In a Sharper Light

By Charles Henry posted

Helsinki. The 78th annual IFLA World Library and Information Conference has convened in this lovely Baltic Sea port. It is summer, and the streets bustle with locals and tourists alike; a vibrant café scene evolves into a sophisticated eating and drinking stage at night. Among the more remarkable aspects of Helsinki is the light: the far northern sun is bright during the day, almost painful in its sharp glancing against stone and sea, turning into pastel bands of color near sunset as the late night dusk and darkness absorb the buildings and gardens, and the diffuse globes of street lamps cast their less angled shadows.

In keeping with the themes of this blog, I attended a session entitled “Libraries and Librarians as Forces for Transformational Change: Continuing Education [is] the Fuel.” The presenters were a panel of library directors, information specialists, and a professor. They represented the United States, Germany, and Finland (two panelists on the roster, from India and China, were not able to make the conference). Two presentations focused on specific projects or a set of projects at the home institution that were the result of intensive study and collaborative behaviors. A digital media studio at Marquette University and a new, standardized method of documenting nursing care at Laurea University of Applied Sciences, in Finland, were examples. The presentation from a professor of the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences was more abstract, the results of a book-length study on characteristics and qualities of leadership in libraries and higher education.

As with many of IFLA’s conference presentations, one is struck by the wide diversity—geographically and in terms of scale and cultural context—of the speakers’ institutions, and at the common themes and conceptual threads that run through these panel talks. “Collaboration” (in some cases “radical collaboration”), “partnerships,” and continual “internal and external communication” infused and structured all of these successful efforts.

The theme of change, and adapting to new environments, e.g., technology, a surge of digital resources, or economic constraints, and the challenges these phenomena infer for the traditional idea of the library, runs deeply in IFLA. Looking at past Congress meetings, a consistency of focus is apparent: Information for Co-operation: Creating the Global Library of the Future (2000); The Challenge of Change: Libraries and Economic Development (1996); Libraries of the Future (1995); Libraries for the Future: Progress, Development, Partnerships (2007). Over the last 20 years, these meetings have both acknowledged the sometimes powerful shifts in the context of librarianship, and at the same time reinforced the resilience and determined sustainability of the core principles of the traditional library. As one of the presenters noted, the skills and expertise needed to effect transformational change are the same ones we have known for generations, just applied in new ways.

A second aspect of IFLA’s consistency is the organization of its standing committees. In 2012, these include working groups devoted to library buildings and equipment; statistics and evaluation; acquisition and collection development; cataloging; information technology; and library theory and research, along with committees representing the interests of types of libraries, such as those supporting the disciplines of art and social sciences, and the more generic public institutions, as well as national libraries, research libraries, and those devoted to rare books and manuscripts. What was somewhat surprising is that all of these standing committees had an identical counterpart as far back as 1993.

The unusually sharp light of Helsinki perhaps instigates some pointed questions: if an organizational structure is defined by areas of interest and study that hold constant over more than two decades, is the organization positioned to address the enormous changes and challenges it must confront in ways that are flexible and opportunistic? The conservation of our cultural heritage is a fundamental responsibility of any library; is the conservation of a traditional model or ideal of the library itself always in the best interests of our profession or the constituencies we serve? These questions are not limited or unique to IFLA, but indeed apply to higher education at large.