This Blog

In the course of a long career in librarianship – as a librarian, manager, professional leader, researcher and teacher – and through many years of participation in international programmes and activities, I have held the belief that libraries and information services contribute to peace and justice through the global exchange and sharing of information and knowledge. This site is intended as a resource for all who are interested in international and comparative aspects of librarianship and information work. I focus on matters with a conceptual and historic slant, including LIS development and the international political economy of information, roughly those matters covered in my recent book. But I also indulge myself sometimes and blog to air my opinions on other topics as well.

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International Library History News

In my work in international and comparative librarianship and information work, I make much use of historical material. Some comparative work is purely synchronic, considering  situations across cultures, societies or countries as things stand at a given moment in time, mostly the present or very recently. But if we want to know why things are the way they are and why they differ between the units being compared, we need a diachronic element as well. This lends much more depth to a comparative study.

So I’m grateful to Brett Spencer, editor of the American Library Association Library History Round Table’s blog, for drawing my attention to “International Library History News“. This is the International history page of LHRT News and Notes, the newsletter of the History Round Table.  Continue reading

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Global Gleanings #3: IFLA and the Developing World


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.

In the previous issue of L-i-T I promised to touch on some highlights of the August 2019 IFLA World Library and Information Congress, held in Athens, Greece. Here I focus on an IFLA meeting, held at the Library of Alexandria, Alexandria, Egypt, immediately before the Athens Congress. This was a Satellite Meeting of Division V, IFLA’s Division of Regional Activities, on “Leadership roles in international librarianship: how can information professionals from Africa, Asia & Oceania, Latin America & Caribbean be part of  it?” I did not attend it myself, but since the Division issued an important Declaration, I think it is appropriate to refer to it here. But first some background is in order about IFLA’s role in the developing world. Continue reading

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From participation to mobilization:  new roles in French public libraries

In 2016 Raphaëlle Bats contributed an article to an issue of Library trends (vol. 65, no. 2) discussing the responses of French librarians to the terrorist attacks on Charlie hebdo and a Kosher supermarket on 15 January 2015. The LT issue dealt with the theme, “Libraries in the political process and in conflict situations”, and it carried quite diverse contributions from librarians in five countries.  In her article (Bats 2016), Raphaëlle, who is an instructor responsible for international relations at the École nationale supérieure des sciences de l’information et des bibliothèques (enssib), the French national library school, examined the tension between the traditional neutral stance of librarians and their desire to take part (which they did, on a large scale) in the highly political response to the terrorist act, and asked whether the library profession needs to rekindle its activist vocation.

She followed up the theme of librarians’ participation in political activity in her doctoral dissertation, “De la participation à la mobilisation collective, la bibliothèque à la recherche de sa vocation démocratique” (From participation to collective mobilization, the library looking for its own political vocation), which she successfully defended in October 2019, and which was recently published online (Bats 2019). In it she reflected on the trend toward participatory democracy and on the role French public libraries (bibliothèques municipales) might play, pointing to the risks inherent in institutionalizing participation and examining the possible renewal of libraries and the library profession. Continue reading

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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

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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,, 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 (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 This is to remind readers to look up IFLA’s Library map of the world (, 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) ( 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 (

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 ( 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 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 and

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) ( 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

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 ( 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 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  ( 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:/  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.

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.

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).

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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