“I’m not an optimist, I’m a prisoner of hope” – searching for library activism and new confidence at the IFLA conference in Dublin

Climate crisis, IFLA’s internal issues, the corona pandemic, and Russia’s attack on Ukraine overshadowed the international library meeting organized in Dublin. However, after participating in the event, the overriding feeling was a pure happiness and hopeful movement.

I participated in the IFLA WLIC 2022 conference organized in Dublin from 24 to 29 July. I am a member appointed by the Finnish Library Association in IFLA’s CPDWL division which focuses especially on lifelong professional learning and competence development. We traveled to the destination with Juha Manninen , executive director of the Finnish Library Association, on Monday, 25 July. According to the estimate, about 20 participants from Finland were on site in Dublin, half of whom traveled to the event on the same flights.

As soon as I arrived in Dublin, I headed to the Dublin Convention Center and to our division’s Business Meeting organized there. The meeting was really exciting in a positive way, because I had spent the last four weeks on annual leave and now I met many colleagues from our department live for the first time, physically. In the meeting, our division’s current issues and the working groups’ situations were discussed. We also heard that the 2023 conference in Rotterdam will be held on a more traditional date, August 21 – 25, 2023.

Members of the divisions participate in the Business Meeting, but you can also join in the role of an observer. One very interesting acquaintance was Tony Zanders, who works at the Skilltype company. The company has launched a platform aimed explicitly at libraries for identifying and managing abilities and skills. According to Skilltype’s advertising slogan, at the company, “we rethink how professional development affects the development of your career”. And especially in terms of libraries – wow, a new acquaintance immediately arose.

Also, in my own work as a development library coordinator (akepike.fi), the top of the educational content this year has been related to the well-being of librarians and the strengthening of professional identity in a changing world situation. The IFLA CPDWL division has also made the theme of the well-being of librarians visible, for example, in its webinars. I recommend checking out the Wellness for Librarians: resources and examples session materials here.

Embrace the unexpected!

The decrease in physical encounters has resulted from the pandemic in many fields. The initially surprising and established life with the coronavirus has also been possible when virtual communication tools have been introduced and developed. The WLIC event in Dublin was initially supposed to take place in 2020, and only now could the gathering be successfully completed. The joy of seeing each other again was enormous when librarians from different parts of the world met after a long time.

The first evening’s surprising meeting took place with Swedish colleagues. I was heading to a New Professionals Special Interest Group meeting at a pub called The Duke. On the way, I first met Tina Haglund , a member of my section, and then Catharina Isberg , the director of Helsingborg’s library. After this, we were joined by Ann Lundborg from Skåne’s library developers and Susann Ek , the library director of Lomma municipality . Suddenly I found myself eating Italian and improving the library world with these great librarians.

The three-year wait is over

The conference gathered around 2,000 participants from over a hundred countries. I think the number of participants is slightly lower than usual, having previously been around 3,000 participants. Dublin is a truly cosmopolitan city with lots of culture in many forms: museums, open spaces, music, theaters, and pubs. The city’s literary history is also significant, and much is happening around literature. Dublin has approximately 1.4 million inhabitants and 21 library units. From the point of view of customers, everything is free in Irish libraries, there are no fees, and the national system is common to all libraries.

IFLA President Barbara Lison opened the conference on Tuesday morning. In his speech, Lison stated that the three-year wait is over. The time has come to build new relationships and strengthen old ones. The conference is a place to recharge professional batteries and reflect on the post-pandemic period. The role of libraries in creating the conditions for sustainable development is central, and sustainability is also needed in IFLA, libraries, and society more broadly. In his speech, Lison also referred to IFLA’s challenges, for which a separate session was organized.

Collective solution or mass suicide?

The former president of Ireland, politician Mary Robinson delivered the first keynote speech of the conference. While preparing for the presentation, Robinson had googled the importance of libraries in the 21st century and wanted to challenge the participants’ perceptions of the subject. A startling warning was heard at the climate conference in Berlin in July: more than half of the world is at risk due to climate change. Robinson stated that there is a real moment of choice ahead: a collective solution or collective suicide. This is a matter that concerns humanity, every individual and community, and libraries.

Climate change is an unjust crisis for five reasons: the crisis hits the poorest countries the hardest, affects the sexes unequally, creates a burden for young people, separates countries from each other, and causes unnecessary suffering and extinctions for nature. Nature becomes humanity’s enemy and the change is entirely caused by ourselves. We should all put our cards together to stop the progress of climate change. How concretely could libraries help? What is the position of libraries?

