IFLA oral history project

In 2027 IFLA will have a big anniversary. It was founded in Edinburgh in 1927, as the International Library and Bibliographical Committee, and only adopted the name, International Federation of Library Associations, two years later, at an international congress in Rome. But officially, IFLA recognizes 1927 as the year in which it was founded. For resources on IFLA’s history, see here.

Library historians don’t only look back. The IFLA Library History Special Interest Group has started preparing for the centenary celebration by embarking on a series of projects on oral histories of the world’s librarians. The series of projects is ambitious and will encompass many approaches. It is hoped that oral histories of librarians will include not only the history of their libraries at the time, but also the librarians’ immersion in social and political issues of their day, and how they faced the new issues presented to the profession at that time.

As part of the project, an open session with theme “Librarians learning from the past to inspire, connect, enable and engage”, is planned for the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Dublin, Ireland, in August 2020. The call for papers has been published at https://2020.ifla.org/cfp-calls/library-history/.

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Announcement: IFLA satellite conference on “International Research in LIS: Challenges and Opportunities”

I’m happy to announce that an IFLA satellite conference on international research in LIS  will be held in Dublin, Ireland, on 13 and 14 August 2020. The event will be a workshop-style meeting with a practical focus, aiming to improve the quality of international and comparative librarianship. It is being organized by the IFLA Library Theory and Research Section (LTR) with the IFLA Social Sciences Section and IFLA Journal  More details of the topics to be covered and the submission deadlines can be  found in the call of papers at

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Riccardo Ridi on intellectual neutrality: a perspective from Italy

(Version corrected on 2019-01-05, in light of comments from Riccardo Ridi, which I gratefully acknowledge.) 

Italian perspectives

In the English-speaking world, we are not sufficiently aware of the huge amount of professional literature published in other languages. My eyes were opened to the wealth of professional literature in Italian some years ago, when I was awarded honorary membership of the Associazione italiana biblioteche (AIB), the Italian Library Association (AIB). This gave me access to the AIB’s e-mailed newsletter and its various publications. As a means of practising my rather rudimentary Italian, I make a point of reading the regular e-mailed news circular. This points me to the latest articles appearing in its online newsletter, AIB notizie, and its peer-reviewed quarterly journal AIB studi (formerly Bollettino AIB), among others, where I have found interesting and useful articles. (I should mention here another open-access Italian journal well worth following, JLIS.it, Italian journal of library, archives and information science. It has articles in English as well as in Italian.)

While working on a paper on ethical aspects of combating fake news, I discovered that a debate on the post-truth concept and fake news has been taking place in the pages of AIB studi.

Half-a-dozen of these articles are cited in an article by Riccardo Ridi (2019), “Livelli di verità: post-verità, fake news e neutralità intellettuale in biblioteca [Levels of truth: post-truth, fake news and intellectual neutrality in the library].” Ridi’s article seems to me to make useful and thought-provoking points, and since my co-author has even less Italian than I, I made an extended summary of the article, which I share here for those English speakers who may find Ridi’s viewpoint interesting. Continue reading

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Library ABC for 2019

The latest instalment of my Library ABC, which I started in 2008, has been distributed. It is for the letters D, E and F and features pictures taken in three libraries. D:  DOK, Delft, the Netherlands; E: Elsie van Rensburg Public Library, Great Brak River, South Africa; and F: the Biblioteca delle Oblate, Florence.

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Gratifying review

International and comparative librarianship book

I’m happy to report that a favourable review of my book, International and comparative librarianship: concepts and methods for global studies,  recently appeared in Focus on international library and information work.

The review, written by Lesley Pitman, appeared in volume 50, no. 2, pages 25-26, of Focus, which is published by the International Library and Information Group of CLIP, the library and information association of the UK. Focus is available on open access, and the relevant issue can be seen here.

