ESSAY: Librarians have responsibilities in these times

28 nov 2022 • 7 min

Global tensions with war, economic instability, climate threats – in addition to internal challenges. But a historical review shows that even in past crises IFLA has managed to maintain free research and truth, as well as access to information and freedom of expression, writes former IFLA president Alex Byrne.

IFLA’s recent governance challenges have been widely reported, including in Biblioteksbladet, and have caused considerable concern among members. They bring to mind the apocryphal Chinese curse ‘May you live in interesting times!’. That saying, apparently coined by nineteenth century British diplomats, ironically reminds us that situations can become too ‘interesting’, developing into major crises.

About the author

Alex Byrne was the foundation chair of FAIFE, 1997–2003, and subsequently IFLA President 2005–2007. A retired librarian, university vice president, researcher and writer who now focuses on printmaking ( His career took him to leadership roles at universities across Australia, culminating as the CEO of the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. Contributed internationally in the establishment of FAIFE, through IFLA’s advocacy at the World Summit on the Information Society and in facilitating the consideration of indigenous matters in Australia.

Such ‘interesting’ events provide the daily headline stories in the mass media. As I write, today’s tell of the abrupt resignation of British Prime Minister Liz Truss, of starvation in Somalia, of widespread floods in Australia and Pakistan, drought in the USA and other environmental disasters, of President Putin’s declaration of martial law in the illegally annexed provinces of Ukraine, of the looming energy crisis in many countries … and additional depressing news items. Such events are staples of the media, featured one day, forgotten the next, but nonetheless of great, often life threatening, importance to those directly affected. They demand thoughtful and determined responses at local and global levels to address their humane, political and environmental consequences.

Alex Byrne. Photo: Joy Lai

IFLA’s current challenges are being addressed by the Governing Board through its Plan for Securing IFLA’s Future (IFLA 2022). As a past President, I am not in a position to comment on the current challenges but I can confidently assert that the Board will find a way through them as IFLA continues to represent and support our profession towards the Federation’s 100th birthday in 2027 and beyond.  

My confidence is based on my study of IFLA’s history, my role in the establishment of FAIFE and my involvement in a previous ‘governance crisis’ in 2005. At that time, the Federation had to replace its Secretary General at short notice and the Coordinator of Professional Activities, Sjoerd Koopman, the new Secretary General, Peter Lor, and I as incoming President had to work with the Governing Board, professional units and membership to restore confidence and to refocus. We overcame that crisis and proceeded to more achievements through FAIFE, our representation at the World Summit on the Information Society, engaging with issues relating to Indigenous peoples, beginning to address the challenges of sustainability and in so many other areas. 

Not only can IFLA be challenged internally but the Federation is also subject to global crises. It nearly split in the face of Nazi aggression in the 1930s and averted division through diplomacy and a focus on narrow professional issues during the Cold War (Byrne, 2007).  Despite the global tension IFLA thrived, fostering dialogue, promoting collaboration and shared standards and providing effective representation at the highest levels.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, IFLA established its Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression in 1997. Welcomed by many, FAIFE’s creation was opposed by representatives from some repressive regimes and criticised by others for being too ‘political’. Critics held that IFLA should confine itself to such matters as standards and modes of professional practice, leaving the principles underlying our profession for other bodies, such as UNESCO. Thanks to strong support, especially from Nordic nations and the United States, FAIFE became an established element of IFLA and continues to operate effectively 25 years later. The support of the Danish library community and the City of Copenhagen was particularly valuable as it enabled FAIFE to have a secretariat in its formative years. Support from the Swedish Library Association and its director, Christina Stenberg, helped enormously to strengthen the initiative.

quarter century later we – and the world – need FAIFE more than ever. Fake news, post truth, misinformation, propaganda and lies. Claims and counter claims rebound around the world. The excesses of Donald Trump, the propaganda of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Orbán, the war mongering of Vladimir Putin and the mischief of so many other demagogues feed conspiracy theories, disharmony and violence. The dark side of social media is evident when untruths are spread and users split into echo chambers where conspiracy theories resonate.

As individual professionals we hold fast to the principles of free enquiry, respect for others and a commitment to facts and truth. But that isn’t enough. It is not sufficient to live comfortably among like-minded friends and colleagues. As information professionals we have a duty to promote the principles of accuracy, integrity, transparency and tolerance to our communities but we need to go further by seeking to counter the waves of disinformation and error that are engulfing our nations. 

This is not to say that we should propagandise or enter the political fray. We should maintain our independence and integrity as we constantly draw our communities’ interest towards reputable sources, established facts and well founded theories and away from rumour, misinterpretation and untruth. We can do this through our well-established strategies of drawing clients’ attention to reliable information and sources. Our strategies have evolved from reading lists and displays to social media, blogs and vlogs. But our aims remain the same: to draw attention to reliable information appropriate to our client groups and to assist them in developing robust skills to distinguish good information from that which is wrong, dangerous and tendentious.

