Libro Futuro

What is a library?  Who is the librarian? Mario Coffa interviews Anna Maria Tammaro

Intervista in italiano

Anna Maria Tammaro is Editor in Chief of the Digital Library Perspectives magazine and Editor of the Digital Heritage Column of the International Information and Library Review magazine. Since 2000 he has taught in Parma in the Bachelor’s Degree course with the teaching “Digital Publishing” and in the Master’s Degree course with the teaching “Digital Library” and has coordinated two International Masters taught in English: the MAIS International Master (International Master Information Science) and the Erasmus Mundus DILL Master (Digital Library Learning).  You have designed and implemented (2016) the MOOC “Digital Library in Theory and Practice” in the European EMMA platform. She is Director at Large of ASIS & T, she was Secretary of the European Chapter of ASIS & T and Officer of the SIG Digital Library and SIG Education for Information.  She was Chair of the IFLA Education and Training Section (2007-2011) and Chair of the IFLA Library Theory Section (2013-2017);  she is a member of the IFLA Governing Board (2007-2009; 2011-2013).

She was a founding member of AIUCD (Italian Association of Humanities and Digital Culture). She was a member of CEN AIB (2014) dealing with Continuing Education and Publishing until November 2015 when she resigned.  You have participated in the activities of the AIB Training and Profession Observers in two previous CEN mandates and have been Vice President of the AIB Tuscany Section.

Let’s start from the origins: how and what brings you, along your long and very rich career, to approach the world of books, digital publishing and therefore libraries?

I would like to take a cue from my career to briefly outline the history of library automation that I experienced with many colleagues of my generation. In 1972 I started working as a librarian at the University of Rome, it was the first competition for the role of academic librarian.

From the very beginning I have been involved in library automation and have become a pioneer of service innovation by applying the most advanced technologies. I collaborated on the first online services for remote users, such as the catalog of periodicals now called ACNP, the online catalog of the four Universities of Lazio (COBBUL Project), ALMATel a cooperative effort to build a Library Web portal, the interlibrary loan implementing interoperability between software, the reference service searching the first databases online, and finally the launch of Firenze University Press. In 2000 I won a researcher competition at the University of Parma and I began my academic career with the first course on the digital library and collaborative courses between European universities.

Every automation project involves reorganizing the work structure. This is the job of leaders and cannot be delegated to bureaucrats. I met administrators and politicians who trusted me from a very young age. Rector Ruberti appointed me to coordinate the automation of the university libraries of Lazio. I then moved to work at the IUE (European University Institute), then at the University of Bologna and the University of Florence, always with a coordination role for the university libraries.

I resume your triad: book-publishing-libraries to update and comment on it. The necessary update concerns information services. Also in Italy we now use another triad to define the discipline, in acronym LIS Library Information Science. Over time, librarianship has been combined and contrasted with Bibliography, Bibliology, Documentation, Information Science. The difference between the various concepts is not of form but substantial and in Italy the radicalization of the terms has even led to distortions such as theorising the division between the community of experts (academics) from the community of librarians (professionals). The ISRDS (Institute for Research Studies and Scientific Documentation) of Prof Bisogno was the center of Documentation in Italy, leading the first experiences of automation of libraries and information services. I recognize that attending ISRDS was a real fortune for me: I was able to learn the theoretical and practical principles of Information Science in an international context. I am really sorry that with the early death of Prof. Bisogno, the ISRDS has been closed and the new generations have lost this center of international and disciplinary reference.

Another comment that I would like to clarify is that innovation does not mean improvisation, on the contrary it implies study and continuous education. This clarification is necessary because it often surprises me to hear dear Italian colleagues say that education is useless. I can definitely say that I would not have gotten the same results if I had stopped studying once I was hired. Some courses have greatly influenced my career, such as the Graduate School of Archivists and Librarians, the graduate courses of Computer Science and Humanities by Tito Orlandi, the Cobol programming course at the Faculty of Statistics, among all the courses those that really transformed my behavior were the Masters and PhDs I did at Northumbria’ University in Newcastle.

Professionally, your range of action also goes beyond the Italian borders and you know the international scene very well;  this has allowed you to have a very broad overview of what is happening in Italy even compared to other countries.  What can you tell us about it?

I would like to clarify that international and comparative librarianship should be understood as defined by Peter Lor in his book “International and comparative librarianship” (2019): the international dimension serves to extend cooperation between libraries, be inspired by good practices, develop library theory. I think it is a mistake to distinguish between a national and an international profession. Describing the differences, for example, between the so-called Anglo-Saxon librarianship and the librarianship of southern Europe has no scientific basis, it only highlights a dangerous tendency to isolate themselves.

Society is undergoing profound change and IFLA has identified at least five trends that are impacting libraries around the world. Library transformation is a global phenomenon and Italian libraries are no exception. There is a principle that unites the global transformation of libraries: the user must be put at the center. All libraries recognize the importance of this user-centric principle, but the implementation varies: the variable is given by the vision of the library being pursued and by the professional methodology for the design of new or renewed services.