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Global gleanings #2: Maps again, web archiving, fauna and flora, Patience and Fortitude

 This is a slightly expanded version of my column of news, views and snippets from the international literature of books, libraries, and information, which appears in LIASA-in-Touch, the newsletter of the Library and Information Association of South Africa

Maps and perceptions

When I joined IFLA staff in 2005, I found a map on display showing the world upside down. That is, the South Pole was at the top of the map and the North Pole at the bottom – to tell Europeans, Americans and other Northern Hemisphere inhabitants that the way we depict the globe is purely a convention and has no basis in physics or astronomy. For more on this, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South-up_map_orientation. (The importance of the Northern Hemisphere is also exaggerated by the way the commonly used Mercator projection distorts land masses. In it, Greenland (2.16 million square km, 56,000 inhabitants) looms forbiddingly over the rest of the world, dwarfing South America and Australia (7.69 square km). Isn’t it time we Africans also started putting our continent at the top of world maps using an equal-area projection, and placing these in all our schools?) See https://www.businessinsider.com/the-mercator-projection-distorts-countries-2017-6?IR=T. This is to remind readers to look up IFLA’s Library map of the world (https://librarymap.ifla.org/), an impressive source of information. (But it uses the Mercator projection and has North still at the top of the screen.) It shows that South Africa has 7,459 libraries, two-thirds of which are school libraries, and 1879 public libraries – but no community libraries. A matter of terminology?

Web archiving

In 2005 the IFLA Headquarters office also sported a notice saying: “The world will not end today. It is already tomorrow down under”. With that reassurance, I proceed to Australia. In the newsletter of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries in Asia and Oceania (CDNLAO), Kylie Johnson (2019) of the National Library of Australia, reported that Australian digital content since 1996 is available free of charge in the Australian Web Archive (AWA) (https://www.ndl.go.jp/en/cdnlao/newsletter/094/943.html). The AWA contains “snapshots” of hundreds of thousands of Australian websites, amounting to about nine billion records and 600 terabytes, and can be searched full-text via the Library’s online search facility, Trove (https://trove.nla.gov.au/).

Why do this? When I think back to when I was being trained as a librarian in the mid-1960s, just about all reference searches required looking in printed volumes. Bibliographic records were found using printed bibliographies and their endless supplements and cumulative volumes, such as the indexes of the H.W. Wilson Company (http://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=558). Addresses were found in annual street directories, where you could find out who was living at which address at the time the directory was compiled. (See https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/about-street-directories). That information was useful at the time, but it also has historical value. It enables a literary historian writing a biography of a poet or novelist to trace where her subject was living from year to year by using the annual street directories. She could also get a sense of what else was going on in that neighbourhood.  By looking up the advertisements in newspapers of that time, an economic historian can check the price of butter and milk, and a costume designer can find pictures of what women were wearing in the 1880s. But today? All this information is available online – but not for long. If the websites offering such information are not archived, this ephemeral information is lost and we risk entering the “digital dark ages”. (See for example Bollacker (2010); also https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-01-01/scientists-warn-we-may-be-creating-digital-dark-age and https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/internet/2019/03/why-we-are-danger-entering-digital-dark-age-losing-huge-amounts-online).

The preservation of digital content – as distinct from the digital preservation of analogue content – has exercised minds in our profession for some time. I first became involved in this problem in the late 1990s, when I was at the then State Library and participated in a working group set up by the Conference of Directors of National Libraries.  The Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish national libraries were among the pioneers in the field of archiving websites. Huge technical and logistical problems of “harvesting” (collecting), ingesting, organizing and preserving websites, and providing access to the archived sites, had to be overcome. The pioneers ran into legal problems. Harvesting websites from the Internet could infringe copyright. Legal deposit and/or copyright legislation had to be amended. There were also ethical and socio-economic issues (see for example Lor and Britz 2012). This topic could by itself fill several issues of LIASA-in-Touch. For a general overview, see Corrado and Moulaison (2014). Suffice it to say that we were able to learn from the experience of other national libraries. South Africa’s Legal Deposit Act (No. 54, 1997) (https://libguides.wits.ac.za/ld.php?content_id=5267962) was framed in such a way that current media of all kinds and media not as yet invented, are covered by it. (See in particular the definition of “document” in article 1(iii).) The hoped-for signing of our new Copyright Amendment Act, discussed by Denise Nicholson (2019) in an earlier issue of L-i-T will also help to clear the legal minefield for our legal deposit libraries.  But to fully implement the Act, they will need more resources. For more on legal deposit in South Africa, see her Libguide on Legal Deposit at https://libguides.wits.ac.za/c.php?g=145508&p=953042.

