Magazine article American Libraries

Free Expression Takes Center Stage at IFLA in Amsterdam

Magazine article American Libraries

Free Expression Takes Center Stage at IFLA in Amsterdam

Article excerpt

When the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) held its 64th General Conference in Amsterdam August 16-21, those delegates newly charged with the daunting task of dealing with the censorship and repression that faces libraries worldwide had to hope they would do more in the Netherlands than tilt at windmills.

The standing committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Free Expression, established last year at IFLA's Copenhagen conference (AL, Oct. 1997, p. 26-29), had its initial meetings in Amsterdam. FAIFE's goals, as put forth by Chair Alex Byrne of Australia, are to promote freedom of access to information and free expression as fundamental human rights vital to the mission of libraries; to become the leading international organization responding to attacks and limitations on libraries; and to support and assist organizations worldwide that are addressing these issues. Jim Ristarp, who along with Carsten Frederiksen is staffing FAIFE's Copenhagen office, added that the committee's ambition is "to make this issue the key issue in IFLA in a few years." The committee's mandate comes from Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto.

The challenge before the committee is illustrated by the diverse backgrounds of its 22 members, who hail from nations with widely disparate traditions of intellectual freedom. "Freedom of speech and access to information is a brand new topic for me and most librarians in China as well," confessed Qihao Miao, deputy director of the Shanghai Library, "but we are interested in learning." Adding to the challenge, the committee's office has only been funded by the Danish government for two years, pressuring the group to promptly produce some initial results.

Another new standing committee, on copyright and legal matters, also met for the first time in Amsterdam. Although the group's major concern is expected to be the thorny issues surrounding copyright, Chair Marianne Scott, the National Librarian of Canada, said that its purview also includes licensing, the impact of the large numbers of mergers of information providers, concerns over the Multinational Agreement on Investment, and the destruction of cultural property in wars or other disasters. The committee also wants to establish a worldwide committee of experts that IFLA can consult at short notice to ensure that the library community's voice is heard when these issues arise.

The conference, which was attended by a record-breaking 3,328 people from 120 countries, saw those concerns - free expression and copyright - reflected in three guest lectures. The FAIFE guest lecture was delivered by Algerian journalist Ahmed Ancer, who has been living in Amsterdam following attacks from Islamic fundamentalists in his homeland, where nearly 60 journalists have been killed over the past few years. Noting that all the country's institutions, including libraries, are under the domination of the Islamic authorities, Ancer told his audience that "In effect, we are in the same field. I'm talking about the circulation of information, access to information, and freedom of information."

Another guest lecture, on library-publisher relations in the next millennium, wound up focusing on copyright matters. Dietrich Gotze, managing director of Springer Verlag, said that for the good of library users, publishers and librarians must work together to resolve such intellectual-property issues as fair use. "In the past we were sitting in different boats in the same river," said Gotze. Now we are in the same boat." Jane Carr, head of the British Library's publishing program, observed that most of the disagreements between publishers and librarians have not been about copyright per se, "but about who pays." Marianne Scott said that although publishers feel that copyright law exists solely to protect the rights of copyright holders, she believes that "copyright law is an instrument of public policy, and it cannot be viewed in so narrow terms. …

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