Changing of the Guard in Buenos Aires: IFLA's New Class of International Leadership

Article excerpt

Every year librarians from around the world travel hundreds of thousands of combined miles to form the Brigadoon-like nation that is the annual conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). In Buenos Aires, August 22-27, a total of 3,361 librarians from 121 countries assembled, earphones clamped across their heads, to usher in a new era of leadership with a decidedly non-European edge and a respectful but vocal distrust of U.S. and U.K. domination.

Long seen as a conservative, largely British-led organization, IFLA has evolved in recent years into a federation with an agenda dedicated to free expression, freedom of access to information, and the propagation of democratic values in developing nations whose libraries must take charge of their own destinies without the funding that Western nations take as a given. Visibly at the helm during this World Library and Information Congress were IFLA President Kay Raseroka of Botswana, presiding over her first IFLA conference, and new IFLA Secretary General Ramachandran Rasu of Singapore, at times struggling with the enormity of their task.

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Topped by a slate of speakers predominantly from Latin America, the six days of programs and meetings at the first IFLA conference (out of 70) ever held in South America sent a message that if the federation is to survive and thrive, members must embrace a more equitable sharing of the financial responsibility for the organization, and American delegates must understand the economic and cultural differences that make IFLA's very existence a diplomatic balancing act that often resembles the United Nations.

Political challenges

Given the history of Argentina's relationship to the United Kingdom, it was no surprise that the politics of this IFLA conference were different. Speakers delivered their lectures mostly in Spanish, with simultaneous translation often unable to keep up with the complex political messages being cheered by Argentine delegates and large constituencies from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru.

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Despite an economic crisis in Argentina that nearly forced IFLA to cancel, delegates showed up in large numbers, including nearly 600 Argentines. Attendance figures were a third lower than last year's conference in Berlin (AL, Oct. 2003, p. 22-26) but higher than projected.

Conference organizers Marta Diaz and Ana Maria Peruchena Zimmermann explained that the dreary economic situation in Argentina and the devaluation of the peso had forced the local committee to take out loans and receive assistance from other national associations in order to meet financial obligations. IFLA headquarters staff said that the day before the opening session, Colon Theater workers demanded more money, and negotiations that went on through the night were at least partially responsible for an equipment breakdown, late start, and disorganized crowd control.

Raseroka struggled valiantly through her opening speech as the theater's sound system repeatedly failed. Finally, she quipped, "For those of you in the First World, this is a shock, but in the Third World, this is what we live with and accept." However, the bulk of the conference took place at the city's new Hilton Hotel, which provided efficient facilities for meetings with simultaneous translation and exhibition space for some 120 publishers, associations, and other vendors.

The conference also offered delegates ample tastes of the rich culture of Argentina, including library tours and a program at the Opera Theater featuring the Nehuen folk ballet, the Pagina Magica avant-garde circus, the Pagina choir, and a demonstration of the ubiquitous tango. Some 350 Americans attended the conference, delivering papers and participating in the more than 200 programs, committee meetings, and working sessions offered at IFLA 2004. Peruchena Zimmermann reported that 1,100 registrants were Spanish-speakers. …