We interviewed Mario Coffa, the man behind the Library World Tour project that is collecting interviews with leading library actors and thinkers around the world, building up a great collection of insights into the present and future of our field.
This interview complements the article already published in the bulletin of IFLA’s Section on Education and Training in July!
1. What is your goal with the library world tour project? How do you see it contributing to the field in Italy, in Europe and globally?
From the beginning, the goal of this project has been “sharing”: I strongly believe in creating a network of professionals, not only within our communities (as users) but also among librarians. And doing it with librarians all over the world was my challenge. Being able to share different experiences in different countries has given me (and still gives me) the opportunity to raise the level of the debate.
Another very important goal follows directly from sharing, that of reflection; as in a conference, listening to a multitude of experiences other than one’s own creates a sort of reflection on one’s own experience and on one’s working methods. At least for me, it has always been like this. Listening – or in this case – reading different ways of working can provoke discussion and debate and at times can be a “healthy provocation” which stimulates one’s sensitivity. I believe that one always comes out stronger and more stimulated from the comparison with other people and other experiences.
A further goal was that of collecting data resulting from the comparison between various experiences and that this is always a fascinating aspect to analyze. In the past months I have done some extractions from the interviews which have produced both simple statistics – such as the coverage in the world of my project – and an elaboration of the main topics that have been dealt with and the keywords that most of the interviewees used.
This last data allowed me to understand how in many cases the solutions to and proposals around certain issues are similar. For instance, training needs and professional recognition are common themes in many countries, as is the adoption of new digital tools that complement traditional working methods.
Furthermore, the dramatic experience of the Covid-19 pandemic – the subject of many questions in the interviews – has brought out many critical issues, showing how great the value of the librarian profession is: courageous colleagues have played a fundamental role in their communities through their work, even when libraries were closed, by carrying out activities that sometimes went beyond any conventional form of work. The solutions were many and varied but also very similar in so many cases and this was all data that contributed to one of the aims of my project.
Of course the aims of the project are intended to be relevant in all countries, starting with mine, Italy, where the project is at least known within AIB (Italian Library Association). Currently the project is supported by the patronage of the Umbria section of AIB and by Insula Europea, an academic journal that publishes articles with my interviews.
2. You have interviewed key leaders and thinkers from around the world – what similarities do you see in their preoccupations?
As you rightly say, most of the people that I interviewed are very influential, either in the world of libraries, or for the role they hold or have covered at an institutional level, or for their writings. But I also interviewed students because I thought it was interesting to have the point of view of those who dream of becoming a librarian and want to know what is the academic path to follow to perfect their studies before acquiring skills in the field.
In general, I was able to verify that everyone is aware of how fundamental our work can be, for example as “guarantors” of information; in the era of fake news, the library as an institution can guarantee a reliable and genuine information channel. Our work is based on catalogues, databases and the web, but unlike a simple search on a search engine, we are often able to use what is called the “deep web” very well and refine the search by skimming the information in the most suitable form for the user.
Many well-equipped libraries in terms of IT and digital tools provide not merely bibliographic services but also civic and administrative consultancy. There are libraries, such as those of the “Idea Center” model – but there are several cases here in Italy as well – that offer administrative documentation services and assist users with those tools required by the various governments to access information. This does nothing but give further depth to our function as “informers”, which goes well beyond being a librarian looking for a book in the catalogue or taking care of the collections! Our role as social aggregators within the library becomes essential at this point.
However, this also provides for a strengthening of our digital skills through continuous training, allowing us to adapt to these transformations. It is for this reason that I don’t like terms like “library 2.0”: the library 2.0 is nothing more than a library that adapts to new times and new conditions. Furthermore, many of the interviewees share the need to create an increasingly dense network within their reference communities based on environments that are no longer just physical but digital.
In my opinion, the members of the community we must reach out to are not those who come to the libraries every day, but those who have never been there. This is the real focus we must work on.
3. IFLA’s Global Vision recognized the need to respond to regional characteristics and priorities – what examples of differences in focus do you see coming out?
IFLA’s work in recent years has been really incisive and confirmed the advocacy of the policies and activities it organizes and supports. Needless to say, regional and local differences, as well the characteristics of each individual country, must be taken into account.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, not every library was well-equipped in terms of both technology and space. The pandemic was in fact a double-edged sword: if on the one hand it was a driving force for accelerating the “digital revolution” already underway for years, on the other hand it has shone a light on weaker and less equipped realities. Here, the differences between countries emerge.
