Libro Futuro

Librarians in New Zealand. From the 2030 Agenda to our profession. Mario Coffa interviews Winston Roberts

Intervista in italiano

Winston Roberts is the Chair of the Asia-Oceania Regional Division Committee of IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), an international NGO, and Vice-chair of IFLA’s Regional Council. He formerly worked for IFLA in The Hague as its Coordinator of Professional Activities from 1990 to 1998. He is a member of the Advisory Committee of IFLA FAIFE (Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression), and the committee of the IFLA Section of National Libraries. He works as Senior Business Advisor (International) in the Office of the National Librarian, at the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington. He advises on the National Library’s stakeholder relations with peer organisations overseas, and with international professional bodies. He monitors developments in intellectual property, public access to information, protection of cultural heritage, and information society issues in general. In 2003 he was a member of the New Zealand delegation at the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, and in 2005 he was Head of the New Zealand delegation at the second WSIS in Tunis. Since then, he has continued to monitor information society developments including the global multistakeholder arrangements for Internet governance set up by the WSIS. In his work for the library and information sector he promotes activities which support the process towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2030. He is a personal affiliate of IFLA, a member of LIANZA (the New Zealand library and information association) and a member of Internet New Zealand. At meetings of the Asia-Pacific regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF) since 2013 he has organised and convened workshops on behalf of IFLA, on community access to information and digital information literacy. He is a member of the management committee of APrIGF.

Winston, to start, can you tell us briefly about your work and what you have been doing over the years?

My degree from the University of Canterbury (Christchurch, New Zealand) was in French language and literature. I discovered early on that I had a knack for languages, la bosse des langues. I started out as a teacher of English in France in the 1970s, where I found adult learners more interesting (because more motivated) than students (well, it was not long after Mai ’68!). After a few years I decided I did not have a vocation for classroom teaching, but definitely had a vocation for endless discussion (in various languages) and for communicating information – hoping of course to change the world, as young people do. So I began working in the library sector, which I reckoned was the best place for people passionate about communication and information. I got a job working at the British Library Lending Division (as it was then called) in Boston Spa. As a sideline, I taught French classes and learned Russian, at Leeds Polytechnic. In 1979 I answered an advertisement by IFLA looking for conference interpreters: they gave me a trial run, took me on, and that’s where my involvement with IFLA really started. While at the British Library, for several years I travelled to the annual IFLA conference where I did simultaneous interpretation between French and English (starting with Manila, IFLA’s first congress in Asia). After moving to the BL in London, I was seconded to the IFLA Universal Bibliographic Control programme, so I became a publisher of bibliographic standards and a small house journal for initiates. In 1990 I took up the position of Coordinator of Professional Activities at IFLA Headquarters in

The Hague. That job took me all round the world, including to the IFLA regional offices in Dakar, Bangkok and Sao Paulo, talking with IFLA members, building professional relationships, explaining policies, encouraging vocations, organising seminars, and learning ways to resolve intercultural misunderstandings within a professional context. And in those days all meetings were organised by fax machine, imagine. I learned Spanish, which helped with the organisation of IFLA congresses in Cuba and Barcelona, and I learned Dutch (because how can you live in a country with so much art and engineering wonders and cycle paths and bruincafes, and not love the Dutch language?). Then in 1973 we discovered the World Wide Web, we invented IFLANET, and communication with IFLA members became easier and faster… in some cases. I learned a lot during 15 years in the UK: the delights of drinking beer in old pubs in the Yorkshire Dales, commuting by Tube (not such a delight) to the BL in the BM building where I worked in the round Reading Room, and I Iearned a lot also in 15 years in Europe: how to summarise that? I saw many inspiring and beautiful things in museums and art galleries, and I walked in East Berlin behind the Wall, and saw the ruins of the Frauenkirche in Dresden before it was rebuilt – that was thanks to working at the IFLA conference in Leipzig, where I spoke with the interpreters from Soviet Bloc countries and discovered that their perfect English did not come with perfect understanding of the world. At IFLA I advocated to UNESCO for library sector issues, and advised UNESCO on a new thing called the Memory of the World programme, and administered UNESCO PGI funding for IFLA projects. I drafted the Manifesto for the Public Library in 1994. I learned about the problems of book conservation in tropical climates, about inequality and poverty not just in the ‘developing world’ but in all countries, about the importance of reading including for those with disabilities; how education is always the answer. In the end I had to come back to New Zealand, at the end of my parents’ life, I realised I had been away much too long: that was traumatic. I joined the National Library, where I have been working on the Library’s international relations. In 2003 and 2005 I represented New Zealand at the World Summit on the Information Society, where the need for better governance of the Internet was recognised; and since then I have worked to bring together different conceptions and definitions of ‘information’.

Where did your passion for your profession come from?

