On The Multifaceted Crisis of IFLA

Mikael Böök, the author of this text, here speaking at the IFLA meeting on library publishing in Oslo, 2020

By Mikael Böök, Isnäs, Finland

On 4 March this year, IFLA’s Governing Board decided to terminate the organisation’s contract with its Secretary General, Gerald Leitner. The decision was prompted by complaints from staff at IFLA’s  headquarters in The Hague. Exactly what the complaints were about we do not know, but the Governing Board has stated that it could no longer have confidence in Leitner’s leadership style. There has been rumors  of excessive hotel bills and harassment of staff, for example, but the Board has refused to go into details for legal reasons as the matter of Leitner’s dismissal is due to be heard by a Dutch court (at the earliest) in October 2022.

Leitner assumed the post of Secretary General of IFLA in June 2016 and was responsible for IFLA’s strategic and operational management and financial administration. His contribution to the development of the Library Federation has without doubt been significant. In 2017, Leitner initiated IFLA’s Global Vision project, which took the form of an online survey in 216 countries and was called “a conversation across the global library field”. The aim of the project was to develop a shared strategic vision for the world’s librarians and libraries. This resulted in the strategy document “IFLA Strategy 2019-2024” (available for download here in 15 different languages.)

Already from the above brief description, anyone could conclude that IFLA is currently going through a crisis. How deep is the crisis?  Obviously,  the answer  will depend on the degree of  the observer’s loyalty  to the Governing Board of the organisation. But then it is not just a question of whether the Board did right or wrong in dismissing Leitner. Leitner’s management alone …

… is not a sufficient criterion for assessing the responsibility of the rest of the management, i.e. the Board. The question of substance, IFLA’s strategy and worldwide activities during Leitner’s time in management, must also be taken into account. The crisis is therefore about more than what has happened and is happening at headquarters in The Hague. At this point, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that IFLA’s strategy and activities are also in crisis.

Before I go any further, I should remind the reader (and myself!) that I am an affiliate member of IFLA. This must mean that I belong to those who fundamentally share the values of this organisation and wish to promote its activities. Unlike Daniel Forsman, City Librarian in Stockholm (cf. Biblioteksbladet 10 May 2022), I am not considering leaving the organisation because of one crisis or another either. It would be a great misfortune if the world’s librarians failed to stick together under the IFLA umbrella.

At the same time, I am among those who have criticised the leadership of Gerald Leitner even before the crisis that erupted with his dismissal. During his tenure, Leitner brought IFLA into a symbiotic relationship with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), which accounts for the majority of IFLA’s income (67% of it, in fact) – something I highlighted in my articles “The Library as Publisher in the Whole Wide World” and “IFLA and The Gates Foundation: Merry Bedfellows. But For How Long?” (October-November 2020).  Like so many other unholy alliances, the relationship between IFLA and BMGF does not operate directly in daylight but under a cover which in this case is the Stichting IFLA Global Libraries (SIGL). The SIGL Foundation channels the flow of funds from the BMFG towards IFLA and facilitates the close cooperation and communication between them. For instance, a reciprocal agreement between the two makes it possible to avoid taxes on salaries paid by SIGL to many members of IFLA staff at its headquarters in The Hague (where SIGL’s office is also located). Furthermore, Gerald Leitner served not only as IFLA’s Secretary General but also as the SIGL Foundation’s Secretary General, which he has continued to do to this day despite his dismissal from IFLA.

Panelists of the Governing Board in front of member delegates at IFLA’s world conference in Dublin in July 2022. From left to right: Halo Locher, Delegate of the Governing Board, Switzerland,  Barbara Lison, IFLA President, Germany, Kirsten Boelt, Governing Board Member-at-large, Denmark, Jaap Naber, IFLA Treasurer, Netherlands and the moderator: Winston Tabb, University Libraries and Museums at the Johns Hopkins University, United States

On 28 July, during IFLA’s annual world conference, held this year in Dublin, the Governing Board confronted the membership in  a Q&A session under the title “Out In The Open”. Joining the panel were Chair Barbara Lison, IFLA Deputy Secretary General (delegated by the Board) Halo Locher, Board member Kirsten Boelt and the recently appointed new (and hopefully) independent treasurer, finance professional Jaap Naber.

For the majority of the many conference participants who attended the “Out In The Open” event (not to mention the majority of the world’s librarians!), the above information about the relationship between IFLA and SIGL was apparently news to them. I myself was not present but I have later watched through the one and a half hour event on Youtube (here).  It was symbolically Ellen Tise, the chair of IFLA’s FAIFE committee (Advisory Committee on Freedom of Information and Expression) who asked the toughest questions about Stichting SIGL to Barbara Lison & Co. After Tise’s speech, the President of IFLA’s American Division then asked whether there had been “any employment or oversight relationship” between the Board members, the Secretary General and the IFLA staff.  Lison’s not entirely complete but reasonably detailed reply indicated that several employment or oversight relationships had indeed existed.

It should be admitted that the Board provided a lot of information to the members and that the Board in general did quite well in its tight situation. On the other hand, it must be said that the members were a bit too polite and cautious. Two questions that absolutely should have been raised – but were systematically avoided – could be formulated as follows: 1) How does the symbiosis with SIGL and the financial dependence on the Gates Foundation affect IFLA’s line? To what extent has it contributed to modulating  “the global voice of the library and information profession”  and adapting it to the wishes of the funder? 2) Does the criticism of IFLA apply only to Leitner’s leadership style? Is there then nothing to criticise about the reorientation or transformation of the library world that he has spearheaded together with … Bill Gates?

