Libro Futuro

“Librarian, traveller, optimist”. Mario Coffa interview Christine Mackenzie (IFLA President)

intervista in italiano

Christine Mackenzie is President of IFLA and a freelance librarian. She has had a 40-year career in public libraries in Australia and has held a number of roles in IFLA. She was President of ALIA (Australian Library and Information Association) and is a co-founder of the INELI Oceania program and the Pacific Libraries Network. She has served on state and national government advisory boards relating to libraries and has contributed to international organisations promoting technology and the internet.

As President of the IFLA you must have come across a lot of different realities and different conceptions of librarianship around the world, as experienced through the amazing Great Public Library Tour. What differences and diversities struck you the most?

The first thing I would say is that there is more that holds us together than keeps us apart! The key finding from IFLA’s Global Vision project was that we are united globally in our goals and values. Wherever I have been, I find librarians to be committed, passionate and resilient. While the most obvious differences arise from the resources provided by funders, the mindset of librarians has the most significant impact on the services and programs. Well funded and resourced libraries are innovative – and so are those that are not. One of the most impactful programs I know about was run on a librarian’s front porch on Sunday after church in a small village in Fiji. And I have also seen the very best of new ways of thinking in the libraries of Aarhus, Denmark and Tilburg, Netherlands. I have seen the pride in the unique collections of palm leaf manuscripts in the National Library of Myanmar in Naypydaw, and the incredible presentation and curation of the history of Qatar at their magnificent National Library. I have been told of the outreach to settlements by the Public Library of Durban and to remote communities by the State Library of Queensland. I have visited the biggest public library in the world in Guangzhou, China and the small public library in Surabaya in Indonesia – both packed with people studying and learning and appreciating the facilities and collections provided.

Your term of office overlaps with one of the most tragic periods of the past decades for human society, the COVID epidemic. Libraries – already plagued by difficulties – have suffered a severe blow. What can we do in the next future in order to rise up?

In September and October last year, the IFLA regional office for Asia and Oceania and the National Library board of Singapore presented a series of conversations about libraries in the post COVID world. Leaders of national, public and academic libraries in the region participated, and they described what was happening in their libraries, how they were managing through the pandemic and also how they think the future will look. After participating in all these conversations, there seems to be some common themes emerging. We are working together more and sharing information, for example, there is a lot on the IFLA website about how libraries are managing their programs and services during the pandemic and it is a real strength of our profession that we are so good at sharing information.
We are increasing our innovation and creativity and there are all sorts of ways that librarians are continuing to provide services even though library buildings have been closed. Librarians are learning all sorts of new skills – from providing different kinds of academic support, to delivering online storytimes. School libraries have been particularly impacted as many schools have moved to online learning. And as distancing measures are in place in many public places, libraries have had to adapt their buildings to continue to provide services safely. And significantly, all of the participants recognised that there are serious concerns about resourcing into the future, as governments grapple with economic crises exacerbated by COVID 19.
I think we have to emphasise how libraries have risen to the challenges of the past year and how they have shown that they are essential to community wellbeing. And they become even more important in the post pandemic world with increased unemployment and the greater emphasis on living and working online.

Digital tools have dramatically entered not only in the work of librarians but also in the daily lives of people (families, teachers, students, etc.). Do you think this can be the pretext for libraries to finally make that qualitative leap we were hoping for and have been discussing for years?  

Yes I agree, and I think that this is already happening. In public libraries so many programs have moved online and it means that a new audience can now access learning and creative programs and become part of a virtual community. At IFLA we have seen how our professional units have moved enthusiastically and skilfully into different ways of interacting, with virtual meetings and webinars – something that had started before 2020 but has now really accelerated. The Governing Board is another case in point – over the past year we have had to reconsider how we meet; and we are getting a lot better at recognising we can’t just recreate physical meetings on zoom;  that we have to rethink how we interact and plan our time. Our next big innovation will be delivering the first ever IFLA WLIC as an online conference. This is an exciting innovation and it is amazing to see how the platforms are developing to create a great experience for delegates. It also allows many more colleagues to join in and participate, because it lowers the barriers of attendance both in terms of money and time.

