International Conference Draws 3,200: IFLA Convenes in Oslo as New National Library Opens

Article excerpt

Against the backdrop of the inauguration of the newly expanded and renovated National Library of Norway, the 71st World Library and Information Congress of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions convened in Oslo August 14-18. The IFLA annual conference and council attracted some 3,200 delegates from 113 countries, including more than 300 Americans, to the Scandinavian capital, slightly higher than last year's attendance in Buenos Aires (AL, Oct. 2004, p. 24-27).

IFLA-goers watched on an outdoor screen as Norwegian King Harald V and other dignitaries toured the newly remodeled facility, which consists of a 1913 original building and a 1933 addition--both of which have been restored to their original condition--and a new addition containing underground storage vaults and offices. National Librarian Vigdis Moe Skarstein told American Libraries that the main objective of the $50-million renovation was "a balance between the building as part of Norway's cultural heritage and the modern equipment required in a contemporary library."

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King Harald also appeared at the Spektrum convention center for the opening ceremonies, keynoted by Francis Sejersted, professor of economic and social history at the University of Oslo, who warned of the threats to freedom of information in a modern, technologically advanced society. The spectacular opening--hosted by Norwegian singer-actor Oystein Wiik and featuring flag-bearing marchers and a musical extravaganza--also included welcomes by Norwegian Minister of Culture and Church Affairs Valgerd Svarstad Haugland and Oslo Mayor Per Ditlev-Simonsen.

The IFLA conference served as a showcase for the Norwegian intellectual and cultural elite. Programs at the "IFLA Nightspot" featured late-night performances by major authors and musicians, while plenary sessions offered a similar array of talented speakers.

Ase Kleveland of the Swedish Film Institute and Board of Scandinavian Films wove Norwegian history into her moving speech about the human aspects of librarianship in a global context. Describing libraries as great repositories of knowledge, she also emphasized the librarian's role in sharing that knowledge as a public good. "Content is king," she joked, "but distribution is King Kong."

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Ole Henrik Magga--professor of Saami linguistics at the Saami University College in Kautokeino, Norway, in the far northern area of Scandinavia popularly known as Lapland--explained that indigenous knowledge is neither primitive nor inferior. In fact, he observed, "it is often superior." Humans want to know two things, he said: How we survive and why we do it. "This is how knowledge systems are built." Dressed in his native Saami garb, Magga asserted that indigenous knowledge systems are the true roots of humanism. Since 1982, he has been working with the United Nations on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Norwegian novelist Linn Ullmann delivered a rousing testimony to the power of reading. Invoking memories of her grandmother, she asserted that "libraries are our insurance against collective memory loss," the kind of limited thinking that leads to "preemptive war" or "war on what may happen." Ullmann said the United States has approached the war on terror as if it had taken "Ground Zero" literally, as if nothing ever happened before September 11, 2001. "This is what happens when we don't remember history," she warned.

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Also among the IFLA plenary session speakers were Upali Amarasiri and Hilde Frafjord Johnson. Amarasiri, national librarian of Sri Lanka, gave a horrifying account of the devastation in his country caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 (AL, Feb., p. 10-12), which damaged or destroyed 62 libraries. Johnson, who is Norway's minister of international development, said educating girls brings the largest economic benefit to a population. …