I generally try to avoid blogging about work in any detail whatsoever, but since the primary reason I went to South Africa was to attend a conference for work, I feel like it is a little unavoidable here. That statement is particularly true because for the first time in a long time, it was actually a library-related conference that made me enthusiastic and reminded me of all the reasons why I transitioned my career from being a practicing attorney to being a law librarian. Seriously, I met remarkable people from all over the world working in all kinds of libraries. I came away from the conference more resolved to finish the article that I have been working on for an embarrassing length of time (in the most general of terms: about libraries’ responsibilities to preserve electronic versions of law), and also to start research on about ten other things. I don’t think a library conference has ever encouraged me to think in such a manner before.
Here are the top five other things that I loved:
1. The conference was the annual meeting of the International Federation of Library Associations and had a grand name, the World Library and Information Congress (2015). Attendees were not mere attendees, but were delegates. It is a widely known fact that younger version of myself had the ambition to be a diplomat, maybe one day being a part of the US’s UN delegation. Model United Nations was way too much fun for me in high school. Just the small detail of being a “delegate” to an international organization gave me so much dignity, I cannot even describe it. Sure, I wasn’t starting a war over offshore oil resources (the high school MUN version of me was very competitive about natural resources), but I was collaborating with librarians from Botswana! That is about as good as it gets in the library world for a person like me.
2. The tour of the University of Cape Town libraries was amazing. It is kind of inspiring just to be on the campus of the University of Cape Town. I know that sounds ridiculous, but in some ways, I felt this kinship with UCT because the recent movement there to remove the statute of Cecil Rhodes is similar to the ongoing debates at my own institution about monuments to Confederate soldiers and buildings named after historical government leaders with KKK affiliations. The take of the diverse librarians at UCT on the issue was interesting. From a librarian standpoint, we really believe in the importance of preserving all things historical. Take, for example this book’s note as seen in the UCT special collections library:
You cannot read that insert and not get the chills in some way. Academic librarians are awesome, even in the midst of repressive, racist regimes. And then we are awesome for preserving the truth about those regimes after the fact in a completely impartial, and objective manner, because the books we preserve don’t lie. The artifacts tell the complete story in themselves.
Also, as a bonus, the University of Cape Town is just beautiful. Seriously, I don’t think there exists a more beautiful geographical locale for a university.
3. Librarians from around the world see libraries as a vital part of economic development and lifting people out of poverty. It is quite inspiring to listen to a librarian from South Africa talk about what it means for poor children to access books. It is inspiring to hear about the efforts to make government information available in some of those countries where citizens traditionally have had no access to even the laws to which they were subject. It reminded me that in spite of all of my cynicism, libraries are a big deal; libraries are important. I can do something about it; both here in my own country and then work to help other librarians bring access to government information in their own countries too.
4. I had this epiphany while I was at the conference of how good digital collections may actually be. Seriously, I don’t know why I had this view of digital collections as being mere static PDF collections of scanned documents (maybe that is because that is what a lot of them actually are), but I saw some pretty dynamic examples of truly artfully curated digital collections of substantive research collections and it made me excited. Maybe for me you just have to make it about something foreign or international for me to truly be interested enough in it or at least be impressed by the design of it.
5. It gave me new opportunities to be involved not just as a one time thing with librarians working on common issues all over the world. To me, it was an introduction to IFLA, not I believe a one-off experience to attend a conference in my favorite city in the world. Yes, I was so lucky the conference was in Cape Town, because truthfully, a chance to go back to Cape Town was pretty high on my reasons of why I wanted to go to the WLIC. However, while I was there, I realized that this experience was definitely something that I didn’t want to be a one-off event. It isn’t every day I get to be inspired, and not cynical.