IFLA's Other Activity ...

Library Hi Tech News

ISSN: 0741-9058

Article publication date: 1 March 2000


Kohl, D.F. (2000), "IFLA's Other Activity ...", Library Hi Tech News, Vol. 17 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/lhtn.2000.23917cac.002



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

IFLA's Other Activity ...

David F. Kohl


While programs and workshops at a conference get top billing and are often its most visible aspect, anyone seriously involved, for example, with the American Library Association (ALA) or with most of the US state library organizations knows that the heart of a library convention is the committee work. Libraries (and librarians) cannot do their work in splendid isolation; collecting, preserving and making available the significant documents of the human enterprise is necessarily a cooperative endeavor since the task is so large and complex. And it is conference committee work, where librarians come together to find solutions to the problems and issues of cooperation, which makes the local library mission manageable.

Clearly IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations), with its worldwide scope and international constituency, represents the largest arena of library cooperation and, within IFLA, the Document Delivery and Interlending Section (see Appendix) is one of the largest and most central operations. And yet IFLA and its sections are not widely known to most in the library community. What in the world (literally!) does an IFLA committee do? The following provides a fly on the wall description of the work of IFLA's Document Delivery and Interlending Section at the IFLA Conference "Libraries as Gateways to an Enlightened World" convened in Bangkok, August 21-28, 1999.


Logistics loom large in preparing for an IFLA standing committee. While each year's agenda is largely set by last year's meeting, there are always new issues which arise as well as programs and workshops to plan including speakers and logistics to arrange. What do you call a data video projector in Thai? How do you arrange for speakers to have simultaneous translations or, failing that, to have their papers translated into the five official IFLA languages? There are two saving graces which make it all possible. The first is that English is used as the universal working language, both in making logistical arrangements and in committee meetings. The second is the use of e-mail and the Internet. With these two practical accommodations an international conference without a United Nations budget becomes possible.

A second critical area of logistics is housing. Unlike most national conferences which tend to be held in a limited number of familiar venues, each IFLA venue is new and unfamiliar to the majority of attendees. Particularly within national groups there is a flurry of communication about which hotels seem most appropriate and are best situated for getting back and forth to the conference site. Operating in a foreign venue in a foreign language with foreign currency, while exotic and interesting, does add a complicating overlay to daily operating logistics. After all, attending the conference, not getting lost or stuck in traffic, is the goal when attending an IFLA conference. Several years ago at an IFLA meeting in Denmark I ended up picking out a hotel on my own which according to the map seemed well positioned between the airport and the conference center ­ a sprawling building some distance from downtown Copenhagen. Upon arrival, I discovered I was housed in splendid isolation ­ isolation from taxis, isolation from buses, isolation from almost any convenient form of transportation to the distant conference center. My US colleagues who had chosen more wisely to stay in Copenhagen had no such problems. In Bangkok, as is fairly typical of IFLA conferences, the conference center was on the edge of town while the hotels were downtown ­ the one separated from the other by many miles and a traffic pattern best described by shifting gridlock rather than traffic flow.

At Bangkok, IFLA delegates staying at conference hotels had several options for getting to the conference center. There was a morning, OCLC-provided bus to the conference center which returned to the hotels at the end of the day. The convenience of the transportation was offset by a very long day at the conference center since the shuttles were not continuous as they are at ALA. Taxis were also an option with one-way fare running around US$10-$15 (paid, of course, in Bahts). The taxi drivers were the most skilled and patient drivers I have ever encountered. Of course, given Bangkok traffic, I suspect that all other types of drivers have had heart attacks or been killed in accidents. For the more adventurous, it was possible to ride on the back of one of the many commercial motorcycles ­ clutching on to the driver who may or may not have provided his passenger with a helmet. The "put-puts", three-wheeled motorcycles with a seat in the back for two passengers to ride side by side, were not an option for getting to the conference center since they stayed in the downtown area. Most charming, but still requiring a taxi for the last leg of the journey, was taking the river boat up the river to a landing near the conference center. Sadly, the length of travel time and the problematic nature of taxi transportation from the river dock to the conference center did not make this form of commuting feasible.

Committee Meetings

The conference center was modern and striking and, like US conference centers, was cavernous with millions of meeting rooms. In the Interlending and Document Delivery Section, the committee tends to run to 12-15 people. Although there are five official IFLA languages, the committee work is all done in English as a practical necessity. While English may not be the language each delegate knows best, it is the closest we have had to a universal language since the time when Latin was in vogue. This reality requires non-native speakers to pay close attention to the discussion and requires native speakers to show active consideration and restraint not to dominate the discussion because of their greater facility with the language. Fortunately, it is well-known that Americans, Brits and the Commonwealth delegates have about as much trouble understanding each other's English as the Germans, Russians or Thais do, so the playing field, language-wise, is perhaps not all that uneven.

Section committees typically meet twice during the conference ­ once early and once late for about a half day each time. In the case of the Interlending and Document Delivery Section, the tradition is to meet on Saturday just before the conference officially begins and then again on Friday at the end of the conference. Possibly because of the strong European influence, IFLA meetings tend to be a bit more formal than ALA committee meetings though in the past five years I have noticed some drift towards a more casual and relaxed approach. Let me be clear, not casual and relaxed, but some movement in that direction!