Taking that principled stand is seldom easy. The principled path can attract community criticism and put us at odds with our superiors and colleagues. Public librarians too often find that they are opposed by elected and administration officials, special librarians and information scientists can be disciplined by their organisations and all of us can feel pressures to conform, to ‘keep our heads down’. Even jobs can be at risk and in repressive regimes, librarians and other information workers can be imprisoned or worse.

That is why we need a strong IFLA and an effective FAIFE. The declarations and statements that IFLA and FAIFE have made over the years strengthen our resolve and can cause our opponents to reconsider their actions. Such statements as the Public Library Manifesto, the Glasgow Declaration on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom and the Internet Manifesto have the force of international declarations. Backed by a strong global organisation, they offer a bulwark against repressive actions, not guaranteed protection but a source of authority to counter attacks.

FAIFE’s work over many years to promote ethical codes and behaviour across the profession has also been crucial. It has strengthened library associations and helped them to support their members more strongly. That work and other initiatives including training have helped to develop a more ethically focused profession which is better able to withstand pressures. And it has given individual professionals more resources and skills to be resolute when personally targeted. These are tremendous achievements. We should be very proud of the accomplishments of FAIFE and IFLA over the last quarter century. They have justified the foresight of those who initiated the discussion and then established FAIFE.

However, we are now in more parlous times. The spirit of optimism which followed the collapse of the Soviet empire has been replaced by anxiety which is exacerbated by the rapid spread of both accurate reportage and misinformation through mainstream, fringe and social media. The decades long face-off between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its vassal states has been replaced by widespread concern about the intentions and behaviour of a resurgent China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both have major economic and social consequences. China has been enlarging its sphere of influence economically and politically especially through Africa and the Pacific and militarily in the waters off its coastline. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, invasion and attacks on the heart of Ukraine and purported annexation of the Donbas border regions has not only caused immense death and destruction but has also had major economic consequences. Much of Ukraine’s industrial capability has been destroyed, and Russian actions have kept its grain and edible oil from markets and from feeding countries in Africa and the Middle East, including some of the poorest. Restrictions on Russian gas exports are causing major energy shortages in Europe and repercussions around the world. 

Furthering global anxiety, the world is still in the COVID-19 pandemic. The extraordinarily rapid development and deployment of COVID vaccines and anti-viral drugs accompanied by public health measures resulted from decades of investment in science and technology supported by our expertise in information management. Those strategies avoided a disastrous repeat of the Spanish Influenza pandemic a century ago during which more than 50 million people died. But the achievements of science have been undermined by the actions of government, especially in Brazil and the USA, and by the spread of false and malicious information. 

Also causing great suffering and anxiety are the unprecedented consequences of climate change evident around the world. Catastrophic flooding, widespread forest fires, persistent drought and more frequent cyclones and hurricanes are taking lives, damaging homes and businesses, and destroying crops. Although there have always been periods of extreme climate events, the increased frequency and severity of the events in recent years points to climate change. Many political and business leaders opposed the long understood scientific evidence and denied that the world is on a parlous path to environmental catastrophe. The well considered work of scientists around the world and especially the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1988 has received inadequate attention and often strident opposition (IPCC, 2022).

These are our ‘interesting times’. We have lost some of the optimism which characterised the 1990s when IFLA moved to establish FAIFE and CLM and subsequently began to focus on emerging issues including matters relating to Indigenous peoples, the United Nations development goals and the enormous challenge of environmental sustainability. As citizens and as professionals we are all too conscious of the threats to everyday life, world peace, open communication, human rights and the environment mentioned previously.

The many challenges demand a strong response from all peoples but especially from those of us responsible information- access. It is our responsibility to ensure that our communities are well informed. It is our responsibility to assist our community members to develop sound information seeking practices that enable them to distinguish reliable information from that which is unreliable and often dangerous. It is our responsibility to apply our professional skills and techniques to counter misinformation. 

We can take initiatives to fulfil these responsibilities within our institutions and communities. But none of us can do this alone. We need to be able to turn to our professional associations, our library and information schools and to our global Federation to offer us the skills and knowledge to take on these tasks and the fortitude to keep trying in the face of inevitable obstacles and opposition. 

IFLA, through FAIFE and its other specialist sections, is well placed to lead this vital work, building on its priorities of recent years and re-energising its members. The enormous range of professional interests and activities embraced by IFLA provides the capability to respond to world’s major challenges. Just as important is IFLA’s standing as a peak professional body in dialogue with other peak professional bodies and recognised by UNESCO, other UN and international agencies and national governments. That recognition enables IFLA to speak with authority and to support the profession in our essential work. 

But no less important is IFLA’s longevity and cohesion. From our past, we know that we can navigate through times of turbulence, that we can thrive in ‘interesting times’. We know that we can stand together in solidarity to oppose lies, propaganda and misinformation and to uphold free inquiry, truth and free access to information and freedom of expression. Making our profession more relevant and more valued, we can help shape the response to these interesting times.

Byrne, Alex (2007). The politics of promoting freedom of information and expression in international librarianship: the IFLA/FAIFE project. Lanham MA, Scarecrow.
IFLA (2022).  Plan for securing IFLA’s future.
IPCC (2022). Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. doi: 10.1017/9781009157926

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