International Librarianship: The Bird’s-Eye View from Columbus


In late August I had the opportunity to travel to the annual Congress of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). This year’s Congress was held in Columbus, OH, a city hiding cobblestoned neighborhoods and a burgeoning fashion scene in plain sight, along with incredible food (Nashville hot chicken! Chocolate bacon donuts! Peach and biscuit ice cream!). (I know, I know: I talk about food a lot on this blog, but only because food is DEEPLY IMPORTANT.) The Congress brought librarians from all over the world to drink coffee, exchange research, and talk shop together. My attendance was generously funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources through the Rovelstad Scholarship in International Librarianship; it was such a privilege to watch this global community of librarians in action, and I’m very grateful to CLIR as well as to the Poetry Center for supporting this opportunity.

Because IFLA is an international conference, the folks who attend tend to be people at high levels of accomplishment working on next-generation projects. We heard presentations from directors of national libraries and Fulbright scholars; there were also a great many posters presented by folks from all over the world, and some of my favorite moments at the conference were spent browsing these and chatting with colleagues about their very diverse work in libraries. (Poster presenter Laurie Bridges, of Oregon State University, is my new personal hero: she worked with another librarian to design and implement a course titled “Information and Global Social Justice-Barcelona” that offered students a chance to visit Spain—and to approach travel from a social justice/information studies perspective. Achievement level unlocked!!)

This conference was really a kaleidoscope of excellent work and ideas. I was hugely impressed by the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, where we went for a Congress-wide social event, and which has truly amazing interactive exhibits: one of my favorite stops was at the Science Café, where a friend and I donned goggles, looked through a menu of science experiments (easy experiments were the “appetizers,” more complicated ones were “entrées”), and learned how to make a rainbow out of water, food coloring, and salt. Later on, on the final day of the Congress, I had the opportunity to visit the amazing Preservation Lab at the University of Cincinnati, which is a pioneering collaboration between the University and municipal libraries, and which offers a full slate of conservation services. (They also had fabulous gadgets like a suction table, which we got to see in action during a demonstration of leaf casting: the conservator poured a slurry of paper fibers carefully into a tear in a sheet of paper and turned the table on to ensure even drying, so that the repair matched the tear in the paper beautifully.)

It was fascinating to follow up my recent trip to Japan with the birds-eye view of international librarianship on display at IFLA.  It’s so important to keep these conversations going—and though we share many concerns globally, I think it’s especially important for librarians to learn from one another about where our practices might differ, so that we can continue to ask thoughtful questions about what we’re doing and why. Beyond all the awesome program ideas and wow-factor gadgets I saw on the exhibition floor, this is the most important takeaway I brought back with me: there’s hardly ever one right way to do a thing, and there is always something new to be learned. I think the library community tends to embrace those calls for expansion and evolution very enthusiastically, and it’s fun and instructive to watch. 

Sarah Kortemeier is the Poetry Center's Library Specialist. All images courtesy Sarah Kortemeier.