South African Library Week Opening 2015: Message from IFLA

South African Library Week Opening
Cape Town
13 March 2015
Sinikka Sipilä
IFLA President

South African Library Week Opening 2015: Message from IFLA

Madame Deputy Minister, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, LIASA President, LIASA President –elect, National Librarian, Chair of the National Committee for IFLA WLIC 2015, distinguished guests, dear colleagues

It gives me great pleasure to participate in the Opening of the South African Library Week 2015 and deliver to you this message from IFLA.  I would like to warmly thank LIASA for the kind invitation to attend this event.

On behalf of IFLA I would like to thank the Deputy Minister for your support and that of your Ministry and Department, and congratulate you on your initiative to work with all ministers for libraries in Africa to discuss the important role that libraries play in society and in social development.

I congratulate LIASA for organising the National Library Week and this opening event which focusses on such a topical and important theme ‘Connect @ your library’.  More and more, libraries are playing the role of connectors in communities, bringing together different and diverse user groups, information resources and partners of libraries. As described by LIASA, the theme Connect@your library resonates with the refrain that libraries connect people to each other, to knowledge and information, to print and electronic resources, to technology and professional support.

I thank the South African library community for your continuous support for IFLA. For several years now, South Africa has hosted the IFLA Regional Office for Africa at UNISA in Pretoria. I had the pleasure to visit UNISA and the IFLA office this week on my way to Cape Town. I was very impressed by all the hard work being done there to advance libraries in Africa and to promote IFLA’s goals in this continent. South African colleagues have also participated actively in the IFLA Governing Board, sections’ Standing Committees, Core activities and IFLA Congresses.  There are many names I could mention here but I take up these three as examples:  Ellen Tise served as IFLA President , the former National Librarian Peter Lor as IFLA Secretary General and Buhle Mbambo-Thata as a member of the IFLA Governing Board.

I am looking forward to the next IFLA World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) that will take place in August here in Cape Town.  Its theme is ‘Dynamic Libraries: Access, Development and Transformation’.  There will also be 14 Satellite Meetings held in this country and it is nice to see such a widespread support for the WLIC.  We have good memories of the first IFLA congress in South Africa, held in 2007 in Durban under the theme ‘Libraries for the future: Progress, Development and Partnerships’.

As described in the invitation to this opening event, libraries are emerging as strong community partners for development and social transformation. Services and programmes are designed and offered to enhance literacy rates, a culture of reading, early childhood development, youth empowerment, socio-economic development and e-governance, all these functions place them at the very heart of their communities. This undoubtedly resonates strongly with my presidential theme “Strong Libraries, Strong Societies”.

The President’s Theme: Strong Libraries, Strong Societies

Each IFLA president chooses a theme that best describes her or his goals during the Presidential term.  I have chosen “Strong Libraries, Strong Societies” as my theme as I firmly believe that libraries exert a critical impact on society by fostering equal opportunities and providing equitable access to lifelong learning and education, research and innovation, culture and recreation for all. In so doing, libraries can contribute to building stronger communities and societies.

Libraries can promote and support citizens’ active participation in the life of their communities and connect their users also to the array of activities being arranged in their libraries. This is becoming more and more important. Libraries are no more simply delivering their services but planning and developing them together with the people who are using them. This is the way that allows libraries to keep and earn their legitimacy. Participation and connection are the key words.

Background of the theme

IFLA is actively working on projects and initiatives relating to libraries and development, especially on the impact libraries have on social development. This also inspired me when I planned my theme. The most recent initiative is the Lyon Declaration on Access to Information and Development that was launched last year at the IFLA Congress in Lyon France. Its aim is to influence positively in the United Nations Post-2015 development framework. We in IFLA believe that increasing access to information and knowledge across society, assisted by the availability of information and communications technologies (ICTs), supports sustainable development and improves people’s lives.

IFLA therefore calls upon the Member States of the United Nations to make an international commitment to use the post-2015 development agenda to ensure that everyone has access to, and is able to understand, use and share the information that is necessary to promote sustainable development and democratic societies. IFLA is working hard to encourage UN member states to support the goals of the Lyon Declaration and include them in the post-2015 development framework. LIASA is one of the 523 signatories of the Declaration.

IFLA has also an initiative for promoting reading and literacy as an essential requirement for active participation in access to information in any format, and for active participation in society. That also resonates strongly with my theme Strong Libraries – Strong Societies.

Another reason why I chose this theme is because it springs from our own experiences in Finland that can now be regarded as an active and strong library country.  But it wasn’t always that way.

Finland has developed from a poor agrarian country to a modern, knowledge based economy in a rather short period of time – over the past fifty, perhaps sixty years. The government has promoted an effective education system and free access to information through an extensive library network as part of the welfare state policy.

According to our constitution, it is a basic right for citizens to have freedom of access to information. Libraries are seen as crucial actors in promoting this kind of access and they are included also in what is called the Government Platform, which is the highest political framework for action and public policy in Finland. All political parties have confirmed their strong support to libraries I Finland.

I believe that it is also because of such enlightened government policies and political support that today about 80% of Finns are regular library users.  Books, reading and libraries are highly valued in Finland.  Both public and research libraries are open and free of charge to all. The impact of libraries on literacy has been strong and the results can be seen for instance in the good results of Finnish students in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) organized by OECD.

Last but not least, my experiences in Africa, especially South Africa have influenced on my Presidential theme. More than 20 years ago I worked in Mazimbu, Tanzania at the library of SOMAFCO, Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College. It was an educational centre for South African refugees. In SOMAFCO, I experienced the power of knowledge for people living in exile, far away from their home country.

The library where I worked was the heart of the centre. It provided the community with a variety of materials both from their home country and other parts of the world, such as literature, newspapers, films, music, and cultural events. The library gave the exiled people a chance for self-education and prepared them for repatriation when that time eventually came.  Under apartheid, with the exception of the few that had an opportunity to go to college, most previously  disadvantaged  South Africans had no access to libraries and thus hardly any access to information in their own home country. The possibility to use the library in Mazimbu was something totally new to people and it made a huge difference to their lives.

That early experience of the library and information environment in Africa has influenced me strongly, both professionally and personally. It made me aware of the injustice and imbalances in access to information in developing countries compared to developed ones and I had it in mind when I chose my Presidential theme. I wanted to emphasize the role of libraries in equalizing and enabling access to information for all.

The library of SOMAFCO connected Finnish and South African library professionals as many Finnish librarians worked there with South African exiles who gradually gained library or archive qualifications in Tanzania, Botswana, Finland, UK and later also here at the University of the Western Cape.  Their studies were financed by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.  Altogether 25 South Africans were trained into the library or archive profession during the project. These experiences form a strong bond between the Finnish and South African library fields as the contacts are still vigourous and vital today. I will have a reunion in August with the South African colleagues I met in Tanzania over 20 years ago. Also LIASA and the Finnish Library Association have had cooperation in various forms.

I came to South Africa for the first time in 1992, from Tanzania, to meet the people I knew from SOMAFCO who had repatriated to their families and tried to find their place in the new free South Africa. In 2000, I was part of a Finnish delegation to celebrate the graduation of some of our grantees at the University of the Western Cape.

This country and its libraries have made a huge leap in development from those days. Now we celebrate the South African Library Week 2015 and soon you will welcome the world library community to the 81st IFLA Congress in Cape Town, to share your experiences in connecting families, people, friends, technologies, information and the world at your libraries.

I wish you a successful Library Week 2015!