The IFLA Presidential Meeting 'Access to Knowledge: Networking Libraries' , was the third and last event in a series of conferences held during the IFLA presidency of Claudia Lux between 2007 and 2009. Intended as international platforms for exchange about the topic of 'free access to information', the motto shared by all three meetings, each of the conferences focused on a different cultural/geographical region: Central and Eastern Europe in 2007, Asia in 2008, and Arab and Islamic countries in 2009. Thus, this year's meeting aimed to inspire a dialogue about libraries and their role in preserving and giving access to the cultural heritage of the Arab world. While speakers addressed a wide array of issues, recurring themes of the talks were the relationship between digital knowledge and cultural heritage (in particular, digitisation as a means to simultaneously preserving cultural heritage and making it widely accessible), the importance and potential of building networks and alliances on local, regional, and global levels, as well as the establishment of technical, social, political, and educational infrastructures for an inclusive, global knowledge society.
The conference was organised by the German IFLA National Committee in co-operation with the Federal Foreign Office, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), the Robert Bosch Foundation, the Goethe-Institut, and the Federal Union of German Library and Information Associations, Bibliothek & Information Deutschland (BID).
In their keynote addresses, Khaled al Dhaheri, Ellen Tise, the designated IFLA president 2009-2011, and current IFLA president Claudia Lux, set the stage for the two-day event by raising a series of issues and questions - ranging from the promotion of literacy to establishing digital library collections and networks - that would be repeatedly addressed by the other contributors, each of whom added his or her own culture's perspective, thus giving multi-faceted and varied insights into the shared, but also differing, concerns of their respective countries.
Arguing for 'The Development of the Information Society as a National Obligation', Dr Khaled al Dhaheri asserted that in a time when the exchange of knowledge and information has considerably accelerated – in the Arab world as much as in Western countries – libraries, in order not to become 'relics of the past', have to keep pace with these developments. In his talk, Al Dhaheri pointed to the urgent need to build up ICT infrastructures and to develop the necessary skills both in library staff and in the general population, a point that would be frequently reiterated during the conference. He then continued by outlining the ADACH's concept of a decentralised national library of Arabic and Islamic culture, with satellite branches in different regions which function as local centres of cultural heritage catering to the specific needs of each region.
The necessity of building regional knowledges was also asserted by Ellen Tise in her address 'Libraries for Access to Knowledge: Information Services and Information Literacy Today'. Focusing on libraries' role in achieving the UN millennium goals for developing countries, Tise pointed to the different challenges faced by libraries in information-abundant societies, and in societies where information is scarce. She stressed the importance of having public libraries which enable their users to become active participants in change by helping to establish an 'inclusive knowledge society' based on the principles of equity, co-operation, and sharing. Among the tasks of such libraries, according to Tise, was the 'repackaging' of information globally available and merging it with indigenous knowledge in order to make it useful and valuable for local communities. While on the one hand Tise thus stressed the important role libraries play in providing access to information, knowledge, and expertise, she also pointed to their obligation to record and preserve indigenous knowledge, as without such local knowledge, other, 'global' information would be useless.
After giving a short overview of the development of digital libraries and the challenges they currently face (cost, legal, and technical barriers), Claudia Lux's address, 'The Digital Library as Social Challenge' , focused on the importance of digital libraries in developing a global knowledge society. Thus, Lux argued, by giving all libraries - and hence the people they serve - free access to open, digital content, the gap between information-rich and information-poor societies and people can be diminished. Highlighting IFLA's efforts in creating an awareness of the importance of free access to information (e.g. in the work of the IFLA Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression, FAIFE ), Lux urged the participants of the conference – in tune with the motto of her IFLA presidency – to put 'libraries on the agenda' and to enter into constructive dialogues with policy- and decision-makers in order to create a strong and lasting basis for future co-operation.
The speakers of the first session dealt with questions of co-operation on the one hand, and considered digitisation projects and their role in giving access to (cultural heritage in the form of) digital knowledge on the other.
In their talks, Irina Sens and Barbara Schneider-Kempf gave a German perspective on the issues of co-operation and digitisation. Speaking about 'Excellence Through Co-Operation', Dr Sens presented Goportis , a portal providing access to the entire collections of the German National Libraries of Science and Technology, Medicine, and Economics (Zentrale Fachbibliotheken). Barbara Schneider-Kempf gave an overview of the work of the 'Orientabteilung' , the Oriental Collections Department of the Berlin State Library, with a particular focus on the digitisation, transcription, and cataloguing projects carried out in co-operation with a number of German and international partners.
