Defining and Discussing Diversity on the International Stage at the IFLA Conference in Singapore

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to receive a grant from the International Federation of Library Association (IFLA) to attend their annual conference, the World Library and Information Congress (WLIC). This year, the conference took place in the lovely island nation of Singapore, in southeast Asia. As part of my application for funding, I had to detail my reasons for attending, and chief among those was to gain insight as to how the international library scene was defining and discussing diversity.

 

Scanning the conference program, I was impressed with the coverage topics linked to diversity and inclusion were getting. The Library Theory and Research section hosted a general “Diversity in Libraries” session, featuring research on ethnic diversity, LGBTQ issues, and cultural competency in collection. The Library Services to People with Special Needs and the Libraries Serving People with Print Disabilities sections both hosted specialized sessions for their respective groups, emphasizing accessible technologies. My personal favorite (warning: bias based on research interests ahead) was the Education and Training with Library Services to Multicultural Populations and Indigenous Matters Special Interest Group’s session on indigenous knowledge, multiculturalism, and LIS Education. I’m sad that I missed it, but there was even a session on bolstering LIS education in developing countries via international collaboration, care of the LIS Education in Developing Countries Special Interest Group. And being at an international conference, there were several interesting sessions focusing on developments in certain countries or continents.

 

If the approach to diversity in the international library field can be summed up through what was observed at IFLA’s 79th annual conference, then I am beyond pleased. It seems that libraries and librarians worldwide see diversity through a multi-faceted, inclusive lens. There was a sense of consensus among many regarding the definition of diversity. Many presenters cited none other than the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL)’s Diversity Standards as basic text (http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/diversity). Many reached referenced beyond our discipline to reference the National Association of Social Workers official standards for cultural competence (http://www.naswdc.org/practice/standards/NAswculturalstandards.pdf). Not only were questions of culture, ethnicity, ability, gender, and orientation were addressed, but related topics like development were also given space. And most exciting for me, personally, was the attention paid to these issues in respect to LIS education. This is a big thing for me because if these issues aren’t addressed in LIS programs, where soon-to-be and newly minted librarians learn so much of the theory behind our profession, then how do we expect them to adequately incorporate the skills needed to serve our increasingly diverse populations once they’re in the workforce?

 

Where I do see room for improvement lies in the presentation of our message. Ultimately, what I found at these sessions was that while these groups and committees had excellent research, great programming, and inspiring ideas, they were mostly preaching to the choir. Most of the attendees of these sessions were active members of their groups, or were representatives of groups whose missions aligned with that of the session host. This echo-chamber effect is not at all unique to that conference or IFLA as a whole, but is something I continuously find in libraryland, no matter which nook or cranny I’m trying to investigate.  It might be the product of a profession obsessed with categorization (which I do not criticize in the least!), but partitioning off multiculturalism or diversity or disability into their own sessions has the effect of propagating the idea that diversity is a specialized nook- which couldn’t be further from the truth.

 

If diversity and inclusion truly are goals within librarianship at large, then we would do better to incorporate principles of universal design and inclusion into all of our conversations, not just the ones hosted by special interest groups and committees. Please don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing boon that these groups exist in the first place, and I am proud to be an active member of many. It’s not that we haven’t done a lot of great work in our respective circles, but this work needs to be incorporated into the larger discussion. After all, diversity isn’t a special interest- it’s a general one.
Links to sessions mentioned in this blog:

 

For a good summary of the conference at large, check out UMD alum Molly Schwartz’s blog post at the Council on Library and Information Resources: http://connect.clir.org/BlogsMain/BlogViewer/?BlogKey=4b9ad9b5-3dd3-4181-9dd4-e059dc10d70f

 

If you’re looking to get involved with IFLA, the New Professionals Student Interest Group (NPSIG) is a great way to start, and you don’t even have to be an IFLA member to participate: http://npsig.wordpress.com/

 

By Bridgette Hendrix

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