Fauna and flora

Science is not always only about the very latest information. Biologists need to know what species of plants or animals they are studying, and to refer to them correctly. Organisms have been named using scientific names (basically Latin and Latinized Greek) since the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus devised the binomial system of biological nomenclature, first published in his Systema Naturae in 1735. (Linnaeus included plants, animals and stones, but his classification of stones did not catch on among geologists.) Biologists also want to know when and where organisms were first found, and by whom they were first described. So the full scientific name of the humble House Sparrow is “Passer domesticus Linnaeus, 1758”, followed by a reference to the book in which it was first described, in this case, the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s own Systema naturae, in 1758. By convention, the first part of the name (the genus) is printed with an initial capital, while second part (the species) with a lower-case initial, both parts in italics. This example is from the seventh edition of Roberts birds of South Africa (Hockey, Dean, and Ryan 2005), a massive tome of 1296 pages, of which we are unlikely to see an eighth edition in print. A multimedia version is available as a cell phone app (http://www.sabirding.co.za/roberts7/android.html). It is unlikely to be preserved nearly as long as the print version.

To get back to the information needs of zoologists and botanists: they often have to refer to the earliest books in which species were described. This can be difficult, because some older books may have survived only in a handful of libraries scattered over the world. To make these sources more accessible, a consortium was formed in 2007 to make taxonomic information openly available through a digital portal https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/. Member institutions of the consortium, based at the Smithsonian Institution’s Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) in Washington DC, have scanned over 147,000 titles, with information on more than 180 million species of animals and plants. George Eberhart (2019) reports that this is greatly appreciated by biologists, to the extent that in 2015 a Hungarian zoologist named a new species of snail Vargapupa biheli, after the BHL  (https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/06/03/bookend-biodiversity-heritage-library-finding-flora-fauna/). Maybe a fleet-footed organism would have been more appropriate.

 Patience and Fortitude

I end with another animal story. This time not about library cats or parrots, but about Patience and Fortitude, the two marble lions that have for more than a century guarded the steps leading up to the New York Public Library. The library is a magnificent example of beaux arts architecture, and well worth visiting. The lions themselves are a much photographed New York landmark. In the New York newspaper amNewYork, Lisa Colangelo (2019) tells the story of how they got their names (https:/www.amny.com/news/nyc-public-library-lions-1.34925124).  They were not formally named, but informally known as Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after the library’s founders. It was only during the Great Depression (1929-1939) that they received their current names. The then mayor of New York, Fiorello Laguardia, thought that to survive the Depression the people of New York needed patience and fortitude, and that is how they got their names. Guarding a library 24/7 through summer heat and winter freeze is not for sissies, and this has taken its toll on the two statues. This summer they are getting a clean-up, using sophisticated restoration technology, to the tune of USD 250,000. A warm-blooded library kitty would have been more affordable.



Bollacker, Kurt D. 2010. ‘Avoiding a Digital Dark Age’. American Scientist 98 (April): 106–10.

Colangelo, Lisa L. 2019. ‘Library Lions Patience and Fortitude to Get $250G Restoration’. Am New York. Accessed August 17. https://www.amny.com/news/nyc-public-library-lions-1.34925124.

Corrado, Edward M., and Heather Lea Moulaison. 2014. Digital Preservation for Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Lanham MD; Plymouth, England: Rowman & Littlefield.

Eberhart, George M. 2019. ‘Bookend: Finding Flora and Fauna’. American Libraries Magazine. June 3. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/06/03/bookend-biodiversity-heritage-library-finding-flora-fauna/.

Hockey, P. A. R., W. Richard J. Dean, and Peter Ryan. 2005. Robertsʾ Birds of Southern Africa. 7th ed. Cape Town: Trustees of the J. Voelcker Bird Book Fund.

Johnson, Kylie. 2019. ‘Massive Time Capsule Captures Australia’s Modern History’. CDNLAO Newsletter, no. 94 (July). https://www.ndl.go.jp/en/cdnlao/newsletter/094/943.html.

Lor, Peter Johan, and Johannes J Britz. 2012. ‘An Ethical Perspective on Political-Economic Issues in the Long-Term Preservation of Digital Heritage’. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 63 (11): 2153–2164. doi:10.1002/asi.22725.

Nicholson, Denise Rosemary. 2019. ‘The Copyright Amendment Bill: Its Genesis and Passage through Parliament’. LIASA-in-Touch 20 (2): 16–17.

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Help save the Web!