Having said that, making comparisons with other libraries, starting with the European ones, can be useful to better understand how to apply the concepts and principles of librarianship to different contexts and different communities. For example, when I was a member of the CEN AIB, I organized a study trip to Switzerland to explore the solutions created for Open Access and Information literacy in Swiss libraries and take inspiration from good practices.

In Italy there is a limit to international cooperation given by the language. To counter this problem, I worked to have Alison Pickard’s manual of research methods (2008) and the Lankes trilogy (Atlante della biblioteconomia moderna 2013; Biblioteche innovative 2020; The Librarianship Field guide in progress) translated.

I chose Pickard’s Research Methodology Handbook, because it is the methodology behind good management. It is also a pillar of any advocacy program, which needs evidence of data and facts. Research methods include analysis: you need to be able to highlight what to improve and know how to give an operational follow-up after analyzing users’ needs and expectations. Reading the Italian professional literature, the gap in the application of research methods is evident. For example, in information literacy programs, Italian librarians hardly start from a survey of users’ needs, in the same way at the end of the course they rarely make an evaluation of the results or rather of the impact.

The vision and mission of the community library is often lacking, or does not have a clear line of development, there is no communities focus. It seems to me that the official statements of Mission are full of high-sounding words and that they often apply conceptual models elaborated by influential people such as glasses to see the library, but ignore the communities. Even in the face of the evidence of some failures, librarians never reflect enough on the lessons learned. The translation of Lankes’s books aims to guide the participatory design of services which is the basis of modern librarianship. Far from being a doctrine, the three books on community library (the third being translated) clarify criteria and methods to be applied for different communities.

Since 2007 you have been an institutionally part of the IFLA world in different roles.  In your opinion, what goals and prospects may present themselves in the short and long term for libraries and librarians in terms of professional recognition?  IFLA and the national associations, what role do they play in this?

Since 2000 I started collaborating in IFLA Section Education and Training SET, for my PhD I wanted to investigate the quality criteria of university education. The report I made on behalf of IFLA is a guidance document which is now being updated. In 2016, I led a global research on the Data Librarian profile. What is common thread? the identity that characterizes the profession drives the transformation of librarians as the birth of new profiles.

The paradox is now that society is questioning the future of the profession, just when librarians could do their best to help improve society for example by working to tackle inequalities, empower critical thinking and contribute to social justice. IFLA leads the realization of the Global Vision of libraries as champions of a better society and has a responsibility to advocate internationally. IFLA’s approach is to encourage professional associations to keep the professional level of their members high and advocate locally and nationally. From these joint efforts, the recognition of the professional role of librarians is improving. The strategies used to keep the professional level high are two: one internal and one external to the professional community. The internal one is aimed at the professional who is now aware of his social responsibility and stimulated to increase his portfolio of experiences and knowledge. The external strategy is aimed at making society aware of what it should expect from librarians by carrying out active advocacy programs.

However, there is no third strategy, namely that of recognition by law: I know some librarians would like this automatism, an office investiture of an accredited institution. In interviews of your excellent Library World Tour project you always ask professionals from around the world a question about professional recognition. What do you mean? you do not intend to recognize the minimum level right? There are enormous problems in society, librarians must take responsibility and give their maximum not their minimum, they are professionals, not bureaucrats!

I find many young Italian colleagues around the world, with successful careers and I always ask myself: Could they return to Italy and have the recognition? The answer I often give myself is negative. But not because there are no legislative tools and procedures to establish the equivalence of academic qualifications, the tools are all there! The reason for the non- recognition of those wishing to return lies in the problem that in Italy there is no professional level adequate to their skills (equivalent to 7 or 8 of the European EQF system). AIB is also a victim of this downward trend: it has chosen the UNI standard as a single standard for all librarians at a basic level (5-6 EQF). Continuing education is also established at the minimum possible: one credit per year, only 25 hours dedicated to learning. Italian librarians seem to be satisfied with this downward choice! I think that Italian librarians underestimate themselves, they have chosen to be modest and keep a low profile, they also accept underpaid contracts, perhaps because they want to continue to do the best job in the world, but substantially give up the professional role of improving society.

You are a founding member of AIUCD (Italian Association of Humanities and Digital Culture);  social media, digital platforms and digital literacy: how are libraries adapting to this “revolution” (which has been going on for years)?

Technologies have had an impact on all sectors, starting with the information professions, but each sector has chosen to transform itself or, as you say, make the “revolution” on its own, like silos. This crucial historical moment has highlighted that the discourse of professional identity often focuses on setting disciplinary stakes by dominant groups and setting boundaries between disciplines. Unfortunately, teachers are the main culprits of these rigidities.

Information schools (“iSchools”) have made a different choice and approach the relationship between information, technology and people differently. This is characterized by synergy between different disciplines for learning and an in-depth understanding of the role of information in human activities. The iSchools were therefore born with the aim of promoting multidisciplinary “fertilization”.