Robinson challenged libraries: Help! Help communities and people talk about climate change and create environments for discussion. Bring young people to the light, listen to them, and develop meeting places. We should be much more efficient at fixing things. In the words of political activist and intellectual Cornel West : “I can not be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope”. Robinson ended his presentation with a hopeful quote from Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

The best library of the year

The IFLA/Systematic Public Library of the Year award is given to a new library in connection with the IFLA conference. The criteria for receiving the award are interaction with the surrounding culture, architecture, flexibility, sustainability, the library as a learning environment and consideration of digitization. This year, four libraries competed for the award: The sympathetic Ogre Central Library from Latvia, which focuses on children and young people, the Ithra Library from Saudi Arabia, which contains digital innovations, the colorful, touching and storied Missoula Public Library from the United States, and the community-based Gellerup Library from Denmark. This time the award went to the Missoula Public Library in the “Sky State”-Montana, I think fully deserved!

We talked a lot with the travel partners and, for example, Heidi Karhu of the Oulu City Library about the award’s meaning during the ceremony. Every library has its strengths, and the prerequisites for doing library work differ in different parts of the world. The difference is often explained by the different societies: the Nordic welfare state’s concept of democracy differs from that of the Middle Eastern kingdoms. In Western cultures, the library’s role is seen differently than in the East. I also talked to Mohamed Boufarss , the operational director of the Shurooq library, about this. In different parts of the world, investments are made in different ways to create community, and on the other hand, to do well in competitions. The jury has certainly been able to make careful considerations when choosing the winning library. What would the “best library” be like in your opinion?

Guidelines for future professionals and coaching

On Tuesday afternoon, I participated in an interesting session discussing the newly published guidelines for library and information education. After the introduction, we had a round table discussion with British, German, American and South African professionals about the practical implementation of the guidelines. The discussion was really educational and it was great to be able to exchange ideas with both library professors and newly graduated colleagues. I also met a very interesting contact, Dr. Frankie Wilson from Oxford at the Bodleian Library . The guidelines for LIS teaching are certainly material that we will discuss in the library and university cooperation meetings in Tampere in the future.

The first session of my own section was a joint one-and-a-half-hour session of the CPDWL and Management & Marketing sections focusing on international coaching. The target group of the coaching was young library managers. Our experienced coaches offered coaching in different languages. Coaching differs from mentoring, for example, in that the coach’s task is to create an environment for the coachee to come up with their own solutions to challenges. The trainings took place once face-to-face, but the method is also well suited to a virtual format.

I’m rediscovering my professional identity

I have worked in the library industry for about 15 years in various positions: trainee librarian, librarian, special librarian, department head, service manager and coordinator, as well as a teacher in the field and held various positions of responsibility in the Finnish Library Association. Especially in recent years, with the time of the pandemic, I may also have thought about my own professional future from time to time. Such conferences offer an opportunity for self-reflection, and a meeting aimed at Nordic library participants provided the answer. I’m in the right field.

The Nordic Caucus session brought together the conference’s Nordic participants. This year, the Norwegian Library Association organized the event and included welcome wishes, Elin Golten’s excellent presentation on democracy work, and free socializing. The subject of Golten’s dissertation was the role of libraries as open meeting places and arenas for public debate in a digitizing world. However, the most touching moment for me was the video Prolog Deichman Bjørvika presented at the event. It’s really worth a look. The video combines word art, artist perspectives, and reflection on the meaning of libraries. Sad things are happening in the world, and we got to watch this video together with our Nordic colleagues. Something to touch.

After the Nordic Caucus event, we discussed giving a conference with our Norwegian colleagues. For example, I met Ann Berit Hulthin, the Norwegian Library Association executive director, and Tone Larssen Rogne of Libraries for Children and Young Adults. We talked with them about how the decision-maker and customer perspectives could be even better presented in the library’s presentation videos and sessions. For example, in the videos shown at the Public Library of the Year event, only the Danes’ presentation featured the diverse users of the library as a voice.

Libraries, information and democracy

The sun had barely risen on Wednesday morning when I headed to the democracy-themed session at the conference center. Interesting presentations were given by Ton van Vlimmeren from Eblida and Vickery Bowles from the Toronto City Library. According to Vlimmeren, the democracies of Western societies are also in danger. When the structures of democratic societies and organizations are used for undemocratic decision-making, you have to be really worried. According to Freedomwatch, freedom of choice has decreased enormously in various countries over the past 15 years. On the other hand, the concept of freedom has changed over the centuries. What could libraries do?