We tend to take the World Wide Web for granted. We use it to look up professional, scholarly, educational and day-to-day information, communicate with friends and colleagues, do shopping, book travel, plan vacations, download videos and music, play games, and more. The Web is an unprecedented global platform for altruism – sharing freely – as exemplified by the Wikipedia. Nobody knows and appreciates this more than librarians. Sharing information and knowledge is at the core of what we do.

We have come to expect that our access to the Web is free, that we all have equal access to it, and that we can use it without being misinformed, defrauded, blackmailed or worse. But there is widespread abuse of the Web. Governments deny or restrict access. Companies such as internet service providers may try to charge fees for rapid access to more desirable content, and various interest groups and individuals post false, abusive, and offensive content.

The Web, with its great potential for equality, education, development and democracy, is in danger of being subverted.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British engineer and computer scientist who is credited with inventing the World Wide Web, and who is the co-founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, has launched a global action plan to protect the Web from misuse and to ensure that it functions as “a force for good” that can be accessed freely and safely by all people all the time. As part of the action plan, a Contract for the Web has been drawn up with inputs from many experts and representatives of many sectors, including the public.

The Contract for the Web sets out concrete actions that can be taken by governments, companies, and individual citizens. It groups these under nine fundamental principles:

Governments are called upon (1) to ensure that everyone can connect to the internet, (2) keep all of the internet available, all of the time, and to (3) respect and protect people’s fundamental online privacy and data rights.

Companies are called upon to (4) make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone, (5) respect and protect people’s privacy and personal data to build online trust, and (6) develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.

Citizens are called upon to (7) be creators and collaborators on the Web, (8) build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity, and (9) fight for the web.

In the 32-page Contract for the Web document, each of these principles is elaborated in the form of commitments by the three parties. For example, Principle 8:

Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity, so that everyone feels safe and welcome online:

By working towards a more inclusive Web:

    1. Adopting best practices on civil discourse online and educating the next generation on these matters.
    2. Committing to amplify the messages of systematically excluded groups, and standing up for them when they are being targeted or abused.
    3. Taking steps to protect their privacy and security, and that of others, by choosing products and services thoughtfully, and articulating privacy preferences accordingly.
    4. Refraining from participating in the non-consensual dissemination of intimate information that breach privacy and trust.

The World Wide Web Foundation has issued a call for everyone, organisations and individuals, to endorse the contract. I’m not one for online petitions and the like, but this is one I have had no qualms about signing up for, and I encourage all members of the LIS community to sign up too.

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New National Librarian for South Africa

I can now report on the outcome of the disputed recruitment process that was discussed in a previous post, entitled, “Who should be the national librarian?”

On 18 November the Board of the National Library of South Africa announced that Mr Kepi Madumo has been appointed as the next National Librarian and CEO of the National Library. Mr Madumo holds a master’s degree in Library and Information Studies from the University of Cape Town, and has completed a number of post-graduate management programmes. Since 2002 he has been the Director of Provincial Information and Archives Services in the North West Province. His qualifications and experience should stand him in good stead as he takes over as South Africa’s National Librarian on 1 December 2019.

Congratulations, Kepi!

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My book: brief promotional video

A brief video interview about my book, International and comparative librarianship: concepts and methods for global studies, done during the August 2019 IFLA World Library and Information Conference in Athens, has been released by IFLA.  In the interview, I give some background on why I wrote the book, and why it should be of interest to LIS practitioners as well as to professors and students in the field.

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Who qualifies to be the National Librarian?

Alarm in South Africa

Alarm bells started ringing in the South African library profession in late May 2019 when news broke that the National Librarian and CEO of the National Library of South Africa (NLSA), Professor Rocky Ralebipi-Simelang, who had been expected to serve a second term, had suddenly left the NLSA. Rocky, as she is known in South Africa and internationally, holds an MLIS from Pittsburgh and a PhD in Library and Information Science from the University of Minnesota.  A respected professional, who was serving as a Vice-Chair of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries (CDNL), she was on the cusp of being elected to IFLA’s Governing Board. The profession’s dismay was compounded when the vacant position was advertised by the NLSA Board shortly afterwards, with a closing date of 14 June. The qualifications for the position were set out as follows:

REQUIREMENTS:  MBA or equivalent. A PhD in Library and Information Science will be an advantage. At least 10 years of experience in a senior management position in a related field • Must be a South African citizen with in-depth knowledge an understanding of the PFMA, NLSA Act and government relations.
SKILLS AND COMPETENCIES: Proven track record in the successful development and implementation of turnaround strategies; strategic capabilities; ability to successfully mobilise financial resources; ability to drive the organisation to a performance based culture; proven mature leadership and management capabilities; tactful diplomat and above average negotiator.