We cannot speak of an interdisciplinary revolution in Italy, but neither of multidisciplinary fertilization. The first computer schools were born in Italy in the 70s without collaboration with the humanities sector. However, I can name some experiences of excellence that go in the direction of interdisciplinarity. The first is that of the Department of Engineering of Padua with Maristella Agosti who has always sought collaborations with experts in the humanities area. The other is the one at the CNR in Pisa with Costantino Thanos and Bruna Baldacci. Even today, these experiences represent the interdisciplinary collaboration by organizing the multidisciplinary conference on the Italian Research Conference on Digital Library (IRCDL). My move to the Information Engineering Department in 2012 is set in this context of interdisciplinary collaboration. I continue to collaborate with the Department for some European projects dealing with research data, games and training, where an interdisciplinary team is needed.

The experience of digital humanities with AIUCD made me understand the importance of a broader discipline such as Information Science that offers principles and a theoretical framework for all information sectors. In 2016 we organized a Seminar in Florence at the Humanistic Library entitled “Digital Humanities, Digital Libraries and Information Science: what relationship”?. This Seminar highlighted some positive results of transdisciplinary collaboration, such as the Latin digital library of Maurizio Lana. The Seminar also highlighted some issues of common interest, such as the organization of knowledge. Synergies can therefore be represented by a model based on the information communication. However, this starting point finds an obstacle that is unexpectedly reborn: the separation between “experts” and librarians. There is a distinction between the practice of LIS (librarianship, archival, document management, library management) and the academic discipline of LIS. AIUCD has not so far made explicit reference to LIS as a discipline.

In summary, Information science encompasses the various interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary problems of the information cycle and is essential for the theoretical foundations it offers. I can say that I have found in ASIS&T a multidisciplinary community in which I recognize myself perfectly. I deal with Professional Development, we are organizing a Global conference for 24 hours and the Information Science Summit in 2022 which I hope Italian librarians will also want to take part in.

Finally: what is a library for you? Who should be the librarian?

Usually this question is asked in a temporal perspective, associated with the past or the future but the present is neglected. I answer your question from the perspective of present innovation: is there a community library in Italy?

During the first Library World Tour of Lankes, a series of Conferences entitled: “Library Renaissance” were organized, which introduced the discussion in Italy on community libraries and on the community librarian. Three years later, a Dossier from the journal Biblioteche oggi was published (May 2020) which included a description of about ten libraries of various institutional types that have launched innovative services with participatory communities. In my opinion, there are three pillars on which the renaissance of libraries in Italy is based.

The first pillar is certainly the librarian. Those who undertake the design of innovative services to realize the community library, must be able to make a profound cultural change by clearly assuming a social role and leaving a clerical approach. I think of a librarian like the “Greta” of libraries, who takes the responsibility of becoming proactive in an unjust society, has the courage to take unpopular positions against disinformation, is in favor of the excluded and able to communicate to society the urgency of certain actions. Some librarians are already taking on this social role and demonstrating how society can be improved. They never cease to surprise me: I imagine that every morning when they enter the library they ask themselves: what will I do to surprise the community today? what will improve their life? The best results achieved so far concern the partnerships that have been launched, new alliances for example for the Sustainable Development Goals. However, the expanded role of supporting democracy which includes (but is not limited to) access to information still needs to be clarified.

The second pillar is to focus on the community. The communities, however, are not usual users, the elite around 20% who habitually use libraries. Communities are the excluded, the many among the remaining 80% of non-users who have different needs because the communities are different. Communities are not only those linked to public libraries but include communities linked to universities, research institutes, schools, hospitals, ministries. Entering into “empathy” with communities means knowing how to start from their life problems. There is still a lot of ambiguity in Italy in defining the concept of community library (and other neologisms that decline the social) because we start from the library (that is, we are still Library-centric) instead of starting from the Community. There are also Manifestos, which although created to clarify the intention of libraries to be Community-centric, disappoint because they remain intentions and promises. The community library speaks with facts, rather than making promises and chattering.

The third pillar concerns the innovative services that characterize the community library (i.e. not just a collection, not just a physical space). These are the services that want to solve a problem of society, which are co-created and managed together with the community following practices such as Design thinking, which plan a measurable impact on communities. The availability of innovative services alone does not generate an impact in itself: it must be clarified that it is not an impact to give numbers as users attracted to the library and increase the frequency of the loans. We are full of creativity, there are many innovative services, but we still don’t know how to evaluate their impact. Let’s say we are a bit of a “butterfly” and do not leave a phase of continuous experimentation.

After the experience of COVID-19, we have a moment full of opportunities: all Italian libraries have experienced that the library offers services even if the collection is inaccessible and the physical space is “tight”. They reached out to new communities that had never entered the library before this critical situation. Libraries understood the importance of staying connected every day with communities in two-way communication. In conclusion, I expect a library renaissance in this opportunity-filled phase from a new generation of professional librarians. So Mario, let you start to change!




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 “What is a library?  Who is the librarian? Mario Coffa interviews Anna Maria Tammaro

Comments are closed.