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Magazines > Information Today > September 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 8 — September 2003
Impressions of IFLA
69th World Information Congress Was All About Access
By Dick Kaser

How could they have known? Years back, when IFLA decided to hold its 69th World Library and Information Congress in a reunited Berlin, how could they have known how ironically fitting the setting would turn out to be?

Surely, when they picked Berlin, it must have been a different kind of symbolism they had in mind.

Yes, it's true, they burned books here in the 1930s. Yes, in the '40s, this was the seat of a propaganda machine. Yes, in the '60s, they put up a wall to keep people in. But IFLA officially opposes all such things.

No, when they selected this site, they could not have been thinking about those grim images, except to relish how it all turned out in the end. This is, after all, also the city where good triumphed over evil and IFLA's core values of "free access to information and freedom of expression" prevailed. Berlin is the city where communism fell.

IFLA's visit here should have been nothing but a celebration of its high ideals.

But as it turned out, the agenda would, of necessity, focus on Berlin's darker past, which came back at periodic intervals to haunt the federation's serious discussions of information access in a post-9/11 world..

Bibliothek als Portal

It's hard to say simply what a conference of this magnitude was all about. The organizers themselves needed to combine many words to make their point. In English, they billed the program as "Access Point Libraries—Media, Information, Culture."

It rang better in French as "La bibliothèque point d'accès."

But it was with the German translation that they got it most right: as "Bibliothek als Portal," the library as a portal. The library, port of access.

It was not the only thing the Germans got right. They also proved they understood the theme of the conference.

To go along with it, the Federal Union of German Library Associations, local host for the event, published a book called Portals to the Past and to the Future—Libraries in Germany. The 100-page, nicely illustrated text, in English and German editions, tells a history beginning with 15th-century illuminated manuscripts and ending in a vision of libraries in the year 2015.

Wasting no time in getting to that digital future, two of the most significant funders of library initiatives in Germany, the BMBF and DFG, used the occasion to launch a brand-new pan-German online research portal. In champagne-toasting ceremonies, they christened it vascoda "to conjure up images of the explorer Vasco da Gama."

Every institution in Berlin having anything to do with libraries threw open its doors for tours.

The Germans also put their euros where their mouths were. German delegates came in droves to Berlin's architecturally famous ICC conference facility to hear the program. One in five attendees was a local.

And when it came to putting on a show ... well, no one in attendance will forget the brassy jazz band that ushered thousands to a dinner sponsored by Springer-Verlag in the Palais am Funkturm. That band—and the night of dancing that followed—was the only comic relief in an austere program that often left its delegates looking somber.

World Update on Internet Filters

All was anything but song and dance. At every turn, the IFLA program was dead serious.

Topping the critical news, IFLA published a report that showed 48 percent of library associations in the world support filtering—and not just to protect innocent children from unwitting exposure to smut.

"I've been asked in some countries," remarked Christine Deschamps of France, the retiring IFLA president, "if it is OK to give women access to the Internet."

Of the 42 library associations in countries that told IFLA they favor filtering or favor it to a certain degree, 35 said it was OK if it protects children; 29 said it's OK if it safeguards public morality, national culture, or religious values; and 15 approved if it prevents criminal activity or increases the national security.

"All kinds of privileges," said Deschamps, "get in the way of access: religious, gender, class sensitivity...."

In response to the statistics, Alex Byrne of Australia, who chaired the committee that produced the report, told the press, "We [the world's library associations] are committed to access to information, not to controlling access."

But IFLA's own data shows that only 52 percent of the world's library associations absolutely agree.

Library Damage in Iraq

Jean-Marie Arnoult, France's Inspector General of Libraries and recently part of the UNESCO Expert Mission to Iraq, showed a stunned, tightly packed audience vivid images from his just-completed tour of Iraq's libraries and archives damaged during the war.

A prior UNESCO mission in June had been devoted to assessing the damage done to Iraq's rich museum collections. This second mission in June and July was aimed specifically at inspecting archives and libraries both in Baghdad and to the north and south.

