Indigenous Knowledge Matters at IFLA Conference in South Africa: An Announcement of New Regional Offices and the Profession's Role in the AIDS Crisis Dominate the Discussion

American Libraries, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Indigenous Knowledge Matters at IFLA Conference in South Africa: An Announcement of New Regional Offices and the Profession's Role in the AIDS Crisis Dominate the Discussion


The 73rd World Library and Information Congress of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) convened August 19 in Durban, South Africa, with a new emphasis on indigenous knowledge and oral history in relation to "Libraries for the Future," the conference theme. The five-day conference offered some 3,100 delegates from 116 nations an opportunity to witness firsthand the transformations that have occurred in South African libraries and in the nation itself since the end of apartheid in 1994. The conference also served as a backdrop for the announcement of the annual $1-million Access to Learning Award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a surprise award of another $1 million to IFLA to support its advocacy work.

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Welcoming the delegates to South Africa, IFLA President Alex Byrne of Australia noted, "Drawing inspiration from the extraordinary commitment to making a new start in this country, we say that we stand ... for truth and reconciliation, for libraries and information services that will help all to discover the truth for themselves and thereby bring people together." Byrne alluded to the life of Mahatma Gandhi, whose civil rights struggle began in Durban in 1893, when he was thrown off a segregated train for attempting to sit in a first-class compartment.

Keynote speaker Albie Sachs, a crusader against apartheid and now a Constitutional Court justice, had attendees glued to their seats as he talked about being held in solitary confinement for two prolonged spells of detention beginning in 1963. In 1988, he was severely injured by a bomb placed in his car by South African security agents, losing an arm and sight in one eye. He dedicated his speech to "the unknown librarian" who provided books to him during his confinement. "If I had two hands, I would applaud you," he said, noting that reading saved his sanity.

"Our most magnificent libraries walk around on legs," Sachs observed, adding another thread to the recurrent oral-history theme that wove its way through this IFLA conference: "I am a library," he said, urging that the stories that live in every individual are worthy of preservation.

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President Byrne also announced the establishment of regional IFLA offices in Pretoria, South Africa; Alexandria, Egypt; Dakar, Senegal; and Moscow, Russia. Representing the host institutions, Buhle Mbambo-Thata of the University of South Africa in Pretoria; Marietou Diongue Diop of the Bibliotheque Centrale, Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar; and Galina Kislovkaya of the Russian State Library signed the agreement in Durban, as did Sohair Wastawy for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, calling the new center "a major step for Arabic-speaking countries." The new offices' primary role will be "reaching out to language communities that could not be reached with the existing language infrastructure (with a predominant position of English)."

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Nearly 300 people crowded the room for the announcement of the 2007 winner of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Access to Learning Award: the Northern Territory Library, a regional public library system based in Darwin, Australia. The $1-million award honors the library system's innovative approach to bringing technology to remote indigenous communities. Microsoft will also donate $224,000 in software and technology training curriculum to upgrade the library's 300 computers.

At a meeting of delegates representing national associations, Martha Choe announced an additional award of $1 million from the Gates Foundation to IFLA for its library advocacy efforts. Claudia Lux of Germany, who will succeed Byrne this year as IFLA president, noted that the gift will enable IFLA to add an advocacy position to the headquarters staff in The Hague. "Our partnership with IFLA will help more public libraries provide free public access to computers and the internet," said Choe, emphasizing the foundation's guiding belief that "every life has equal value. …

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