The general level of education of each country also affects this gap, because while some countries have activated numerous processes and paths of “digital literacy”, others still talk of “information literacy” at various levels.
I believe it is a priority to provide the basic tools for accessing information first, before educating the community in the use of more technologically advanced systems: only at this point can more advanced levels of computerization be activated. The general situation of a country is not automatically suggestive of the level of its libraries. As a matter of fact, I was able to discover very “advanced” libraries in countries that are generally defined as “underdeveloped”, either politically or economically.
What might be seen as an anomaly – but I believe it is not! – depends a lot on the work that many librarians do in spite of the very few basic resources available, and on the attitude of the country towards culture. This demonstrates how in many cases the problem of economic resources is but one of the reasons for the contraction in development and cultural growth: in many cases one just needs to apply the manual of good practices to make up for the financial gap.
This does not deny the importance of financial contributions, but you can do a lot even with what you already have. Our work gives a lot of space to creativity and individuality, powerful tools of quality and freedom. I have noticed that many countries, for example in Africa, design and program their libraries on the “European” or “American” model, seen as “exemplary”. This makes us think a lot and if on the one hand it gratifies us as Europeans or Americans, on the other hand it gives us the burden of representing our service and our libraries to the fullest, because it is our ultimate goal, our model.
5. In particular, you have gathered many perspectives about digital libraries and the role of digital technologies in libraries – do you see a consensus forming on this?
Definitely yes! As previously mentioned, albeit in a dramatic situation, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital revolution process that had been underway for years. Both as citizens and as librarians we found ourselves having to deal with new digital tools by necessity; distance learning, smart working, digital platforms and all, this has inevitably transformed our lives, even in our work as librarians.
Front-office work in libraries has been transformed into remote service in order to guarantee access to bibliographic material when the quarantine forced us in our homes. We all have reevaluated our service and found ourselves dealing with hundreds of requests with empty libraries! It was an exceptional job, created to cope with an emergency which showed us how much we can do in extreme or exceptional situations.
I have read of librarians taking books to the homes of Covid patients, leaving the books outside the door along with food supplies. I saw in my library requests by students who had to write essays and thesis and librarians who found themselves becoming lawyers, doctors and philologists in order to find suitable material for a degree thesis or an academic project. From public to university libraries, from neighborhood to national libraries, the activity of adapting to new forms of technology has been a great part of the work of librarians lately. We have also discovered the importance of the Open Access world, thanks to which we have sometimes made up for physical and paper copies. In short, the future of librarianship now is enhancing those services and digital tools that make a librarian’s work more complete: a librarian with these skills can become almost a “teacher”, as they guide users to navigate the library both within its walls and within its databases and platforms.
6. How do you see new ideas traveling around the world?
I see a lot of excitement. I see a great desire for reonstruction in many situations. I witness a general feeling of sharing and evolution after a dramatic historical experience which was very demanding, both politically and morally. The crisis of values, the economic crisis, the loss of work, the loss of many human lives have made us all much more fragile and aware of how fragile our life is. This is why I see that in many experiences, libraries go well beyond what they have always been: there no longer are dusty collections and cabinets full of books but also souls eager to rediscover the act of reading and the book.
Underneath lies the awareness that knowledge fights injustices and reading comforts and consoles, particularly in difficult times. In the field of librarianship – I am referring precisely to the management of spaces, furnishings and architecture of libraries – there is a need to create new spaces that encourage socialization and stimulate the sharing of thoughts among users. The library will always be that place full of books where you can find novels and manuals but it will also be necessary to encourage the creation of an attractive context that can intrigue the passer-by and attract those who do not know what a library is and what it can offer.
On the part of those in government and teachers, there should be a more positive attitude aimed at favoring access to the library and exploiting its potential! I have noticed a common attitude around the world focused on meeting the needs of their communities. But do we really know what these needs are? Are we able to intercept new interlocutors? Have we thought of soliciting our politicians in order to be able to contribute to support our libraries concretely? This is a preliminary work of utter importance and certainly very tiring, but it can produce exceptional and long-lasting results.
7. How do you see an organization like IFLA contributing to spreading ideas and inspiring emerging leaders?
First of all, I won’t deny that the IFLA world has always fascinated me for its natural international genetics. I love learning about new things and different and new ways of thinking have always stimulated me. I think the Library World Tour project proves this.
