Sunday, 10 February 2008


It's Sunday night here in Auckland. I am back from the VALA trip. Some nice gentle music on the library speakers - cat snoring on the cushion at my feet, and a lovely Sunday night calm throughout the apartment - so perhaps a good time reflect on the VALA conference.

Firstly, an apology for not doing more at the time. I had big plans - however, I've discovered I need time to process and reflect on conference sessions. Otherwise they are just episodic blips without any internalised learning.

Curiously, I discovered I was in good company. Two other groups, including one of the Australian State libraries had also planned conference diaries, but, like me, couldn't quite match the need for reflection with the need to just keep turning up to sessions.

Looking back the two days were pretty mixed. Some of the web 2.0 sessions were, on reflection, a little light. However, I did especially enjoy the key notes from both of Peter Lor of IFLA , and Schubert Foo of the Singapore National Library, which in turn had me reflecting on WSIS and the ongoing need for libraries as key insitutions of civil society.

Peter Lor, IFLA
Peter Lor of IFLA is one of the great senatorial characters of the international library circuit. Currently at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, when the National Library of South Africa was created in 1999 he became South Africa's first National Librarian.

Since February 2005 he has been Secretary General of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). His recent research focuses on library and information policy issues, international librarianship and international information flow

As could have been expected the thrust of his presentation picked up on the key issues of democratic access to knowledge and information, within a human rights framework of freedom of expression.

He reminded us that these "fundamental human rights" were at the core of the discussions in WSIS in both Geneva and Tunis, and for many people, far from being some kind of fusty nod to liberalism, they were at the heart of their political and cultural and economic struggle.

I suspect that for some on the west, the notion of the public library being at the front line of political and cultural transformation is a little hard to take.

Lor's quiet and compelling truths were great messages - for globalisation to work it needed to break out of the straight jacket of economic imperialism by embracing the opportunities of political and cultural interchanges with the South trading back to the North in equal measure.

Moreover, it was equally impoortant that we all keep in mind that this work - enabling freedom of thought and expression with freedom of access to knowledge and its associated toolkits are at the core of the library profession.

The current work IFLA is engaged in around the ongoing WSIS agenda is here

Schubert Foo
Schubert Foo is Professor and Associate Chair of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Strathclyde, UK.

He is a Board Member of the National Archives of Singapore and the National Library Board.

He was also one of the quiet stars at VALA. His presentation took us through the new National Library of Singapore - some Flicker photos are here.

The building in turn is the base for a set of unique collections as well as being a wifi zone to local students and customers.

So much for content and connection. Turning to the tool sets for co-learning , he went on to give an account of the virtual reference tools they have developed using a customised faceted wiki to respond to the reference queries of their customers.

With over 100% mobile penetration, it's hardly surprising the librarian's response  to a query starts with a  txt message  which in turn takes the customer to a web page full of potential sources around their query. These include books, articles and web sources.

Also of huge interest was his quiet and compelling account of the life and times of the ordinary reference librarian in Singapore. It is known to be one of the most stressful jobs around, with every complaint from a customer having to be balanced by 20 compliments before the performance score card was re calibrated.

I'm not making this up: moreover this is not a metaphor - to wipe out one complaint - you need 20 compliments. Strewth! Could you manage that? I'm not sure I could - especially on a Captain Grumpy day.

In Singapore, it would appear most of the complaints are coming from equally stressed out parents, on the look out for reference material to get their children through their annual school assessment. Singapore children have a big exam every year, including small five and six year olds.

And it doesn't stop until they come out the other end almost in their twenties. So librarians and librarian reference services are a really big deal.

So two different perspectives - both offering compelling evidence of  the relevance and importance of the library as a social, and cultural change agent.


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