What raised hackles was that an MBA “or equivalent” was stated as the primary requirement, with a PhD in Library and Information Science as “an advantage”. The Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) responded promptly and energetically. LIASA has in recent years has been devoting a great deal of energy to ensuring formal official recognition for professional LIS qualifications and saw this as a set-back to its efforts.  A letter of protest was sent to Chairperson of the NLSA Board and to South Africa’s Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture. The Executive Director of the African Library and Information Association and Institutions (AfLIA) joined in on 12 June with a letter arguing that, given “the status and role of the NLSA in Africa, as a pace setter in library development in Africa” the NLSA Board’s step would set “a dangerous precedent that other countries may think as the best and so follow to destroy the gains we have made in library development in Africa”.

A petition calling on the NLSA Board to reconsider its job advertisement was launched on Facebook. It attracted 3607 signatures. Interviewed on South Africa’s main morning news programme, SAFM, LIASA President Nikki Crowster pointed out that advertising for a National Librarian with an MBA qualification as the primary requirement “negates the professional requirements of this post and relegates this huge national responsibility to a non-librarian”.

The NLSA Board doubled down with a statement from the Board Chairperson, Mr Themba Thomas Cyril Dlamini, on 19 June:

The current needs and imperatives of the NLSA requires the caliber of candidate who is able to successfully deliver strategic and executive leadership; sound financial management; implement human resources transformation; foster strategic partnerships and effective stakeholder engagement; and promote a culture of research and innovation. The Board highly values the importance of the successful incumbent possessing LIS expertise, qualifications and experience. The application process is open to all suitably qualified individuals.

As the first incumbent of the position in question (1999-2003), I was at first minded to write a letter of remonstrance. The Board’s initial requirement of an MBA – in my not so humble opinion an overrated qualification – and the emphasis on management expertise smack of uninformed managerialism. But a reluctance to intervene in matters relating to a previous employer stayed my hand.

International practice

On reflection I realized that internationally a fair number of the world’s most effective and respected national libraries are directed by leaders who to my knowledge have no professional library qualifications. As a member of the CDNL (1992—2003), and particularly as its chair (1996—2000) I was privileged to work with many of them. For example, under Dr Wim van Drimmelen, an economist, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Netherlands was “punching above its weight” among the world’s national libraries, and Van Drimmelen was respected by national librarians everywhere. Another national librarian who played a leadership role internationally was Dr Brian Lang, a social anthropologist who served as the chief executive of the British Library (1991-2000) during the difficult years of the construction of that library’s new building. He subsequently became the principal of St Andrews University in Scotland. Lang was succeeded by Dame Lynne Brindley, who held professional qualifications and extensive experience in library management. She subsequently became Master of Pembroke College, Oxford University. The current chief executive is Roly Keating, who was a senior executive at the BBC.

It is not unusual for the position of national librarian to be occupied by career civil servants, such as Van Drimmelen, who have extensive senior management experience in other branches of government or in parastatals (institutions funded by government). Often these executives come from a background in cultural or heritage institutions. Others come from an academic background and are well-known as public intellectuals. Both of these career tracks are well illustrated by the French national library. Before its incorporation into the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1994, the much older Bibliothèque nationale was directed by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, an eminent historian and writer. During 1989—1994 a journalist and newspaper editor, Dominique Jamet, led the transformation of the French national library. Subsequent presidents were Jean Favier (an archivist and historian), Jean-Pierre Angrémy (a senior diplomat and academician), Jean-Noël Jeanneney (a historian and national media executive), and Bruno Racine (a senior civil servant and author). The current president, and the first woman in this position, is Laurance Engel (also a senior civil servant and author).  All of them have with impressive CVs. In France, senior civil servants are often members of the intelligentsia.