I ‘found’ the profession of librarianship by a long and circuitous route (my birth sign is Cancer: so, you understand, many steps sideways accompany the steps forwards!). I am a linguist by inclination and training, and a communicator by firm conviction, operating in the field of words, but using words for a purpose, to do good. I never started out in life with the intention to become a librarian – I did not even like the word ‘librarian’, as it seemed to imply someone who was trapped among many bookshelves, someone who was defined by his or her place of work. But these were childish prejudices: what I did not realise is that I was trapped among the stereotypes of a small conservative colonial society – but I did feel obscurely that I needed to get away. I was brought up by parents who were teachers, who believed in equality and justice, who fought to build the Welfare State in NZ (the second after Sweden), who read books to their children, who went to Church on Sunday, and fulfilled their duty to contribute to society, and collected funds to send to developing countries in the Pacific, our neighbours. I got from my parents a passion for learning about the world and New Zealand’s place in it, which I did at first through books and later by going ‘overseas’ to see for myself. I found the profession of librarianship – another word that I don’t like, but there seems to be no alternative in English – by a process of discovery and reflection. But I still prefer the term ‘information professional’, which FID once tried to introduce into common usage.

What does it mean to be a librarian in New Zealand? Is there a social and legal recognition of the profession?

It means to have a passion for helping people by providing them with the information they need – whether that information comes in published form or unpublished, whether analogue or digital, whether electronically or on some physical medium. Librarians need vast knowledge to interpret the world. They must also try to understand and interpret the interaction between the Maori world view and the more ‘European’ world view of pakeha New Zealanders. And they must serve clients from a wide range of different ethnic backgrounds, as New Zealand’s population grows with immigrants from Asia and the Pacific, and refugees and asylum-seekers from other regions. Librarians need the compassion and skills of teachers and counsellors, as well as the skills of budget managers and advocates.

The library profession in New Zealand is one of the most trusted (surveys tell us!), it enjoys great ‘mana’ (respect, status, in Maori). What librarians do is not codified in law, but the national library association LIANZA is recognised by law, and LIANZA has formal processes for developing and recognising the skills and experience of its members.

You have an international vision thanks to your role at IFLA. Also in view of the 2030 Agenda, how do you think libraries are evolving? Do you believe that the Covid-19 experience has impacted our profession and the way we understand and live it? 

I think my international perspective is clear from my responses to your first questions. In many ways I am an optimist, a ‘hopeful traveller’ through life. But one thing I have learned is how little the different regions of the world really know about each other, and how much that ignorance can become a threat to tolerance and peaceful coexistence. I believe strongly in the value of the 2030 Agenda, because each of the SDGs is science-based, they stand up to close analysis. But countries were slipping behind even before the Covid-19 pandemic, it must be worse now. The problem is the same as with measures against climate change: governments may agree in principle, but implementation, against obstacles and resistance, and budgeting for that implementation those are the problems. I assume the SDGs will be adapted, so that the world will have some achievements to show in 2030, in terms of sustainable development. Libraries can and do contribute to that process, by their services which support education and research. I don’t believe that will change. I don’t believe we should ‘over-analyse’ libraries’ response to Covid – the response has been practical, it has conformed to public health guidelines. However libraries are aware that trust in information has suffered: librarians are also on the front line of the struggle against misinformation and disinformation.

Digital has been a key feature during these pandemic years and in many cases has contributed to the forced closures of many libraries. What’s your opinion about it?

‘Digital’ underpins all services in modern society, we cannot do without it. The Internet must be well governed, for the common good. Services in all sectors of society and the economy may be provided in hybrid mode, according the needs of individual customers. We cannot blame ‘digital’ for library closures: that is an excuse, covering decisions taken for administrative or even political reasons. Library services will continue to evolve, and working digitally will help them: we cannot go back to a pre-digital world order.

This project, the Library World Tour, aims, based on sharing, to create a network between librarians from all over the world and colleagues like you who defend this splendid profession every day. Do you believe that projects like this can contribute to the sustainability and enhancement of our profession?

I believe it can, if it accumulates a critical mass of enough professionals who want to make it work, and provided the people who participate remember that they are doing it not just to enhance their own profession, but to promote the values and objectives of the profession: we should be not internally focused but externally focused.

What would you recommend to a young student who would one day want to be a librarian? 

First ask yourself what you understand by the term.. A ‘librarian’ may in fact be a book conservator, a trained teacher, a materials scientist, a planner, an interior designer, a programmer, a writer of advice manuals, a web designer, a public relations manager as well as an expert in cataloguing and subject classification. All of those different specialisations require training, and a knowledge of society. Do your training, and travel, and then come back to the library and see if it still is what you thought it was when you were a young student.


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 “Librarians in New Zealand. From the 2030 Agenda to our profession. Mario Coffa interviews Winston Roberts

Comments are closed.