Dynamic libraries: access, development and transformation

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Louise Edwards reports on the major themes of the IFLA World Library and Information Congress, held in Cape Town

The role of libraries in sustainable development, the challenge of Big Data and culture at risk in conflict zones were some of the issues in the spotlight at this year’s World Library and Information Congress of IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), held In Cape Town, South Africa. 

Located at the impressive International Convention Centre, the Congress attracted 3190 delegates from 109 countries. The World Congress is a major logistical operation, with more than 350 local volunteers offering their support.  The programme offered 224 different sessions covering a spectrum of professional issues related to the conference theme, Dynamic Libraries: Access, Development and Transformation. There was an extensive exhibition space, poster display and organised visits to local libraries.  A strong cultural and social programme included powerful storytellers and playwrights, a youth choir from Soweto and a cultural evening of local cuisine, music and dance.

The World Congress is a high-profile event and the official welcome was given by the South African Minister of Arts and Culture, the Honourable Nathi Mhethwa. Referencing the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Mhethwa spoke about the difference libraries make as spaces that revolutionise and transform people’s lives for the better, underlining the importance of creating a global information society ‘where the culture of reading is a way of life’.  

Development goals

The 2030 Agenda, approved by UN Members at the end of September, presents a set of ambitious goals for People, Planet and Prosperity over the next 15 years. The theme was picked up at Congress by IFLA’s incoming president, Donna Scheeder, who highlighted the role played by IFLA and its partners in securing a place for library-related issues on the 2030 Agenda. They include access to information, universal literacy, access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and safeguarding cultural and natural heritage.  

Scheeder issued a ‘call for action’ to libraries, asking them to commit to building a change agenda that will connect libraries with their communities in new ways, equip individuals with the necessary information skills for the modern world and enhance librarians’ skills and competencies. The new long-term IFLA Strategic Plan 2016-21, to be launched shortly, highlights such a role for libraries in empowering society by driving universal access to information, knowledge and culture in support of development, learning and creativity.  

Reinforcing the focus of this congress on the role of libraries in sustainable development, Ministers and representatives from 13 African countries met in Cape Town to debate the issue.  The resulting Cape Town Declaration recognises the part libraries play as powerful knowledge partners in delivering skills in literacy and ICT.

The Declaration commits to providing the necessary resources for African libraries to develop and respond to modern-day challenges and supports a range of capacity-building measures, including strategies for improving ICT and knowledge management, partnership-building and networking, increasing the use of digital libraries and the promotion of local African content.

Big data

The importance of science and innovation was also recognised through the the Congress opening keynote speech by Dr. Rob Adam of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Adam is a nuclear physicist, imprisoned in Pretoria for 10 years as an anti-apartheid activist.  Now about to take over as SKA’s South African director, he described SKA as ‘one of the greatest scientific endeavours in history’. The SKA is the world’s largest radiotelescope, built in the deserts of South Africa and Western Australia, and will detect tiny radar signals from distant planets. The project presents a major data management challenge, generating roughly the same amount of data traffic as today’s global Internet.  It therefore depends on a Big Data storage and retrieval plan.  

Cultural Heritage

The recent high-profile cases of cultural heritage destruction in conflict zones meant that this topic was also high on the agenda at Congress. The announcement by IFLA in Cape Town that it is creating a risk register for documentary heritage is therefore timely. Information collected from owners or custodians of heritage collections will be held securely and provided when needed at times of crisis to international agencies, such as UNESCO.

Louise Edwards is director of professional strategies at IFLA