The IFLA Headquarters are located in the Royal Library of the Netherlands in The Hague

Leitner’s enthusiasm for Bill Gates and his ideas, and evidently of the entire IFLA Governing Board as well,  has been  unmistakable. In an interview that Biblioteksbladet (Stockholm) did with Leitner after the IFLA World Congress in Kuala Lumpur in 2018, Leitner talked about the “change” and “movement” that, according to him, had finally started among the world’s librarians, and praised Bill Gates as  “a game changer“.

Over the course of this year, IFLA’s crisis has only deepened. This is due not only to concerns about the future of the organisation caused by the turmoil at headquarters, but above all to the war in Ukraine. In previous blog posts, I have tried to monitor the general attitude of librarians and library associations towards war and in particular the ongoing war in Ukraine. (Links to some of my posts can be found here under the heading “Voices of Libraries”) The debate on how librarians should relate to the Ukrainian war has been marked by dramatic differences of opinion, not least regarding the demands of the Ukrainian and Polish library associations — and later also the Nordic library associations — that IFLA’s Russian member organizations should be expelled from the Library Federation.

This sensitive topic was wisely avoided by the delegates at IFLA’s recent annual meeting. The annual meeting was held on 25 August, and took over two and a half hours to complete. Like the “Out in the Open” event mentioned above, it can be viewed in full on Youtube. I was not present there either and will limit myself  to mentioning the draft “Resolution on a common set of values for IFLA” presented by Helene Öberg and Karin Linder from the Swedish Library Association, seconded by Ann Berit Hulthin (Norsk bibliotekforening) and Michel Steen-Hansen (Dansk Bibliotekfsforening). The debate on the motion and Helene Öberg’s speech starts at ca 1:27.30 (here).

I include the text of the motion  here in its entirety (and thank Björn Orring, Press and Public Affairs Officer at the Swedish Library Association for giving me access to it): 

 A common basis of values for IFLA

It has been a turbulent year for IFLA. Both by external factors, such as the Russian war on Ukraine, and internal.
How to respond to war and conflict is a real challenge in terms of our values. We see a need to define the unity of values and how IFLA should act and react in cases of war and conflict wherever it occurs.
Core values within IFLA as an organisation should be transparency, accountability, and integrity. Transparency can only be achieved with sufficient communication. These core values are indispensable to our joint construction of the federation. To secure our values we also need a mechanism for reporting any wrongdoings. Transparency International has clear recommendations for this:
 “Protecting whistleblowers from unfair treatment, including retaliation, discrimination or disadvantage, can embolden people to report wrongdoing and increase the likelihood that wrongdoing is uncovered and penalised. Companies, public bodies and non-profit organisations should introduce mechanisms for internal reporting.”  https://www.transparency.org/en/our-priorities/whistleblowing

Text of resolution or recommended action:

We propose to the Governing Board to strengthen our federation by formulating a common basis of values as transparency, accountability, and integrity including a mechanism for whistleblowers, adequate communication and how to respond to war and conflict. “     

At the end of her presentation, Helene Öberg made an additional proposal that the Board should consider the proposal and announce what it intends to do to implement the recommended actions within four weeks of the annual meeting. Barbara Lison, chair of the meeting, explained that this was an impossibility due, among other things, to the upcoming court case in October (see above) and proposed that the time period be changed to “before December 2022”. The proposers and the meeting agreed to this compromise proposal, after which the motion was approved with 888 votes (95% of all votes) in favour, 49 against and 69 abstentions.

IFLA’s financial statement for 2021, one of the AGM’s statutory items, would require a separate article, especially as two of the organisation’s own nine auditors had dissented and refused to approve it. For my part, having read the financial statement in the format available on the IFLA website, I can only conclude that the information given there is incomplete to the point of incomprehensibility. The new Treasurer, Jaap Naber, will certainly have to work to increase transparency!

To conclude this post, I find it appropriate to quote Alex Byrne, who was President of IFLA from 2005 to 2007. In his editorial in the latest issue (No 3/2022) of the IFLA Journal, Byrne writes, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the founding of FAIFE, the following:

Ironically, one of today’s greatest challenges – the challenge of dealing with a ‘post-truth’ global political environment – first manifested at the same time as FAIFE was beginning to have an impact. While national leaders and politicians have lied throughout history, the denial of truth reached a millennial threshold in 2003. Starting from the unprecedented attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, the USA and its allies first invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. The USA, UK, Australia and other allies pretended that there were weapons of mass destruction, which justified an invasion of Iraq, despite authoritative evidence to the contrary (Betts, 2007). In doing so, they followed the example of Hitler’s manufactured border incidents justifying the German and Russian attack on Poland in 1939 (Godson and Wirtz, 2002), and anticipated President Putin’s mendacious justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, to achieve the ‘demilitarization and de-nazification’ of that country.(Afinogenov, 2022)” 

At the time of writing, 30 September 2022, the risk of nuclear war and ecological disaster looks dire. But the library, as a concept and a fact, is nevertheless a bright spot.  Hopefully, we’ll be back later with more information and more views on the IFLA crisis and suggestions on how it should be addressed.


12 Responses to “On The Multifaceted Crisis of IFLA”

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful analysis. It is rumoured that there has been a court hearing and that a settlement is being negotiated. That doesn’t surprise me, but it worries me that the membership is not being kept informed. In fact, recent communications from the leadership avoid any mention of problems. One would think there is not a cloud on the horizon of a sunny sky…

  2. Peter Lor – thanks


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