Five Elephants In The Room of IFLA

By Mikael Böök, Isnäs, Finland

In this writing I demand a paradigm shift or revolt. Or maybe not paradigm shift, because I want to show that IFLA and libraries have a great potential. But which is not used.

No, do not abandon all hope! You who enter here, remember that «our vision is a strong and united library field powering literate, informed and participative societies

The inscription at the gate to IFLA’s own vault on the World Wide Web – quoted in italics above – inspires to some further thoughts on the current crisis of of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.

First, however, some words about the special issue that Biblioteksbladet, the journal of the Swedish Library Association has published about the situation within IFLA.

Information has hitherto not been easy to obtain from IFLA itself, and neither have other sources of the international library community been keen on throwing light on it. Biblioteksbladet has already for some time been an exception, that is, for those who read Swedish. However, this changed at the end of last month when the journal attempted a synthesis, in English, of what has happened within IFLA. Their special issue in English is found here.

The special IFLA-issue of Biblioteksbladet is warmly recommended reading for library staff around the world. To begin with, it features a piece called «Fear. Illness. Silence», based on a fact finding mission to The Hague (where IFLA’s headquarters are located) by Lisa Bjurwald. This is a decent journalistic job that serves the uninitiated as a valuable introduction while …

… the interview with Suzanne Reid, a former employee representative at IFLA headquarters, who blew the whistle about General Secretary Gerald Leitner’s arrogant and harrassing management style, is a personal testimony from an insider.

The essay by Alex Byrne who, twenty-five years ago was among the founders of IFLA’s Advisory Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE), and then President of IFLA from 2005 to 2007, is certainly also worth reading. I would also like to draw the attention of the reader to Byrne’s editorial about FAIFE that appeared earlier this autumn in Ifla’s own Journal (Ifla Journal 3/2022) since I feel that in Biblioteksbladet Byrne has somewhat watered down his critical analysis of the situation regarding the freedom of speech and the truthfulness of information.

Let me round off my review of Biblioteksbladet’s IFLA-issue with a quote from Thord Ericsson, the editor:

«The image of a dysfunctional organisation, in which the removal of a leading person will hardly be enough, comes to the fore. It will probably take significantly more if IFLA is to recover.»

As true as it is said!

One important source of information about IFLA’s current crisis which Biblioteksbladet did not mention in its special issue is the Twitter account @FJupiler aka Felicity Jupiler. Biblioteksbladet might have got some of its data from that direction but decided not to mention about it for the reason that nobody seems to know the person behind the name.

Be that as it may, Felicity Jupiler has by now–in November 2022–gone from tweeting to blogging and is presently adding lots of additional interesting food for thoughts at

So what will it take for IFLA to recover from its crisis? Felicity Jupiler has embellished her new blog with her own version of the inscription at IFLA’s homepage. «My vision», she writes «is a strong IFLA, uniting the library field, empowered by internally representing the values and principles it asks of others.»

Ernest Renan, photographed by Antoine
Samuel Adam-Salomon ca 1870.


But even this might not be enough. I would say that «the library field» including its IFLA will need much more to recover. The nineteenth century philosopher Ernest Renan longed for an «intellectual and moral reform», and some twentieth century thinkers did resume his claim. I am thinking, in particular, of Antonio Gramsci. Perhaps «an intellectual and moral reform» is what the library community stands in need of?

However, the reforms that Renan and Gramsci envisioned, each in his own way and under very different circumstances, concerned the spiritual life and political climate of the French and Italian nations respectively. A comparable reform of IFLA and the library field, on the other hand, necessarily concerns the international community, and must understand itself as an intervention into the development of a common international culture – a common world culture.

Think UNESCO, or NWICO, for two precendents to the needed international approach.

The young Antonio Gramsci ca 1916.

Reflecting further on «what it will take», I see not only one but five big elephants in the room of IFLA. These five «invisible» problems are big and complicated enough to deserve separate articles and even books. Below, please find a mere listing with some short comments.

IFLA has made itself heavily dependent on one particular philanthrocapitalist, namely, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Sixty-seven percent (67%) of the organization’s income is derived from Stichtung Ifla Global Libraries (SIGL), which is a cover for the BMFG. The financial dependence on the BMGF has only recently (after the sacking of Leitner) been openly discussed and questioned even from a strictly economic-adminstrative viewpoint, but has rather been deliberately obscured ( so , for instance, in IFLA’s incomprehensible yearly financial statements.) The lack of a discussion among the membership of IFLA about the financial dependence on the BMGF, and more generally about IFLA’s sources of income, is what I would call an elephant in the room. It might, however, be the smallest of the five. ( On this, see Felicity Jupiler’s recent blogpost with calculations and reflections about IFLA’s financial position.)

