This post comes from one of our Program Coordinators Alyson Dalby, and was originally published at http://alysondalby.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/my-first-ifla-wlic/
In August I went to my first IFLA World Library and Information Congress (WLIC), which was a pretty interesting experience. I’m still very much digesting all the information I took in while there, but I wanted to write a reflection before it travelled too far into the past. I tweeted like mad during the event, and Storified the whole thing at http://storify.com/alysondalby/my-first-ifla-wlic.
A quick beginner’s guide to the IFLA WLIC might be in order (and thanks to @katecbyrne for her help with understanding this). IFLA is like the international version of ALIA (The Australian Library and Information Association) – kind of. There are some important ways in which IFLA and ALIA differ, and I’ll get to that. Their WLIC is run in a different city every year. Most of the time it’s held in places that are prohibitively expensive and time consuming for Australians to get to; the fact that it was being held in Singapore this year was probably the thing that made me determined to go.
The WLIC is like a giant cake (stick with me, this’ll work out, I promise). There are two layers of cake: one layer is a normal conference with speakers and exhibitors and poster sessions. The other layer is an event that comprises all the IFLA committee meetings. The cream in between is the networking that one does while travelling from one layer to the other. And then the icing is made up of the satellite events. The thing is that when you take a slice of the cake you get all of those things at once. They all happen at the same time. So it’s a bit confusing.
IFLA, like ALIA, has lots of members that comprise the various committees that represent regions, sectors, and special interests. There’s like a gazillion committees when you add them all up, and each one has one or two meetings at the WLIC. To fit all this into one week there’s usually about six things happening at the same time. Most of these meetings are open, and they welcome observers. So even a novice like me, who until half way through the conference wasn’t even a member of IFLA, can just walk in to these meetings and find out what that particular caucus/section/special interest group does.
To be honest I found that was where a surprisingly large chunk of the value of the WLIC was, partly because it’s different from what you get at other conferences (at least in Australia). One of the other differences between IFLA and ALIA is that IFLA is the Federation of Library Associations – as in, most of it’s members are organisations (although IFLA does have individual members as well). One of the most interesting meetings I went to was the Management of Library Associations Section (MLAS), which is where all the people who are in charge of library associations around the world get together and talk about what they want IFLA to be doing on an international level. In the meeting was a mix of staff and directors of various associations; being on the board of ALIA made this particularly relevant for me (as well as being quite the networking opportunity!).
The other layer of the cake, the bit that tasted like a normal conference, was, like any other conference, variable. Some bits were great and some bits were not, but that’s to be expected. The program works on a very distributed model – each of the aforementioned committees gets time allocated in the program to fill with whatever and whoever they want, essentially. There are some plenary sessions as well. I won’t write about every session I went to, and my Twitter feed recorded my impressions of the event in some detail, but there were some stand outs worth mentioning:
- The opening session was a bundle of fun, with lots of music and drumming, and a huge Chinese dragon made of reused water bottles covered in neon lights, winding it’s way around the hall. It was lively and really gave a sense of occasion. However I was fairly conflicted listening to the speech by Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Professor Chan Heng Chee, where she romanticised the personal, print, wooden library, and described libraries as ‘sacred spaces’. I don’t feel that this kind of characterisation is helpful, as sacred things are very hard to change. A library shouldn’t be sacred. It should be used.
- The FAIFE (Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression) conference session was probably the best chunk of sessions I attended. It included Barbara Jones from the American Library Association talking about the Snowden affair, and articulating why ALA needs to focus on the quality of the laws underpinning these and similar cases, rather than the individuals involved; Singaporean activist blogger bravely Alex Au talking about Singapore’s culture of self-censorship; and Stuart Hamilton from IFLA talking about our personal responsibilities around campaigning for libraries as safe places. It was one of those sessions one comes away from feeling inspired.
- The Copyright and Other Legal Matters committee had a session on international agreements, that included two excellent presentations. Harald Mueller took us through some recent court cases in intellectual property and their implications for libraries, which led to his fabulous conclusion that the best way to get some decent laws made in this area would be for librarians to start some court cases themselves. Then the wonderful Ellen Broad fed into my inner conspiracy theorist when she talked about the TPP and TTIP, two trade agreements currently being negotiated that are likely to heavily affect intellectual property and copyright laws that we rely on to do our jobs. Ellen has the power to make one really, really care about copyright law.
Cake is cake, and cake is good, but cake is great with icing. And so I can’t neglect to mention IFLAcamp2, which was the satellite unconference that I went to before the WLIC proper. Like all unconferences it was characterised by mildly controlled chaos, but in the good way. There were about 35 people there, and a very mixed bunch – new grads, big wigs, educators, vendors, students, what have you. The event was organised by the IFLA New Professionals Special Interest Group (the catchy NPSIG). We talked about all kinds of things, including international librarianship, professional development, leadership, library associations, informal learning networks, and the future of libraries. Some notes were taken and uploaded at http://npsig.wordpress.com/iflacamp2/schedule/. While this was all great, I think the most valuable part of IFLAcamp2 for me was a chance to meet and get to know some people before being thrown into the chaos of the full WLIC. It gave me connections to people that I then continued to bump into over the next week.
I would love to go to the IFLA WLIC again, but it would depend a lot on accessibility and relevance. It was interesting, but there’s no shortage of cool overseas conferences. The international nature of the WLIC is probably it’s selling point, and it was wonderful meeting people from really and truly all over the world. But given the time and cost involved in going when it’s on the other side of the world, it’s possibly of more value to people who are actually involved in the work of IFLA. If you are interested in becoming one of those people, which I am, then attending the WLIC is the best orientation session possible.
p.s. IFLA recently launched the IFLA Library, an online repository of their conference and other papers. You can find lots of the 2013 WLIC conference papers in there, and there’s lots of good reading to be had!