As for the good news ...

"The most important collection of manuscripts in the Middle East, if not the world, is completely safe," Arnoult asserted. The director of that facility, the Iraqi Center of Manuscripts, had transferred the ancient collection to a bunker in Baghdad prior to the start of the war.

"The most historical part of the collection was moved and is presumed safe," he said. And it's a good thing, because "looters and vandals," he added, "had the will to destroy completely the national archives." They burned as many as 500,000 books and journals in small but highly incendiary fires that even destroyed the metal shelves.

"It's difficult to burn a book," Arnoult observed, as the crowd packed into a small room to hear his report stared silently at the impressionistic images he was showing of charred rooms piled deep with ashes.

"A book is like wood," he said. "To completely burn a book is difficult. Yet these books were completely burned."

Besides the official libraries and archives, Arnoult said: "We also know that many private libraries were looted. And we now see the books appearing for sale. There is a traffic in the books [on the black market]."

When asked why he thought the people of Iraq had looted the libraries, Arnoult said, "There was a will of destruction in this building [the Federal Archives], and it would seem to be the revenge of the people to destroy the symbol of the old regime.

"But the public library in Basra," he said sadly, shaking his head, "was not a symbol of the past. It was a library for people and children."

Arnoult's report and pictures left the audience stunned.

This session also apparently made an impression on IFLA. Before leaving Berlin, the IFLA Congress passed a resolution urging action by governments to help restore the library and information infrastructure of Iraq.

Report on the Post-9/11 Information Society

No sooner had the 100-plus delegates filed from the stuffy room where they had just seen pictures of the destroyed librariesin Iraq, did IFLA take up another side of the same topic: the effects of the war on terror on freedom of expression.

"September 11th," said Alex Byrne, introducing the IFLA open meeting, "was a momentous event that had consequences for libraries.

"But," he continued, "it is only the latest development that threatens open access to information. Libraries are harnessed by political ideas all the time. Every year brings a new crop of incidents."

This year alone, he reminded the delegates, "we have marked three grim anniversaries: the 70th anniversary of the book burning in this city in 1933, the 50th anniversary of the start of the McCarthy era in the United States, and the 50th anniversary of a brutal suppression of workers in East Berlin."

The book burnings in the '30s, Byrne said, were "symptomatic of the loss of intellectual freedom in Nazi Germany. It was a two-sided coin. On one side, the suppression of 'unacceptable' ideas and on the other, their replacement with ideas the state regarded as 'correct.'"

During the McCarthy era, he recalled, American librarians feared having copies of books describing socialism in their collections, since that might mean their names went on the blacklist of suspected communist sympathizers. "American libraries," he said, "eventually decided to stock the works of Marx and Lenin, if for no other reason than in order to 'know thy enemy.'"

In the wake of 9/11, he reminded the audience, one of the first reactions was a call to control access to information, especially on the Internet, since terrorists had reportedly used it to plan and implement their strategies.

"The world has not changed as a result of September 11th," Byrne asserted. "But we are more conscious of the power of those who want to make a statement without regard for others, and for the power of governments, and for the changing global balance.

"But a very concerning development in the United States," he said, "is the passage of the PATRIOT Act, which seeks to counter terror, but gives increased power to agencies to identify those who might perpetrate such acts."

And, ending on an ominous note picked up by those who followed him to the platform, he implied, the real threat is that "there are attempts to emulate the PATRIOT Act in other countries."

Down with the PATRIOT Act!

Stuart Hamilton, a Ph.D. candidate who has been conducting research for IFLA, spoke next.

"Now, nearly 2 years after September 11th," he said, "libraries and their users are still being affected by governments in the name of the war against terror."

The response of governments has been threefold, he observed:

1. Data retention—Governments have put pressure on Internet service providers to preserve Internet-use records with specific times, Web sites visited, and e-mail—to be
made available on request.