However, the financial dependence also means that IFLA can hardly be an intellectually and politically independent organisation, which is fatal. This is the second elephant in the room: Any discussion and questioning of the potential subordination of «the global voice of libraries» (as IFLA sometimes calls itself) to one of the leading voices –– perhaps the leading voice –– of contemporary global philanthrocapitalism has been conspicuous by its absence not only within IFLA but also in its member associations and even among the few critical voices such as Biblioteksbladet.

How could the librarians, the champions of free access to information and knowledge, ever forget that the financial capital of the BMGF was accumulated by Microsoft Inc. (founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who later became one of his critics) at the expense of the development of free and open computer software? Can societies that run their information services and communication systems on software and digital systems that are privately owned by a few oligarchs be open and democratic? This might sound like a far cry from times when we did not yet have such digitalized societies, but now we have them, and Bill Gates has indeed played a big role in shaping them. Shall we accept the present information and communication regime with enthusiasm and applaud Bill Gates as our «game changer», as Gerald Leitner did (interviewed in Biblioteksbladet November 12, 2018.)? As if these first questions were not enough, the contemporary global philanthrocapitalism no doubt also needs to be questioned as such because it is an elephant in the room that has grown too influential in too many parts of this world and has thus eroded the power of institutions that are, or should be, financed by taxes. The contemporary philanhrocapitalism is, in a word, eroding democracy.

Above, I have promised to be relatively short, wherefore I’ll settle for a reading tip: No Such Thing As A Free Gift. The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy by professor Linsey McGoey (Verso 2015).

The third elephant in the room is The Obsolete Corporate Ownership of Scientific Knowledge. Paraphrazing old Rousseau one can constate that science was born free but is everywhere in chains, and this despite the Open Access movements of which the libraries are or at least strive to be a strong supporter. IFLA, too, with its Special Interest Group on Library Publishing, is of course a supporter of OA. However, the librarians are tergiversating. How long shall they circumvent the crux of the matter, which has been obvious ever since Tim Berners-Lee &co invented the World Wide Web at CERN ca 1990: that all scientific knowledge should already be accessible and available to everybody on the WWW, in the Global South as well as in the Global North? When shall they make common cause with Alexandra Elbakyan and SciHub? (See «Why do we live in a world where libraries are illegal?» An interview with Alexandra Elbakyan.)

Add that one of the most staunch, and powerful, supporters of patents on scientific research, especially in medicine and more specifically during the recent Covid-years, has been … Bill Gates.

Enter the fourth elephant in IFLA:s room. It is wearing a nice embroidered quilt with the inscription WIKILEAKS. The quilt is all beautiful talk about information and democracy. The inscription is a reminder of a huge document library (see that should be preserved and permanently available for public scrutiny in the libraries. But IFLA and the library community manages to avoid seeing the inscription and take action. There is, however, some hope that this will change, because now, finally, «Major News Outlets Urge U.S. to Drop Its Charges Against Assange» (as a headline in «The New York Times» proclaimed on November 28, 2022.) Obviously, WikiLeaks and similar projects to free the troves of important information that are kept secret by misbehaving governments, intelligence agencies and corporations, deserves all the support that journalists and librarians can give them, but only the librarians can guarantee that that information is preserved and kept available to the public also after they have been «news».

Not seeing what is right in front of your eyes? I mean the fifth elephant, although it is probably the biggest of all.

Within IFLA and among librarians there has been much talk about sustainable development. Which, in a way is promising, since current developments are known to be catastrophically unsustainable. But the elephant in the room echoing with the sustainability talk is the military-industrial-academic complex(es) of the great powers. Not seeing this are, for instance, the representatives of governments and the press that attended the 27th United Nations Climate Change conference (COP27), held from 6 November until 20 November 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Seeing it are only a handful of academic researchers, like those who carried out the research project called The Costs of War at Boston University in the USA. Some peace movements and ecological movements are also seeing that the allocation of ever more material and human resources to preparations for war, and the wars as such, accelerate the speed towards the ecological disaster that is looming anyway, but they have increasing difficulties to make their voices heard especially after the Russian war on Ukraine.

What could IFLA and the library community do in this case? Perhaps not a lot. But, to begin with, IFLA and the library community could and it should do one very important thing, namely, join the International Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (ICAN, Nobel Peace Prize 2017) as a partner organization, and thus publicly support the implementation of the existing UN Treaty banning nuclear weapons. Without disarmament, and especilly nuclear disarmament, «sustainable development» will always remain an empty phrase.

I do not see any historical examples of librarians starting a war. Moreover, I want to believe that non-alignment and peaceful conflict resolution has long been and will remain the line of librarians and IFLA.

Further traditions and trends to rely on to push the elephants out of the room:

The universalism of the library institution, which was already established during the Alexandrian era.

IFLA’s critical statements on the World Trade Organisation’s restriction of access to information in the Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

IFLA’s call to politicians in the context of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS 2003, 2005) not to try to reinvent the wheel and to have more libraries built and financed instead of naively supporting all kinds of «digital revolutions». More of the same!

—–the end—–


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