Libro Futuro

“Going Global!”. From EBLIDA to IFLA. Mario Coffa interviews Gerald Leitner

Intervista in italiano

Gerald Leitner took on the role of IFLA Secretary General in June 2016. He is responsible for the strategic and operational direction and financial management of IFLA. Gerald Leitner has worked in senior positions at international organisations and in Austria’s cultural, scientific and educational sectors. Prior to becoming IFLA Secretary General, he was the Secretary General of the Austrian Library Association. Gerald studied literature and history at the University of Vienna, and after his studies worked as journalist, chief editor of the Austrian Library magazine and head of training for public librarians in Austria. He is a past president of the European Bureau of Library Information and Documentation Associations (EBLIDA) and a member of national and international advisory bodies in cultural, education and scientific sectors. He is highly experienced in negotiating with politicians, authorities, lobby groups, publishers, artists, businesses and strategic partners. He has published extensively on themes around cultural management, library development and science, law, and literature promotion, in various languages. He has also lectured at the University of Vienna and the University of Eisenstadt in Austria. He has been awarded the Austrian State Award for Adult Education, the Austrian State Award for Public Relations, and the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art. In 2017, Gerald Leitner initiated the Global Vision project.

Gerald, you are currently the General Secretary of IFLA. Can you briefly tell us what you do in your role and what it means to have such a great professional responsibility?

According to IFLA’s Statutes, my role as Secretary General is to oversee the management of the Federation. What this means in practice is that I have the privilege of leading a dynamic and committed team at IFLA Headquarters which works with our volunteers around the world to deliver on IFLA’s vision and mission. It also means that no day is the same. I work closely with IFLA’s President, Barbara Lison, to prepare the work of our Governing Board, which sets priorities and guides the work of IFLA with an eye to the future. I often participate in events both with IFLA Members, learning about the great work they do and helping them to see how to make the best of their engagement with IFLA, and with external partners, building contacts and alliances that benefit the field as a whole. And of course I work closely with staff on major projects, such as our World Library and Information Congress, and new website which I was proud to launch last August. It’s certainly the sort of job where there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything, or to achieve for IFLA all that I would like. There are also always new discoveries – even after five years as Secretary-General, I am still discovering new things about our Federation. But of course, when I get the chance to step back and look at all that IFLA is doing, it gives me so much energy.

You certainly have an international vision of the libraries and culture sector at 360 degrees, especially thanks to your role in EBLIDA. In your experience, what are the perspectives and scenarios towards which our libraries go? Can innovation and the digital revolution process underway contribute to the improvement of our reference services (and more)? 

One of my duties as Secretary-General is to take a strategic outlook, assessing the forces and trends that will shape the future, what they will mean for libraries and the communities we serve, and in turn, how IFLA can help bring about the most positive outcome possible. Clearly the rise of digital technologies and business models are a key factor here! We cannot deny that digital has had a major and disruptive effect in many areas of library work. It has turned information scarcity into information abundance, it has replaced some library services, and it has created new ways for people to spend time which compete with reading. However, I do not think this should be a cause for regret or resentment. Libraries have shown that they are able to respond, to change, to find new and even more impactful ways to serve their communities. Those who predicted the demise of libraries have been proven wrong. Even in a digital age, the power of library skills, values and buildings are essential, perhaps more essential than ever. This change is not going to stop. Technology will continue to advance, potentially taking over some of our tasks, creating time for others. More and more aspects of our lives will take place online (the pandemic has likely only foreshadowed this), meaning that the cost of digital exclusion will continue to rise. Existing information policy challenges will intensify, and others will emerge, underlining the importance of information literacy. In short, I believe that we need therefore to be optimistic realists. We need to be able to embrace new technologies, while keeping our eyes open to the risks that they bring. We need to cherish the long tradition and expertise we inherit, without being afraid to change when this is what is needed to fulfil our missions. Crucially, we need to be able to explain why the unique combination of qualities that libraires bring together are worth investing in, given the positive impact they have on lives.

“Going Global!” (“Going Global”) was the motto with which you had the honor of presenting the 2018 IFLA Congress (WLIC 2018). What does this expression mean to you?

From early on in my time in the library field, I have made sure to factor the international dimension into my work. I believe strongly in how much we can gain, not only from learning from colleagues around the world, but also acting together. I have been lucky to be able to do this through engaging in European projects, leading EBLIDA as its President, and of course now as IFLA Secretary General. In each of these, I have tried to share my passion for working internationally, and help others to benefit from what it can bring. When I became IFLA Secretary General, I therefore wanted to do something that would really unite and strengthen the global library field, giving colleagues worldwide a sense of being part of a worldwide community, and setting us on the way to being able to respond effectively to shared challenges. In effect, to ‘go global’, both in the way we think about ourselves, and in the way we act. This was the IFLA Global Vision initiative, launched in 2017. Over two phases, this looked first to come up with a snapshot of our field, and in particular our strengths, concerns, and priorities, and then to work together to identify ideas for actions to respond. With the participation of over 30 000 people, from 190 countries and all continents around the world, we saw an extraordinary, and truly global, engagement in this. I really encourage everyone to take a look at our Global Vision Summary Report released in 2018, which sets out ten pairs of highlights and opportunities – what we’re good at already, and where we may need to work more – as well as a key finding. And of course, I urge everyone to look at the IFLA Strategy that resulted from this work in 2019. This is designed to provide a framework for our work as a global field – not just the actions of IFLA’s volunteers and headquarters staff, but also of our members, in order to make the most of potential synergies with libraries and library associations globally.

A young student tells you that one day he would like to be a librarian. What would you suggest to him? 

I would encourage him! In particular, I would want him to understand that not only is he entering into a profession with a unique history, and unique role to play in improving lives and societies, but that he is becoming part of a truly global field. This creates possibilities to build networks, to reflect on the big issues that face us, to gain from new perspectives, new ways of thinking, It adds a whole new dimension to your work! IFLA has an excellent New Professionals Special Interest Group, as well as a special rate for student affiliates, so there are excellent entry paths. Moreover, as part of the governance review changes that entered into force in IFLA in August 2021, we have worked to create new opportunities for engagement, and support for future and new professionals. Making the space for engagement with associations, nationally and internationally, may not always be easy, but it is so rewarding on both a personal and professional level. Of course, in turn, associations like IFLA, depend on energetic, passionate people ready to share their ideas and time in order to work at all. So join us!




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.


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