As is the case with most ALA committees, the work of most IFLA committees breaks down into three main areas ­ four if you count catching up on everyone's personal life and professional activities. The three areas involve reviewing past activities, planning new activities, and housekeeping activities.

Under past activities in Bangkok we reviewed and reaffirmed the modest support the committee was supplying in order to assist attendance of librarians from developing countries at the 6th International Conference on Interlending (IL)[1] and Document Supply to be held in Pretoria, South Africa. Further support had been allocated to help defray the costs of creating the ISO (International Standards Organization) ILL (Interlibrary Loan) Protocols and the E-mail Guidelines. The latter involve a draft document entitled "IFLA Guidelines for Sending IL Requests by E-mail" whose goal is to provide a framework for standardizing free-form e-mail loan/copy requests so they include data that match the ISO standards for electronic transfer of interlibrary loan requests.

Planning new activities actually includes a number of ongoing projects. Discussed were:

  1. 1.

    Response Codes ­ The concern here was to develop a set of ILL response codes that are not reliant on natural language. A discussion document had been posted on IFLANet. While a combination of letters and numbers has advantages, only Arabic numbers are truly common to all language groups. Mary Jackson (USA) took on responsibility to assure that any numbering scheme did not conflict with ISO ILL protocols.

  2. 2.

    ILL Statistics ­ The committee agreed that the IFLA Office should cease attempting to collect statistics on international lending because there was no central site through which all such requests would flow and so there is no mechanism to accurately collect such statistics.

  3. 3.

    IFLA ILL Forms ­ There was considerable discussion on whether it made sense to continue to sell the forms (the price is quite low since it has been unchanged for years and is, additionally, subsidized by the British Library) given that it is not copyrighted and institutions are encouraged to photocopy it if they wish. In the end the consensus of the group was to continue to sell the form as long as there was a demand but also to mount a master copy on IFLANet which libraries could download. The goal is to encourage the use of a standard form in as many ways as possible; the charge is primarily to prevent abuse in ordering print forms.

  4. 4.

    IFLA ILL Vouchers ­ Graham Cornish (UK) reported that there are now 350 libraries in 50 countries using vouchers to pay for ILL transactions (rather than cash or other forms of money transfers, which often represents a problem for institutions in many countries) and that the demand for vouchers has doubled in the last six months. This program is becoming too expensive for the IFLA office staff to continue to support. The committee agreed to encourage and actively help develop the idea of electronic vouchers which should be much cheaper to administer.

Lastly, of course, there are always housekeeping (i.e. bureaucratic and procedural) issues to be dealt with and the Interlending and Document Delivery Section has its share of those. Officers had to be elected for the following year (Agneta Lindh of Norway, chair; Chris Wright and Mary Jackson, both of the USA, secretary and financial officer respectively) and the committee reviewed that part of its strategic planning document called the "Medium Term Program and Action Plan for 2000-2001." At the Friday committee meeting, reports were received on the Bangkok program and workshop sessions. Both events were well received and well attended.

For the Jerusalem conference in 2000 the committee designated Lone Hansen (DK) to work with the University Libraries Section of IFLA on including ILL issues in a workshop to be offered in conjunction with the Jerusalem conference but in another venue, probably Alexandria, Egypt. At the Jerusalem conference proper, David Kohl (USA) will chair a half-day workshop on copyright and licensing while Chris Wright (USA) will chair a program on Document Delivery in the Middle East. Preliminary planning was begun for the IFLA 2001 conference in Boston, MA.


Of course the IFLA experience each year is not limited to just committee work or programs. It also provides an important opportunity to explore a local culture and librarianship in greater depth than is possible from a distance. There are numerous visits provided to local libraries and generally a number of cultural events in the evenings ­ showcasing local traditions, customs and cultural achievements.

Although only delegates may serve on committees, attendance at the annual IFLA conference is open to all. Program and workshop speakers as well as poster session participants need not be delegates and all registered attendees are welcomed to all program, workshop and plenary sessions. While this article has focused on the underlying committee work the activities of which provide IFLA's rationale and make IFLA conferences possible, the annual conference with its scheduled and serendipitous events provides an intriguing and important window on librarianship around the world. It is well worth attendance and participation.


  1. 1.

    In the USA, we call Interlibrary Loan "ILL"; in Europe and many foreign countries they may call it ILL or they may call it Interlending, or IL. In this article, ILL is used unless IL is part of the title.

Appendix: Mission of the Document Delivery and Interlending Section (from the Medium Term Program, 1998-2001)

The Document Delivery and Interlending Section is the forum in IFLA for libraries and associations concerned with making information in all formats available throughout the world through a variety of resource sharing and document supply techniques. The Section works closely with the IFLA Office for International Lending in support of the Universal Availability of Publications (UAP) Core Program.

The Section's primary objective is to extend and improve document delivery and interlending both nationally and internationally through the use of new technologies and increased cooperation among libraries and document suppliers.

The Section monitors developments and provides information to its membership through a section Web site, twice-yearly newsletter, programs at IFLA conferences, support of document delivery workshops, and cooperative projects with the IFLA Office of Interlending and other international organizations.

David F. Kohl is Dean and University Librarian, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio, and ARL (Association of Research Libraries) delegate, Document Delivery and Interlending Section, IFLA. david.kohl@uc.edu