IFLA, as far as I have been able to see over the years from the outside, has been supporting new ideas and has tried to help the more fragile ideas of many countries. As proof, we can see the dozens of projects that have been produced in each mandate and with different Presidents. Its mission of supporting and promoting has never changed.
I believe that the beauty of associations like IFLA is the ability to encourage and stimulate national associations. From the experience of this virtual tour I have learned to appreciate the differences between countries all over the world but I have also realized how much commonality there is in the way everybody faces the same challenges or finds common solutions.
In such cases IFLA has a key role in decoding these needs and transforming them into indications or common guidelines aimed at improving one’s own reality. A recent example is the document “IFLA Declaration on Afghanistan” where President Christine Mackenzie “calls on all authorities in Afghanistan to safeguard libraries and their collections, including collections of documentary heritage held by citizens in private collections, as well as all memory institutions, museums, archives, galleries and monuments and sites throughout the country.”
This is a real example of how the association intervenes directly in support of a nation in order to protect its cultural heritage. Another example is the Report on Development and Access to Information (DA2I), an important contribution to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, having the 2030 Agenda in mind. That is precisely what IFLA should do and that is what it is doing.
8. Of all the people you have interviewed, which perspectives have marked you the most?
I can say with the utmost confidence that each interviewee said something (a message or a sentence) that made me reflect and left a deep impact on me. Keeping that feeling in mind, I made a small promo video, available on Youtube, which presents a small gallery of the interviewees: for each one I provided the name, the country of origin and the key sentence that aroused my interest.
David R. Lankes was my first interview ever and he was the spark that helped me think about this project. The idea of networking between communities is an idea that I have embraced since the first day I stepped into a library to work as a trainee. I have also understood how to realize these networks thanks to the story of the activities among the people on the streets made for example by Loida Garcia-Febo or Gloria Perèz-Salmeron who contributed in a practical way to the realization of these networks.
But I would say everyone made an impact one me. In South America I found colleagues with a very high level of professionalism combined with an extraordinary availability and friendship. They touched my heart, really! In Italy I “played at home” and having the contributions of Anna Busa or Anna Maria Tammaro was an honor not only for me but for anyone who had the opportunity to read those interviews. In Europe there is currently a positive cultural excitement, especially after the pandemic, and from Northern Europe to Southern Europe up to Russia, the activities do not concern only paper projects but real activities that have helped to oppose the social consequences of the pandemic in an excellent way.
In Asia and Africa I have found some truly extraordinary realities; in the Philippines, in India or in Iran there are experiences of strong humanity and courage; in Egypt, in Nigeria and up to Australia there is an extraordinary effort to support literacy. Traveling is a wonderful experience and I can confirm it: entering these libraries and having the hospitality of all these protagonists was wonderful, incredible!
The journey isn’t over yet. There are currently at least 15 other contacts waiting to be published including Greenland! And when everything is over, perhaps without even realizing it, I will have created another large community of colleagues and friends who every day, like me, do the best job in the world. And for this I will always be grateful to them.
9. You focus strongly on recommendations to new professionals – on the basis of the input you have received so far, what advice would you give?
This has often been the final question to my interviewees: recommendations to anyone who wants to be a librarian. I believe that being a member of this profession is a wonderful experience with a great deal of responsibilities. Being a guarantor of information is a huge responsibility that cannot be faced without specific skills. Furthermore, as mentioned several times, in present times it is necessary to have new skills that allow us to decode the digital world and then be able to use the most appropriate tools if we want to offer the best service to our users. This is a profession that implies a great deal of patience and creativity: you have to know how to adapt and sometimes reinvent yourself in order to deal with every situation.
If we really want to promote 0-99 reading, we need to communicate efficiently with any age group. If we want our library to be innovative, it is necessary to learn both the cataloguing rules and how social networks work. If we want to attract new users – people who have never accessed a library before – we must understand that many of them move in many different aggregation spaces which are no longer the traditional ones. In short, we are responsible for the growth or the failure of our libraries. If we want politicians or administrations to support us we should step forward and fight, instead of taking the recognition of our profession for granted.
We must also create networks with other professions, cooperate with schools, teachers, companies that promote tourism, shops (bars, restaurants, shopping centers) and wherever culture can be promoted.
In a world that travels fast in every direction, we should not remain secluded; everything depends on us, on our will to be able to reach everyone. It will be easier, then, to claim our role.
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