It was simply wonderful to have the international library community over here in Helsinki for the IFLA 2012.
At least for me. I got to spend quite a lot of time with old friends, and made some new ones. The conference was also, to my great surprise, a relaxing experience: I was not responsible for anything in particular. Other people were running the show, so all I could do was drop in to sessions, have lunch with nice people and, later on, have a few drinks either at the nightspot or other bars in Helsinki. I could get used to that. (Well, to be honest, I am.)
When arranging the IFLA, the task of the national committee is somehow obscure. The contents of the conference come from the IFLA committees and the board, and there is an external agency, a conference bureau or so, taking care of the matters of the material world. The local challenge is to welcome guests, organize sideprograms and feel stressed about everything.
So we carefully planned how to make sure our guests know that they have arrived in Finland. It was easy: first we turned the opening ceremony into a funeral, and then ensured that there was a sufficient amount of alcohol at the cultural evening to enable spontanious performances of our national character. And so it was.
Then there were all kinds of events, libraries to visit, sideprograms, pre and post sessions and so forth, beautifully organised. Thank you Kristiina, Leena and the gang. You did all the work, and everything ran smoothly.
I am sure people enjoyed themselves over here, even after being welcomed by a keynote speaker on massacres. But I am not so sure whether the participants of the IFLA conference feel that the week was professionally and intellectually rewarding?
What I mean is that next year, when we travel to Singapore, I have to ask myself: Do I go there because of the fascinating conference and all those great new ideas that will arouse in my mind, or do I just travel across the globe to spend a week in an exotic country with spicy flavours, and join a couple of conference sessions as some kind of ransom to pay for the chance to have an original Singapore sling at the Raflles Hotel bar?
Seriously, IFLA, what are you doing to prevent me from using the conference just as an excuse?
If I were to give an official statement, I would say that the sessions of the IFLA conferences are interesting and I have learned a lot every time. What I really think is that there are too many people yawning at any given moment during most of the sessions at the conferences I have seen so far.
I guess there are two reasons for this. First, IFLA is a general meeting. Librarians of the world get together, listen to the official stuff, take part in the events and meet one another to get the feeling that ‘hey guys, we have a global cause. And that’s wonderful!’
We do not have a theme, a collective statement nor a direction, but we are all there to listen to how libraries empower people, as they really do, and learn from one another. No matter what has been lectured on the stage.
Secondly, IFLA is a global meeting. Consequently, we deal with first, second and third world problems at the same time. Knowing, that the copyright issues are not the most important theme on the agenda in those African countries that have one library per million citizens, we first worlders play our own concerns down. The publishing houses of the West might be greedy and ignorant, but knowing that Finland alone produces more information than sub-Saharan countries together (South Africa excluded), what are we complaining about?
If I compare the IFLA conference to the Eblida-meeting in the spring, the point is more obvious: At Eblida in Copenhagen, we had narrow, specified, and explicit agenda and I returned home finding myself somewhat en- thusiastic about the outcome: the e-book solution will be in making new deals with the publishers instead of making new laws in national parliaments.
IFLA would be more interesting, if it had an agenda. But it cannot. It is the UN of the world of libraries representing 150 different national wills contradicting one another. The outcome is unavoidably circumspect.
When so many people come together from so different backgrounds, that is what happens. At the worst, the rich North is trying to advertise the empowering capabilities of the libraries to the representatives of the third world, who feel alienated since the menu provided does not meet their needs. But the wine is nice, and small talk is good.
I think IFLA could be more thematic, and it could focus more on global forces – no matter whether they are economic, social or cultural – that set the frames for library activity. These forces are global, as our libraries are platforms were they get adopted to the local culture.
Anyway, it was great to have you over here. Personally, I had a good time.