The French example illustrates that, since libraries are associated with culture and a nation’s literary heritage, it is not unusual for the job of national librarian to be occupied by a person of literary accomplishments. One of the most famous examples of this is the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, an internationally celebrated literary giant of the 20th century. From 1937 to 1946, to make ends meet, he worked as a library cataloguer in a public library. It was a time for him of “solid unhappiness”, but during this period he also wrote some of his most important short stories (Piper 2001).  His philosophically intriguing and influential short story, “The Library of Babel”, published in 1941 in the collection El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), describes a library consisting of an infinite number of interconnected hexagonal galleries containing all possible books, most of them pure gibberish, that can be written with random combinations of the letters of the alphabet.  It is sometimes interpreted today as a prediction of the infinite possibilities and problems of the Internet. In 1955, by which time he was already completely blind, he was appointed as director of the Argentinian Biblioteca Nacional and professor of Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Although any criticism of his leadership of the national library is overshadowed by his literary achievements, his eighteen-year tenure in the post has not been regarded as entirely positive for the national library or for Argentinian librarianship generally. It appears that he devoted a great deal of his time to his literary activities, and was in the habit of dictating his writings to his subordinates during the time he spent at the office (Sabor 1992; Rodriguez Pereyra 1994).

Another Latin American literary figure, Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna, a noted Brazilian writer and poet, whom I had to privilege to meet at a colloquium at the New York Public Library in 1995, took his responsibilities as the president of the National Library of Brazil (1990–1996) very seriously. He launched major initiatives for national public access to libraries, including the creation of a national library system comprising three thousand libraries, led by the National Library, and a national reading incentive system known as Proler (pro-reading) (Romano de Sant’Anna 1996). In 1996 he was dismissed. It was rumoured that his tireless advocacy for libraries had irritated his superiors in the Brazilian government.

The contrasting library careers of Borges and Romano de Sant’Anna illustrate two kinds of tension in the working lives of national librarians. One is the tension between the national librarian’s personal literary and cultural attainments – on the strength of which that librarian may have been selected – and the need to attend to more mundane matters of library management and leadership.  The other tension is that between the needs of the institution the national librarian heads, and the national library’s leadership role in the national and indeed international context.

This tension is also evident in the United States. There the Library of Congress plays a dual role as the reference library for the executive branch of government and as the national library, which requires a tricky balancing act. Can this role be better filled by a professional librarian or by a scholar and public intellectual with good political connections? In the USA the pendulum has swung back and forth. The current incumbent, Carla Hayden, the first woman and the first person of colour to serve as the Librarian of Congress, appointed in 2016, has excellent professional qualifications for the job and is respected in the library profession. She has a PhD from the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago, has held a succession of  senior management positions in libraries, and served as President of the American Library Association in 2003–2004. She is the first professionally qualified librarian to serve in this position since Lawrence Quincy Mumford, the eleventh Librarian of Congress (1954–1974).  Mumford was succeeded by Daniel J. Boorstin, a lawyer and historian (1975–1987). The next Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington (1987–2015), was an internationally respected historian and an expert in Russian and Soviet studies. On his occasional appearances at the CDNL, Dr Billington impressed me as a somewhat Olympian figure, who mostly left the LC’s representation to his highly competent Deputy Librarian and Associate Librarian of Congress for Library Services, Winston Tabb. Dr Billington, an energetic and charismatic leader, left an impressive legacy at the Library of Congress, but his leadership came under mounting criticism in the years before he retired at the age of 86 – a reflection not so much on his achievements but on the dangers of continuing in the job too long.

The appointment of Dr Hayden reminds us that it is not unusual for national librarians to have master’s or doctoral degrees in LIS. This has been the case in South Africa since the 1960s. However, we may be in the minority. More often national librarians have professional qualifications in LIS but hold their PhDs in other disciplines. Among the members of the CDNL I can recall some outstanding examples, including Dr Klaus-Dieter Lehman, Director General of the Deutsche Bibliothek, who merged that library with its former East German counterpart Die Deutsche Bücherei and the  Deutsche Musikarchiv Berlin to create the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, and his successor, Dr Elizabeth Niggemann, who has played a leading role in European policy on library digitization. Both of them hold their doctorates in the natural sciences. A scientific background is of value in developing analytical thinking and intellectual discipline. A PhD in LIS should do so too, but not all national librarians with advanced qualifications in LIS have been equally successful.


