The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) held its 83rd World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) in Wrocław, Poland, from August 19-25, 2017. What follows are my reflections on the conference as a first-time attendee. I’ll have more to say about Wrocław as a travel destination in a future blog post.
Three things set the IFLA WLIC apart from other library conferences. The first is its size. It’s not in the same league as the American Library Association’s annual meeting, but it is much larger than any other library conference that I’ve attended. As with other conferences, attendance varies from year to year, depending on the venue. This year there were 3,300 librarians at the conference – roughly 50 percent more than the number who attended the annual meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries in Austin.
The second notable feature of the IFLA conference is its geographic, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This was not my first international library conference. I attended the annual meeting of the International Association of Law Libraries (IALL) in Buenos Aires in 2014 and in Oxford in 2016. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the IALL conferences, librarians from English-speaking jurisdictions in the developed world accounted for a disproportionate share of the attendees, with most of the rest coming from Western Europe and only a smattering of librarians from elsewhere in the world.
The IFLA conference, by contrast, included librarians from 122 countries on every continent. Developed countries were over-represented, but less so than at the IALL conferences I’ve attended. Only ten percent of the librarians were from the United States. This was my first conference where the majority of the attendees were not native English speakers. That made it feel like a truly international gathering.
The third thing that sets the IFLA conference apart is its length — seven full days. The conference got underway on Saturday, August 19, with a series of business meetings for IFLA’s sections (including the Law Libraries Section) and interest groups. Caucuses for regional, national, and language groups also held meetings on Saturday. Substantive programming began on Sunday, August 20, and continued through Thursday, August 24. The final day of the conference was devoted to library tours, both within Wrocław and in other cities and towns throughout southwest and south central Poland.
I attended the Newcomer’s Session, which took place early on Sunday morning, immediately prior to the Opening Session. It included an introduction to IFLA by its outgoing president, Donna Scheeder; remarks from the president-elect, Gloria Pérez Salmerón; an overview of the conference and how to get the most out of it; as well as an opportunity to get acquainted with other newbies.
The Opening Session featured a keynote address by British historian Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski entitled Where Were You Going, Poland, When You Were So Rudely Interrupted? In addition to introducing the audience to some of the recurring themes and continuities in Poland’s tumultuous history, the address also offered insights into the country’s transition to democracy since the fall of the communist regime in 1989.
I knew from speaking with one of my Georgetown colleagues, who attended last year’s IFLA conference in Columbus, that the Opening Session would conclude with an entertainment segment showcasing the host city. Even so, I was not entirely prepared for the ensuing 30-minute Broadway-style extravaganza, which employed a combination of interpretive dance and acrobatics to illustrate Wrocław’s thousand-year history. Of all the library conferences I’ve attended, this one’s opening session definitely had the best production values!
Once the substantive programming got underway, I focused my attention on sessions that were sponsored in whole or in part by IFLA’s Law Libraries Section. These included a session addressing the Challenges for Legal Research and Methodology in Post-Communist Eastern Europe, as well as a session on Optimizing Subject Access to Legal Materials. The latter featured an informative presentation on EuroVoc, a multilingual controlled vocabulary developed by the Publications Office of the European Union (paper available for download here).
At a session sponsored by the Government Information Section, I learned about Global Online Access to Legal Information (GOALI), a new initiative that is working with commercial publishers to provide free or low cost access to legal materials in developing countries. GOALI is spearheaded by the International Labour Organization in partnership with Yale Law Library and Cornell Law Library. Access will be provided on an institutional basis to law schools, courts, government agencies, law libraries, and local NGOs operating in selected jurisdictions. GOALI’s online platform is expected to launch in February of 2018.
I particularly enjoyed a session on Transparency, Openness, and Engagement sponsored by the Parliamentary Libraries Section. It included a presentation on a data visualization tool for public finances developed by librarians at the Chilean National Congress. Another presentation described REDIPAL, an open platform for exchanging information about legislation pending in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Mexico’s national legislature. These presentations were followed by break-out sessions during which each presenter met with members of the audience for a more in-depth discussion.
I also attended the business meeting of IFLA’s Law Libraries Section, which provided me with a better understanding of what it does and how it operates. One of the highlights of the business meeting was a report on two very successful workshops on open access to legal information that were co-sponsored by IFLA. The workshops took place in Kampala, Uganda, in December of 2016, and in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in May of 2017. Plans for a third workshop to be held elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 already are underway.
Another highlight of the business meeting was a report on the adoption of a Statement on Government Provision of Public Legal Information in the Digital Age by the IFLA Governing Board in December of 2016. The statement, which includes provisions on authentication and digital preservation for long-term access, was drafted by members of the Standing Committee of the Law Libraries Section. Its formal adoption by IFLA’s Governing Board marked the culmination of a long-term project that helped to raise the profile of the Law Libraries Section.
To broaden my horizons, I attended several sessions that had nothing to with legal information. Among the most memorable was a session on Libraries in Times of Crisis, which featured a heartbreaking presentation that documented the deliberate targeting and destruction of libraries and archives during the civil war in Somalia. Another session on Information Inequality stood out for a presentation on linguistic minorities, who often struggle to access information online, where English and a handful of other widely spoken languages predominate. For a librarian who often assists faculty and students trying to find reliable English translations of foreign laws, this presentation brought a welcome change of perspective.
One of the most important benefits of attending the IFLA conference was the opportunity to network with other librarians, particularly those from other countries and institutions outside the U.S. I was especially pleased to meet librarians from the House of Commons Library and the European Parliament Library, since many of the faculty and students that I work with are interested in writing about Britain’s impending withdrawal from the European Union.
It would have been difficult to navigate a conference as large as IFLA without advice from veterans. Sally Holterhoff and Teresa Miguel-Sterns were especially helpful to me in this respect. I also would like to extend my thanks to Sonia Poulin, the chair of the Standing Committee of IFLA’s Law Libraries Section, for her welcoming spirit and for making sure that I had someone to join me for dinner each evening.
I encourage any librarian who works with foreign and international legal materials to consider attending the IFLA conference, particularly if it is being held in a jurisdiction that is of interest to you or to a faculty member with whom you work. Next year’s conference will take place in Kuala Lumpur.