As the world is rapidly changing, ever more digitized and demanding, so are the activities and tasks that librarians have to deal with every day. What is, in your opinion, the best way to capitalize the skills and knowledge that come from long-life learning?

I think back to the advent of Library 2.0 in the mid 2000’s. Social media was emerging and a very smart librarian, Helene Blowers who was at the Public Library of Charlotte Mecklenburg at the time, created an online learning program for staff. This program highlighted that working in libraries means we have to keep learning, and also that learning can be fun and engaging. We rolled it out at our library in Victoria, and then more widely. Thousands of librarians around the world have now done the 23 Things program. What I really appreciated about this was that it got people thinking differently about continuing professional development. I am excited about the proposed IFLA Academy which will include the learnings from another very successful global program developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries called INELI (International Network of Emerging Library Innovators) which emphasises online learning and networking. The pandemic has forced library workers to learn new skills and this encourages confidence and success breeds success!

How can IFLA actively contribute to support the global process of growth and enhancement of libraries?

We say that IFLA is the global voice of libraries and that we have two main roles – firstly, to advocate for libraries at the highest level, such as the United Nations, UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organisation; and secondly, we are here to support the global library field. During the pandemic we have been facilitating the exchange of information about how libraries are managing challenges and opportunities and there is a webpage that is full of examples and stories of what libraries around the world are doing. As we face the future, more than ever the mission set out in the IFLA Strategy matters – inspire, engage, enable and connect. IFLA will continue to inspire, guide and provide tools to libraries and associations so they can keep on finding solutions to challenges, seize opportunities, and provide excellent services and effective advocacy. We have just finalised a new structure for IFLA that emphasises increased participation and representation. We are well positioned to continue to support individual library workers, institutions and associations to be a strong and united library field powering literate, informed and participative societies.

We live in the age of social media. I love the description of yourself in your Facebook board: “librarian, traveller, optimist”. Is that your secret, professionally speaking?

I love being a librarian and can’t think of any other profession that could have served me better. Having been a public librarian all my working life, the privilege of being president of  IFLA to close out my career is the absolutely best thing that could have happened. Unfortunately, being a traveller has come to an abrupt end! One of the wonderful things about being a librarian is having a network of generous and supportive colleagues around the world, and I have truly treasured the opportunities to visit libraries in many countries and share with other colleagues the best that the library world has to offer. And yes, I’m an optimist. One of my wise former bosses had a saying Things will turn out all right in the end and I had a quote from Goethe on my desk at work – Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it. 

When she’s grown-up, Rachele wants to be a librarian. Have you got any suggestions for her?

Well I would definitely encourage her! I would tell her that libraries change lives and she will find that being a librarian will provide her with many opportunities. She will be surprised about the variety of roles and specialities that will be available to her. She could be fostering young children’s reading and literacy; or managing digital objects; or preserving intellectual heritage; or showing seniors how to be safe online; or providing research services; or even being president of IFLA! I hope Rachele is convinced that this really is the best profession in the world.



Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa archivista e bibliotecario, laureato in Conservazione dei Beni Culturali presso l’Università degli Studi di Perugia (2005) e diplomato in Archivistica e Paleografia presso la Scuola di Archivistica dell’Archivio Segreto Vaticano (2010). Dal 2010 Lavora per CAeB (Cooperativa Archivistica e Bibliotecaria) presso le biblioteche dell’Università di Perugia come bibliotecario e come archivista presso l'Archivio Storico del Comune di Gubbio. Si occupa di Biblioteche Digitali e formazione in ambito di biblioteconomia digitale. Nel 2014 membro del Comitato Esecutivo Regionale dell’Associazione Italiana Biblioteche (AIB) sezione Umbria, membro del gruppo AIB sul portfolio professionale e nel triennio 2017-2020 Presidente eletto di AIB Umbria. Dal 2020 membro dell'Osservatorio Formazione dell'Associazione Italiana Biblioteche. Autore di diversi articoli e interviste per Insula Europea sul tema degli archivi, delle biblioteche e del digital lending.


One thought on ““Librarian, traveller, optimist”. Mario Coffa interview Christine Mackenzie (IFLA President)

Comments are closed.