According to Vlimmeren, embracing democracy has three faces and happens in different situations. First, democracy is cultivated in schools and as part of education. Secondly, democratic work can be part of movements, groups, and public debate. Thirdly, democracy can also be seen as a personal attitude. So what can libraries do? Libraries can actively fight against the spread of fake news, broadly approach all members of society, build links between different communities, support the strengthening of a democratic attitude, offer customers democratic influencing experiences and invest in joint development. In the Netherlands, the term peaceful neighborhood is used, which aims at lifelong learning of a democratic attitude.

During his presentation, Vlimmeren threw out useful content recommendations about democracy work. For example, you can put the following on your reading list: Deep fakes and the infocalypse by Nina Schick and An unruly history by Annelien den Dijn . In addition, a tip about the work of David Lankes , who studies the library industry from many angles . Lankes talks, for example, about collective individuality . The concept refers to the fact that library networks should change from places offering similar services in different units to platforms that allow libraries to look more like their communities and serve local communities.

Vickery Bowles talked about democracy work at the Toronto City Library . In Canada, it is seen that the primary goal of libraries is to provide access to information and take care of information literacy. Engaging the community is important, the library is a social actor. In Toronto, it is considered that increasing the willingness to vote can be the library’s agenda and it has been implemented in many ways. It is also important to support active citizenship and influence equality and intellectual freedom. An interesting event example concerned the performance of American political activist Angela Davis , which was also recorded as a podcast on TPL’s website. According to Bowles, there are very few public spaces or places where everyone can come. The library welcomes everyone regardless of background – this is something worth cherishing forever.

Libraries, marketing and the future

As is often the case at conferences, it is difficult to know in advance and based on the titles which session will prove to be important. This was again proven by the session on the marketing of future libraries organized by IFLA’s Management & Marketing section. The PressReader International Marketing Award was also presented at the event, which was won by the brilliant Yarra Libraries. By the way, here is an interesting library to follow, both on Facebook and in strategy papers! Textbook material in all its boldness, I would say. The second prize went to China’s Peking University Library, and the third to Chattanooga, USA.

The session was started by Tracy McEneaney , Head Librarian from Wateford Library, Ireland. McEneaney’s performance was top-notch – one of the best at the conference. Really fun, relaxed and full of fun in the truest sense of the word. In about half an hour, McEneaney presented various library campaigns from one side to the other. Campaigns that have encouraged people to read. Campaigns in which cooperation has been made with national media. Campaigns in which the library conveys information about, for example, climate change.

Waterford’s libraries have had, for example, National Library Open Day , the Take A Closer Look campaign and the Squeeze in a Read theme to promote reading. Corona was seen as an opportunity to create new things and make new contacts to enhance marketing. The Summer Stars literacy campaign was aimed at elementary school students in the summer. McEneaney emphasized the importance of staff knowledge and competence. Every employee knows and can market the library with the necessary information and tools. The cooperation of the Irish national radio and TV company RTE was insightfulwith. McEneaney regularly recommends books and is interviewed on the radio. Illustratively, he said that when he recommends, for example, non-fiction books related to climate change – he automatically becomes an expert speaking for the whole of Ireland, even though some books may not have been read.

Another case was heard from the Chattanooga library. Christina Sacco talked about the library’s ways of approaching customers in new ways. Sacco stated at the beginning of the presentation that often customers are unaware of the library’s many services: “I didn’t know the library did that!”. It would be good to start by asking customers in marketing library services. It is important to find key customers who you can ask for improvement suggestions and feedback. Libraries can highlight services in advertising through customer stories, for example for 3D printing or with the user experiences of maker spaces. Sacco told a funny and insightful story about an 87-year-old fly-fishing enthusiast who uses a 3D printer to make additional parts for his fly gear. From the Chattanooga Library’s YouTube channelthere are many wonderful and exemplary videos.

Yarra Yarra Yarra Yarra!

One of the highlights of the conference was definitely the Australian Cory Greenwood ‘s presentation about the marketing efforts of Yarra libraries. Greenwood works as a coordinator responsible for the development and marketing of Yarra’s libraries (Library development and Marketing Coordinator). Yarra’s libraries do strong work with customers and users are involved in many functions, such as strategy work in a fundamental way. The renewal of the strategy is called  The Next Chapter , and users get to influence the guidelines. Greenwood’s presentation was also a model example of stylish films and strong visuals. The library’s services are told in fun and surprising ways.