Dr Sohair Wastawy's talk, entitled 'Synergy of Cooperation: Examples from Arabic Countries', set out by explaining that one of Egypt's major challenges resided in its comparatively low number of publications and readers. Claiming that 'a nation that doesn't read is a nation at risk', Wastawy repeatedly emphasised the importance of facilitating access to knowledge by removing political, technological, social, and economic barriers . Urging the Arab world to tackle ICT infrastructure issues, to increase computer and information literacy among all citizens, and to address the need for a balanced IPR legislation, Wastawy addressed the need of increasing Arabic content on the Internet and gave an overview of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's efforts to provide access to cultural heritage and other knowledge/information in digital form. Among many other projects , the Digital Assets Repository and the Arabic Digital Library it houses , stand out as exemplary attempts to make cultural heritage publicly available in digital form. Thus, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has come to an agreement with 42 publishers in the Arab world to include their material in the Arabic Digital Library. So far, 100,000 books have been digitised and are now available either openly through the Internet or, where the material in question is not yet in the public domain, via computers within the library.
In his presentation, 'Providing Access to Knowledge in the Arab World: The Role of AFLI as a Professional Society', Dr Saad Azzahri, former president of the Arab Federation for Libraries and Information (AFLI), revisited the four barriers inhibiting the access to knowledge introduced by Sohair Wastawy (political, technological, social, and economic). Focusing in particular on existing language barriers, not only did Dr Azzahri reiterate the fact that the Arabic content on the Internet failed by far adequately to represent the vast amount of Arabic knowledge in existence, but he also emphasised how much attempts to employ new (digital) technologies for libraries were being hampered by difficulties in making relevant software available in the Arabic language as much as by the fact that many librarians do not speak English very well. In the light of such challenges, Azzahri regarded it as crucial to establish and expand professional training for librarians, a task that has been addressed by AFLI. Thus, for several years now, AFLI has been offering professional training for librarians in a considerable variety of fields, ranging from cataloguing to IT and marketing. As feedback to the workshops and training courses shows, there continues to be a great demand for such programmes. Just as important as professional training was the sharing of expertise and resources, and hence Azzahri strongly emphasised the need for networks and collaboration between libraries in the Arab world and beyond, pointing to the AFLI conferences as excellent forums for exchange and networking.
The presentations in the second session focused on information literacy and Higher Education issues on various levels, ranging from attempts to implement information literacy education in the university curriculum (Lebanon) to establishing ICT infrastructure and distance learning programmes (Indonesia) or reading promotion (Malaysia).
While Gladys Saade-Azar spoke about the difficulties university libraries in Lebanon are experiencing in convincing both professors and students of the necessity to implement information literacy education in the curricula, Dr Zainal Hasibuan's presentation focused on building up ICT infrastructure in Indonesia (a challenging task in a nation comprising thousands of islands) and, more particularly, the (technical) infrastructure for distance learning programmes and resource sharing between libraries - i.e. infrastructures prerequisite to reducing existing digital, information, and knowledge divides. Thus, Higher Education institutions in Indonesia have been addressing the following tasks:
Among the results of these efforts is the LONTAR (Library Automation and Digital Archive) Digital Library System developed at the University of Indonesia, allowing libraries to manage their local collections at the same time that it facilitates metadata sharing between institutions by acting both as a service and a data provider . At the University of Indonesia, the LONTAR search functionality is integrated in SCELE (Student Centered Learning Environment) , a Moodle-based e-learning platform providing access to distance learning courses. In addition, SPEKTRA, a network of digital libraries in Indonesia provides a union catalogue and a management system for digital library content, thus further enhancing the potential for resource sharing among institutions .
In her talk 'Information Literacy in a Multicultural Environment', Ms Shukriah Haji Yon gave an inspiring overview of the PPLC's efforts to provide library services to all citizens of Malaysia, regardless of their ethnicity or place of residence. Thus the PPLC has developed a closely-knit network of libraries, both in urban and rural areas. These comprise 'village cyber-libraries' (with Internet access computers), mobile libraries, a children's library, and branches in shopping malls. All of these libraries are connected to the Internet and hence give their users access to both local and global, traditional and digital resources, while at the same time functioning as community centres and meeting places. An example of the PPLC's efforts to reach the entire population of Malaysia is the 'Every Baby a Book' Programme , launched in 2007 in co-operation with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. Entailing the distribution of a non-toxic, colourful cloth-book with local content in Malay and English, the programme seeks to make parents and carers aware of the learning processes of their children and instructs them on how to stimulate learning with the help of suitable reading material.
