. The recent history of these two countries explains their difficult situation, though the leaders have not yet really grasped that libraries can play an important role in these areas. On the other hand, study and research libraries, university and scientific libraries and even school libraries are generally quite well off. In Argentina, I was able to attend the annual conference of Argentine librarians during the Buenos Aires Book Fair, one of the largest in the world. Indeed, IFLA colleagues in Argentina have announced their intention to put themselves forward as a candidate to host the IFLA Conference in 2004.

I then undertook several journeys within Europe: to Portugal first of all, for a joint conference between Portuguese-speaking librarians (including Brazil, Cape Verde, Angola, and Macao and a number of others) and archivists. This meeting of two professions is well in keeping with our collaboration with the International Council on Archives. I was happy to note to what extent the librarians appeared to be interested in this co-operation. This ought to encourage us to continue.

I then went to Greece, for a meeting of Technical Committee 46 of the International Standards Organisation (ISO), of whose sub-committee I am president. Here again, this meeting led me, as I mentioned above, to think about the respective places and roles of the ISO and the IFLA in the standardisation of library work. Indeed, we are planning to work together on a text describing the allocation of our tasks and responsibilities.

My next journey took me to Israel, for the preparation of the IFLA Conference there in 2000, an initial contact with the local organising committee and a visit to the conference facilities and site. My final journey in Europe was to the conference which is now held each year in the Crimea, this year in Sudak, on the shores of the Black Sea. It was a marvellous occasion, which gave me the opportunity to meet librarians from throughout the former Soviet sphere of influence, to listen to their problems and to reflect on possible solutions. Here once again, remarkably professional librarians are working under incredibly difficult circumstances and have a particular need to feel that they belong to an international community which is prepared to support them.

Finally, in early July, I represented IFLA at the conference of the American Library Association. This is one of our founding members as you know, and probably the largest too, as this association alone represents 65,000 professionals in the library and information world. Unless you have experienced the annual conference of ALA, you cannot grasp what the word gigantic actually means. We may think that we are holding a large conference here at IFLA with our 3,000 or so participants, but what can you say about a conference with between 20,000 and 25,000 depending on the year? It's quite simple: while completing US entry formalities at the airport, the immigration officer heard that I was going to a conference. His immediate response was to ask me if I was a librarian...

So now, those of you who despaired at ever finding me at my desk in the office can understand why... And I think that I have been able to pay tribute to colleagues from various parts of the world (Asia is on the agenda for next year) and to libraries and associations both large and small and at all levels... Everywhere, I have met motivated and competent colleagues, working in the face of all kinds of difficulties. This led me to attempt to define priorities for our activities in the years to come. I would now like to explain these to you.

It is impossible to solve all problems at once. If this were possible, it would have been done long ago! What I would therefore like to do is to analyse what I have been able to bring back from these journeys and to draw up a number of main priorities.

It appeared to me that, whatever economic problems certain countries may be suffering, the most pressing problem for them is not just a financial one. Many developing countries, or countries which are currently disadvantaged, can actually find the means to acquire basic computers and telecom infrastructures. A growing number of funders can be mobilized in this context. I do not intend to underestimate the problems, but I consider that they are becoming less and less serious. Our first Vice President, Ms Ekaterina Genieva, has been working for some time with the Soros Foundation to improve Internet connection for libraries in Eastern Europe, while Sjoerd Koopman and I met up in Washington during the ALA Conference together with representatives of the Gates Library Foundation, which would like to finance the same thing in public libraries throughout the world. Extremely large sums of money are involved here, and IFLA is quite optimistic that rapid progress can be made. UNESCO has traditionally helped these countries to equip themselves with computers and to connect to the Internet. We therefore have a good chance of seeing substantial progress in this area.

However, it would seem to me that there is a lot do in the area of education - and I mean education in the broadest sense of the word. I say this because, throughout my travels, I have seen competent librarians, though their manner of working has sometimes been too theoretical, too traditional and too manual. We must continually remind ourselves that the globalisation of information has an impact not only on the principles of our profession but also on its practices. Our mission needs to go beyond providing public libraries in rural areas of developing countries with the Internet. It is far more important to help librarians and then their readers to understand and to integrate what they can find amongst these global electronic resources, and to find what they really need among the huge jumble of information available. We should strive to overcome psychological, political, religious or sexual barriers which we may come across in our work. For example, during my travels a colleague once asked me whether I considered it right for women to gain access to the Internet. Librarians ought to be further ahead of other communities in terms of freedom of access to information, and we must be able to respond to the requests and objections of our readers, a task in which IFLA must be supportive. The Internet is a bit like the language of Aesop: the best or the worst of things, depending on how it is used. Education is therefore our first priority, and we are planning to collaborate with the ALP Core Programme, as well as with other partners or patrons, in order to develop new educational programmes, including correspondence courses.

The second priority is most certainly communication or freedom of expression. What good does it do to have all the information in the world at our fingertips if we are prevented from disseminating it, if we don't dare show it, or if we are subject to censorship or self-censorship? Democracy is probably still not perfect, though it still remains our goal, in libraries particularly. It can be threatened from all sides, which is why the creation of the FAIFE committee was so important for us. What we would like to avoid at all costs is that the resources and technologies which have been put at the public's disposal, the potential information, does not become a decoy or an alibi which serves to reassure and comfort us with regard to our role, without any concrete result. Everywhere I go, I insist on the importance of libraries for the development of a democratic and national identity. This message must be proclaimed urbi et orbi. It must also be reflected in the daily activities of our libraries and in the priorities of the IFLA.

Finally, the third priority that I would like to support is standardisation. Whatever the level of technical development in a library, there are standards which can be of use. Standardisation is not just the preserve of well-endowed, high-tech establishments (electronic documents or data elements....). What is certain, though, is that if standardisation is not carried out immediately at a certain price, if must come eventually, and that the later it is carried out, the higher the price.... At this time of globalisation of the world's economies and globalisation of information, no library in the world can afford to feel totally isolated, nor can it be justified in working with its own standards, whatever its traditions. Whether in manual cataloguing, interlibrary loans, descriptions of subject matter, no area is escaping standardisation, and that is a good thing. We must all speak the same language in order to exchange experiences - we must call the same things by the same name. This is the only way in which Babel can become a blessing instead of a curse...