Kudos to Ukraine

Thursday morning 28.7. a session was organized, which discussed the position of European libraries during the war and reactions to the war in Ukraine. Oksana Bolarynova , the president of the Ukrainian Library Association, had arrived in Dublin from Ukraine . The hall was completely silent during Bolarynova’s performance, as the participants concentrated on listening to the touching performance. At the end of the performance, the audience gave a standing ovation in support of Ukraine and the podium was draped with the Ukrainian flag.

Is trust building?

IFLA’s internal ambiguities cast a shadow over the conference and many participants yearned for more information about what actually happened. At the end of the conference, an Out in the open session was organized , where the members of the IFLA board opened the situation picture, and the participants had the opportunity to ask questions related to the matter. IFLA president Barbara Lison, treasurer Jaap Naber , member Kirsten Boelt and new general secretary Halo Locher were on stage. The event’s tone was clearly tense, even though the goal was to rebuild trust. The course of events was clarified, but many people had a lot of additional questions about what happened.

Finally

This year, the conference was only three days long, instead of the previous five or six days. This caused schedule pressure on the program when a lot of interesting things were happening in the program at the same time. The strictness of the schedule possibly also led to the fact that the keynote speeches in the large auditoriums gathered relatively few participants on the spot. In addition, the premises of the conference center were divided so that the larger hall had to be accessed through the upper floors. This may have partially affected the number of librarians who found the space.

Michael Peter Edson had the honor of being the last keynote speaker of the conference. Edson’s speech nicely summed up the conference’s many themes, focusing on the importance of librarians in the climate crisis. Edson’s title was How millions of bold librarians will help save the world by Inventing a unique form of global activism in response to the climate crisis . So now we were really on the brink of something new, how librarians could develop a unique global activism in response to the climate crisis. An ambitious and interesting theme for the speech.

Edson began his presentation by reflecting on the fact that everyone knows about climate change, but very few do anything about it. Awareness and knowledge of the big crisis feels detached from one’s everyday life and everyday activities. It would be important to recognize that each of us has the opportunity to make an impact. Edson brought his speech into the middle of fun participatory elements and games where people could participate. At the end of the presentation, there was a hugely inspiring discussion about the different ways in which communities, organizations and other actors have gotten people to discuss and share their own concerns.

I think the essence of Edson’s presentation was related to the fact that people should face each other as they are. Meeting places have decreased and communication has shifted to virtual forms. When people from different backgrounds talk together, it is possible to find unprecedented solutions to even difficult problems. In addition, we should reach higher and see, for example, actions related to climate change as ones that we should start implementing immediately. It is also possible to take a playful, playful or relaxed approach to negative topics through liberating humor. Squeezing the game tool rarely leads to fresh results.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) should also be considered in libraries’ goal programs. From a Finnish point of view, the conference actually talked more about the climate – than, for example, democracy. Both are part of the sustainability of the future, but perhaps climate issues are reflected differently in Nordic everyday life for the time being. How can dialogue be increased?

As an example of new thinking, Edon cited the Conflict Kitchen restaurant in Pittsbugh, which served ethnic dishes from the countries with which the United States was in conflict. Tactical urbanism was also an interesting concept , i.e., tactical urbanism, which refers to low-cost changes in urban space made in the spirit of DIY culture. A touching abduction was in Melbourne where people sent emails and love letters to trees . The original goal of the campaign was to involve people in commenting on the condition of the trees, but the end result was one of the most touching testimonies about the importance of trees.

Hi Tree,
You are just outside my work and you make me happy 🙂
Keep growing and keep on treeing!

CreativeMornings is a concept born in New York in 2018, whose basic idea is simple. People gather together on a particular morning for breakfast to discuss some topic. Every event is basically open and free of charge. Today, the movement has expanded into a global network that gathers virtually in different cities. Edson also shared the concept of craftivism, which in a sense means the union of art and craftsmanship. In Finnish, we speak of kraftivism or craft activism. A good book recommendation was the Green Ideas series of short publications focusing on various themes, published by Penguin Books.

Library workers are brave. We can help save the world. We can build a new global activism – and the future requires us to find it together.


Written by Jarkko Rikkilä, the coordinator of the Tampere City Library’s regional development task, who is also the vice-chairman of the board of the Finnish Library Association (2021-2022).

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