National librarians have to provide leadership not only to their institutions but also to the library and information professions in their countries. They need to have a strategic vision for LIS in their countries, a vision grounded in an in-depth understanding of the role of LIS in their nation’s development and well-being. They should enjoy the respect of the LIS profession. These attributes empower them to be persuasive advocates vis-à-vis their governments and vis-à-vis a range of stakeholders in the book and information industries, in scholarly communication, and in the cultural, heritage, educational, and scientific sectors.

General conclusions

Let’s assume a contingency table plotting success against qualifications:

Contingency table: LIS qualifications v. Success

In the LIS profession we would like to argue that quadrants A and D will be most populous. My personal recollections do not provide adequate evidence to populate such a table, but I suggest that quadrants B and C will not be uninhabited either. There is much more to the job than professional qualifications. To conclude:

The national librarian does not necessarily have to have professional qualifications in LIS, but:

  1. Professional qualifications (at least a master’s degree) and experience at a senior level in LIS are a great advantage. These attributes, and the recognition they bring in the LIS profession, shorten the learning curve for the new appointee and allow her/him to “hit the ground running” and play a leadership role from the outset.
  2. The national librarian should have advanced academic qualifications, normally a PhD. The national librarian’s PhD need not be in LIS.
  3. The national librarian should be a person with an impressive track record in at least two of the following: in scholarship, as a public intellectual, and in a leadership position in government or in an institution comparable to the national library. The national librarian’s stature should be such that s(he) can gain the respect of the LIS profession, even if appointed from outside LIS.

It stands to reason that a person who combines the above three desiderata will be a strong candidate for the position of national librarian. A person who lacks more than one of them should not be considered.

For South Africa and Africa?

I’m aware that the general conclusions I’ve arrived at will not be to the liking of my colleagues in LIASA and AfLIA. However, given that librarians and information workers in many African countries are engaged in advocacy official recognition of their qualifications and expertise, I do support the position taken by LIASA and AfLIA that appointing a person without qualifications in LIS as South Africa’s national librarian would set a bad precedent.

Why? Here are some consideration to be taken into account in our region:

First, many of our institutions do not have the depth of qualified and expert staff needed to ensure continuity when a leader is appointed from outside the field. In wealthy countries with a long tradition of LIS (such as France, Japan, the UK, and the USA) the national library has highly qualified and experienced staff at all levels, right up to the level of the national librarian’s deputy. If a person is appointed from outside the field, there are good people in place who can guide the new appointee and ensure that the national library’s functions are carried out in accordance with professional best practice. In developing countries appointing an inexperienced and professionally unqualified person could have bad consequences.

Second, appointing a person lacking LIS qualifications as the national librarian would be demotivating for talented senior members of the profession who might aspire to this role.

Finally, in many countries nepotism and “cadre deployment” can result in ill-suited appointees who can do a lot of damage to the national library. As AfLIA argues, in South Africa we need to set an example for the continent. The job should not be given to some minister’s nephew, to a member of the ruling party who has made a hash of his job somewhere else, or to a senior but ineffective civil servant approaching retirement. In our region, appointing a candidate with advanced professional qualifications and experience in LIS makes a powerful statement that LIS is not for amateurs.

Outcome of the advocacy effort

In the September 2019 issue of LIASA-in-Touch, LIASA President Nikki Crowster reported to the profession that its advocacy effort had achieved some success. The Board of the National Library had revised its advertisement on 1 August with the requirement that LIS qualifications would be a requirement for eligibility. However, professional membership  of LIASA is not a requirement (Crowster 2019). The outcome of the recruitment process is awaited.


Crowster, Nikki. 2019. ‘From the President’. LIASA-in-Touch 20 (3).

Piper, Paul S. 2001. ‘For Jorge Luis Borges, Paradise Was Not a Garden but a Library’. American Libraries 32 (7): 56–58.

Rodriguez Pereyra, Ricardo. 1994. ‘La Biblioteca Nacional Argentina, 1901-1993’. Postgraduate thesis, Buenos Aeres: Instituto Torcuato di Tella. Available http://eprints.rclis.org/10025/

Romano de Sant’Anna, Affonso. 1996. ‘Libraries, Social Inequality, and the Challenge of the Twenty-First Century.’ Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 125 (4): 267–81.

Sabor, Josefa Emilia. 1992. ‘The Issue of Librarianship in Argentina’. World Libraries 3 (1). http://worldlibraries.dom.edu/index.php/worldlib/article/view/393.


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