IFLA Downunder: Was It Worthwhile?

Article excerpt

An irreverent analysis of the public and private faces of the 1988 International Federation of Library Association's Sydney conference, by an international library educator and native son

THE 200TH ANNIVERSARY OF EUROPEAN SETtlement in Australia has been a year of celebrations, spectacles, and ceremonies. Many Bicentennial events have focused on Sydney. Here in 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip established an English penal colony on the protected foreshore of a wide harbor he judged to be one of the world's finest. Today, Sydney is a beautiful, human city. Immigrants from around the globe have poured in, and it has become vibrantly, perhaps a little self-consciously, multicultural. Debate about what this means for the nation is incessant, often loud and acrimonious, and is monitored suspiciously by our Pacific and Asian neighbors. It was the right time and place for a multicultural International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) assembly.

I grew up in vivid, sprawling Sydney. I studied librarianship here, at the University of New South Wales (NSNN), the IFLA Conference site. After further study in Chicago, I returned to NSW to accept my first teaching assignment. After a second sojourn in Chicago, I returned yet again, two-and-a-half years ago. Insofar as one ever can, I have come home.

Relaxing its rule that national conferences should be held apart, IFLA agreed four years ago that its 1988 conference would take place in Sydney at the University of NSW in conjunction with the Biennial Conference of the Library Association of Australia (LAA). The theme and variation chosen by the LAA for its meeting were: Living Together-People, Persuasion, Power IFLAs variation on the same theme was: Living Together-People, Libraries, Information.

Reporting for AL on IFLA conferences in Lausanne (AL, Nov. 1976) and Brussels (AL, Dec. 1977), I had traveled as aneager tourist, naive perhaps in my professional expectations. Behind my occasionally waspish critiques I was hopeful and took for granted a rationale for these large, dull meetings. I also attended them quite heedless of the orgarizational complexities involved.

International planning

Planning in Sydney was well advanced by the time I arrived. Although I was not involved, I soon became aware of the difficulties the organizers faced-inevitable matters of cost, communication between Melbourne, Sydney, and IFLA headquarters in The Hague, program development, travel, accommodation, meeting facilities, entertainment, and the special translation needs of an international conference.

Other more subtle problems existed. Remote from Europe and North America, Australian librarians questioned the association's professional value "downunden" IFLA, it was said, was on trial. But, of course, so was the LAA. That these attitudes existed suggest the novelty of the event, the scantness of available resources, and the trepidation it aroused.

The IFLA opening ceremonies were held in the splendor of the Sydney Opera House. Its famous sails always spread, the Opera House seems poised to sweep onto the water to race the yachts, up the harbor, through the Heads, and into the open sea to South America.

The conference was declared open with modest stateliness by the Queen's representative in Australia, the Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen. He was followed by Hans-Peter Geh, IFLA president.

A salutary reminder

In accomplished English, Geh reminded his audience that delegates were expected to speak in their own language if it was one of the four (English, French, German, and Russian-next year five, when Spanish will be added) official languages of the Federation. He delivered his address in German, giving the audience something of a shock; but it was a salutary reminder. Headphones were provided, though a great many people had not picked them up, and the speech was also projected in English onto a screen. …

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