With the contribution of Mr Driss Khrouz, director of the National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco (BNRM) , the conference returned to the topic of 'Cultural Heritage and Digitisation'. Khrouz presented a large-scale digitisation project currently being carried out by the National Library with the objectives both of preserving and making accessible Moroccan cultural heritage. On the one hand, Khrouz pointed to the usefulness of digitisation in undermining the illegal trading of rare manuscripts; on the other hand, for the BNRM, digitisation is a means of putting material back into the National Library which is no longer there in physical form, thus making these valuable pieces of cultural heritage available to the general public. Arguing that 'the digital material of today is the cultural heritage of tomorrow', Khrouz urged all participants to be 'future-minded' in their approaches to digital material, highlighting at the same time the importance – especially for Arab countries – of facilitating access to ICT infrastructure and digital materials for the entire population (including women and young adults) in order to prevent knowledge divides from opening up or widening.
In her talk, 'Library Concepts of Digitization in Europe and Worldwide', Dr Elisabeth Niggemann, director of the German National Library and Chair of the European Digital Library Foundation, presented the concept and basic infrastructure of Europeana . The digital library portal (currently available in a beta version) is meant to provide access to 'the cultural collections of Europe' and will contain metadata of digital objects from museums and galleries, archives, libraries, and audio-visual collections; it will in particular make use of the metadata contributed by 48 national libraries to The European Library . Niggemann continued to explain how Europeana, rather than being a repository storing the digital objects themselves, works with content providers and various aggregators (e.g. the German Digital Library and other national portals) who make available and bundle the relevant metadata. In order to make the content of Europeana visible and accessible on a global scale, co-operation and partnership with the World Digital Library  is envisioned in the future.
In the final talk of the meeting, 'Chances and Challenges in Worldwide Digital Cooperation', Dr Al-Sanabani returned to the question of removing barriers and fostering co-operation on the local, regional, national, and international level. In order to meet the challenges confronting libraries in Yemen and other Arab countries – in particular, according to Al-Sanabani, a lack of IT specialists, bibliographic tools, standardisation, and technical infrastructure – according to Al-Sanabani, a pan-Arabic co-operative initiative, based on cultural agreements and facilitating the sharing of resources and the exchange of information, is of utmost importance. In this context, he asserted the importance of AFLI's role as previously outlined by Dr Azzahri. At the same time he voiced an urgent need for Arab countries to overcome the international language barrier, thus enabling global access to the cultural heritage of the Arab world as well as giving Arab countries access to global (digital) knowledge.
In the final panel discussion, representatives from Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Germany addressed, among other questions, the relationship between libraries and politics/the government in their countries. On this occasion both the differences and the similarities between the challenges libraries are currently facing around the globe became once more apparent. Thus, nearly all contributors with Arabic and Islamic backgrounds identified illiteracy and a lack of (sometimes even most basic) ICT infrastructure as among the most serious problems in their countries, while libraries in information-rich countries were currently more concerned with reducing the complexity of the wealth of available material by bundling and filtering information. Yet, among the most important outcomes, not only of the panel discussion but of the entire conference, was certainly the realisation that, despite differences in language and culture, in all of the countries represented at the conference, libraries were currently pre-occupied with solving problems largely of a very similar nature. For example, everywhere libraries and their partners are struggling to put 'libraries on the agenda', that is, to work together with policy- and decision-makers in order to find ways of removing cost, technological, and legislative barriers - barriers that exist in Western countries as much as in the Arab world.
Even though there were a few conspicuous absences among the issues discussed (particularly questions of gender inequality and censorship were hardly addressed), at all times the atmosphere was one of openness. The organisers succeeded in inspiring a dialogue among all cultures and nations represented about establishing co-operation on local and global levels - co-operation, it should be said, of a decidedly 'democratic' nature, among equal partners mutually benefitting from exchange and collaboration. Only by means of such co-operation will it be possible to preserve the cultural heritage of the Arab world in digital form, and to make this invaluable material accessible both locally and globally in a manner that overcomes barriers of language and culture.
The author attended the conference as part of a group of German Library and Information Science students whose visit to Berlin was sponsored by the BID and the ADACH. I would like to thank both organisations for making it possible for me to participate in the conference.