2. Online surveillance—The electronic equivalent of wiretaps

3. Re-evaluation of information
resources provided online (with the removal of information that could
relate to national security)

"These three come together," he said, "to form the anti-terror package that has been up and running for more than a year in many countries, including France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the U.K., and Russia, where there has been an attempt to ban all forms of 'extremist acts.' But, it is in the United States where the most extensive laws were passed."

Down the road, he warned, "these technological developments for surveillance may be deployed to countries with poor human rights records."

Libraries, he said, have always been bound by national laws—and they shouldnot break them. "But how can we not act when our users' intellectual freedom is at stake?"

Repeal the PATRIOT Act!

Speaking last was Kay Raseroka, IFLA's new president, who gave the subject its most interesting perspective.

During a Q&A session following the formal talks, she said of the PATRIOT Act: "It extends a chilling effect, as with the McCarthy era, on individual freedom. It affects all of us in all our countries—sort of like a patent that is picked up and applied around the world.

"I'm especially concerned," she said, "that in developing countries where democracy from the First World country is just coming about.... Now, they will say, 'surveillance is what the leading democracy in the world does—to remove the very ideals of democracy—so it is OK for us too.'

"I am afraid," she said of these new democracies, "they will move toward a reversion of not so long ago: repressive habits and suppressing access to information. The fact that countries have emerged from oppression does not mean that they can't slip back very easily."

From the floor, a Russian delegate went to the microphone and urged IFLA and ALA to oppose the PATRIOT Act so it couldnot be applied in other parts of the world.

By the end of the conference, IFLAhad issued an official resolution to that very effect.

 

Achtung! Librarians in Action

IFLA organized numerous tours of local libraries, archives, and private collections for delegates to its World Congress in Berlin last month. And the professional librarians in attendance hopped on public buses and U-Bahn trains to get to them.

Joining this particular tour of the Archives of the Political Parties of East Germany were representatives of the archives in Mali; Papau, New Guinea; and The Hague. ALA's executive director Keith Fiels was also on board.

Housed in a facility at Lichterfelde, which was used in every era of the German state, including as an American military base after World War II, its collection includes documents found in the red suitcase of a German traitor, and a note written on cigarette paper and handed to a spy.

The librarians on this exclusive IFLAtour wastedno time.As they entered the otherwise restricted stacks, each pulled open a tray of historical documents and started leafing through them.

In addition to the papers of various East German parties, this particular branch ofthe German Federal Archives also houses the card file containing the names of German Nazi party members. But don't expect to see it. German privacy laws protect the list from being used for witch hunts.

—D.K.


Essential Reading from the 69th World Library and Information Congress

• Pictures (along with the report of the UNESCO Expert Mission to Iraq on the damage done to Iraq's libraries during recent hostilities) can be found at http://www.ifla.org/VI/4/admin/iraq2407.htm and http://www.ifla.org/VI/4/admin/iraq2207.pdf.

• The IFLA report, "Intellectual Freedom in the Information Society—Libraries and the Internet," which provides country-by-country statistics on Internet use in libraries. Order from IFLA at http://www.ifla.org/faife/index.htm. (ISBN: 87-988-01333, 240 pp.)

• Federal Union of German Library Associations' (BDB; http://www.bdbibl.de) "Portals to the Past and to the Future—Libraries in Germany," by Jürgen Seefeldt and Ludger Syré (ISBN: 3-487-111713-4, 112 pp.)

• "Libricide—The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the 20th Century" by Rebecca Knuth (Praeger, ISBN: 0-275-98088-X, 250 pp., $39.95) http://www.greenwood.com

• For an update on the World Summit on the Information Society, see the paper "UNESCO, Library Development and the World Summit on the Information Society," by Abdelaziz Abid
(http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla69/papers/154e-Abid.pdf)
.

• Get a copy of Stuart Hamilton's paper "The War on Terrorism—Towards a 'Less Free, Less Choice' Internet for Library Users?" at http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla69/papers/184e-Hamilton.pdf.

—D.K.

 


Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content. His e-mail address is kaser@infotoday.com.
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