IFLA Opens in Helsinki with Warnings of Cultural Genocide, Globalized Internet
IFLA keynote speaker Helena Ranta.
Helsinki convention center welcomes IFLA. Photo: Carlon Walker.
IFLA President Ingrid Parent opens the conference.
Identified in the program as a forensic dentist, keynote speaker Helena Ranta had many delegates to the World Library and Information Congress in Helsinki, Finland, wondering what connection she would make to libraries and the work of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). At the August 12 IFLA opening session, Ranta left the audience stunned by the ways in which her work has everything to do with libraries and with the preservation of cultural heritage that they represent around the world.
A highly respected professor at the University of Helsinki, Ranta’s involvement in several forensic investigations of international conflicts—particularly her work in Kosovo during the 1990s—has made her an international authority on what she calls “cultural genocide.” Explaining that the idea of mass murder is too easily reduced to a cliche of “never again” that is devoid of policy, she said, “Genocide is not one act of murder, it is many acts of murder.”
“Inaction is the act of complicity,” Ranta said, after itemizing a litany of wartime destruction, from the Allied bombing of Dresden to the Nazi bombing of Coventry during World War II, all the way to the current struggles in Syria, Mali, and Afghanistan where armed conflict is still wreaking havoc on libraries, archives, and monuments. “Targeting and destruction of cultural property have become policy,” she said. Citing the 2001 attack on the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan, she noted that although the Taliban publicized their plans for the destruction of the ancient monuments well ahead of time, the world cultural community failed to prevent it.
Ranta also noted that once cultural treasures are destroyed they can never be fully replaced. Between 1980 and 2000, violence and corruption in Peru led to massive destruction and now only drawings are left of much that was lost. In Sarajevo, the library was rebuilt but the books and manuscripts it housed went to ashes. “If one must remember anything,” she said in closing, “let us remember for the future.”
The opening session of the IFLA conference also featured warm welcomes to Finland by Maija Berndtson, chair of the National Organizing Committee, IFLA President Ingrid Parent of Canada, and Helsinki Mayor Jussi Pajunen, who talked about the city’s vast and popular public library system. “A successful city has to be a city of culture,” he said. Following the opening session, delegates were invited to visit the “Library Boulevard” exhibit outside the auditorium, featuring posters about progressive libraries in Finland and the entire Baltic region.
After the opening session, the Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) sponsored a program titled “Sleepwalking into a Control Society,” featuring, among other speakers, Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia, who challenged the audience to consider the ways in which corporations “are trying to become the operating systems of our lives” as dataflow enters every aspect of living. “Now, there is no difference between online and offline,” he said. Other speakers talked about the IFLA Code of Ethics, “10 Must-Know Trends,” “Censorship and Control in the Internet Age,” censorship in Turkey, and the FAIFE Book Club and the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, explained by Jonathan Kelley and Barbara Jones, respectively, of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Finnish speakers Jani Nieminen and Panu Somerma entertained the crowd with a look at their Banned Books Week Advent Calendar.
Some 300 conference delegates from the US caucused the day before the conference began and heard reports and program recommendations from some of the most active American IFLA delegates. Donna Scheeder, treasurer of the IFLA Governing Board, talked about a number of programs and activities, among them efforts around building strong library associations, open access, e-lending, multilingualism, and religion and dialogue. “IFLA offers a space for everyone,” she said. Winston Tabb updated the group with feelings of “optimism and anxiety” about IFLA’s work with the World Intellectual Property Organization to create an exception for libraries in international copyright law in an atmosphere of corporate globalization.
The opening day of the conference ended with a party in the exhibit hall, where 108 library vendors displayed and demonstrated their wares, including conference sponsors OCLC, Infor Library and Information Solutions, Axiell Group, De Gruyter Saur, Gale Cengage Learning, OpenEditionCentre for Open Electronic Publishing, InterSystems Benelux, and LM Information Delivery. The conference is also supported by the City of Helsinki, HSL Helsinki Region Transport (which provided free passes on public transportation to delegates for the duration of the conference), and the Ministry of Education and Culture, which oversees public libraries in Finland.
The largest and most important international conference of its kind in the world, the IFLA World Library and Information Congress runs through August 17 and features some 218 sessions with close to 4,000 attendees, 1,000 of them from Finland. The next largest delegate group comes from the United States, with 354 attendees. See more photos and news on the IFLA Express website.