Sinikka Sipilä: Strong libraries, strong societies

Trends, conferences, working abroad and experiences. These are the main topics of interview we did with Ms. Sinikka Sipilä, the current President of International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA).

During international student conference BOBCATSSS 2015 which took place in Brno this year, we had a unique opportunity to meet Ms. Sipilä and ask her a few questions. On second day of the event, she delivered a very inspiring keynote speech on the role of libraries in society and their impact based on her personal work experience.

We would like to thank Ms. Sipilä once more for her time and willingness to answer our questions.

Could you please sum up your keynote speech for our readers?
In my keynote speech, I spoke about IFLA first. IFLA is a global organization that is representing libraries all over the world. And I talked about some IFLA activities like Lyon declaration and that IFLA Trend Report. It’s now very important for IFLA to talk about it and ask libraries to start to think about their future, because the environment will change. That was the main message in that document. And then I spoke about my theme which is: “Strong libraries, strong societies”. I believe that libraries have impact on society and help people in many ways in their life. That’s how they also make communities and societies strong and can help people in many ways. Also, the theme of the conference at that day was Participation and I also have taught about participation in libraries and how libraries can support it. I also mentioned that many libraries nowadays involve users in planning - for example, the Helsinki Central Library which you can see on video here. That was my speech.

You also mentioned five trends of global information environment. Are some of them more important or recent than others?
It depends on the country, I think. Because development is quite different in various parts of the world, the trends aren’t the same in all countries and that’s why IFLA asks libraries and librarians to discuss them. I did not mention that’s the aim of the Trend Report. IFLA wants libraries to talk about those trends and compare them with the situation in their own country and see what are the trends in other countries. Is it the same as in the report? And how can we best prepare ourselves for the future in libraries? The digital environment is everywhere. We are also part of it and it is changing and affecting our services. So, I cannot say what is more important or less important because it depends.

If I may ask, how many countries do participate in the Report?
Well, there were about twenty experts - economists, lawyers, sociologist and others. Only one librarian was among this group. And later, there was another group from other professions. Some were American and South African, but there were not many Europeans.

Next, we would like to ask about conferences since we are talking at a conference. How often do you visit conferences as president of IFLA? And what do you think is their meaning for the community?
Now, when I am president, I visit one or two conferences a month, because it is my work now to represent IFLA. And I think the conferences have a huge influence in every country and every place where they take place. It helps them to network if they haven’t met before. Like this group here – you know each other very well – but I think we gained new partners through this conference. So, organizing it is definitely a good thing, but so is participating. It is another possibility to network for people who come there. I find this very important - to share information and get ideas for your own work. It’s the same here. Now I know much more about many projects that are underway in different countries which is really good.

During the closing ceremony, there were several talks about evaluation of this conference. I wonder what your opinion about BOBCATSSS 2015 is?
My opinion is very positive. I have been really impressed by it. It is my first BOBCATSSS and I don’t know what the previous years were like, but this is just perfect. And I also said to the Czech colleagues I met now in the city library (Jiří Mahen Library) that the work done here is really amazing. That the conference was first hosted by you and it is done perfectly. I don’t know how could it be done better - every detail like graphics, venue and dinner. All this food here is just perfect. Very well done, really. I enjoyed it.

We would like to ask what your first thoughts were when you were invited to speak at BOBCATSSS?
My feelings when I got the invitation were just “wow”. I saw those advertisements in library saying that this kind of event takes place every year. I was wondering what kind of event it is. It must be very interesting because it’s organized by students, so it’s something new and also new trends are the topic there. But I never really had the chance to come and I was curious if it is only for students and teachers, so maybe I wouldn’t be able to come. But now I was able to, because I was invited, so I was really happy.

What are the biggest benefits of this conference for the library and information science community from your perspective?
For instance, you can share information on so many projects here, in form of speeches and posters. The information sharing is one of the biggest benefits. But the networking follows up very closely. You should network when you’re studying, with colleagues and students from other countries. I think that’s a very good opportunity for you to build on later and learn, or maybe travel to another country and work there for a while. Because many people from our association ask: “How could I go to another country to work there?” We can help them by sending this request to another library association in another country and they can search for library you can work in. But if you already have personal contacts, it is easier to go and ask somebody to help find a place for you.

Okay, so if I wanted to work in a foreign library I could send a request to IFLA, and they could help me with finding a place?
I think if you know which country you want to go to, it’s better to contact the national library association in that country, because they have a contact list of all libraries. And they usually have a list server where people discuss, and they share that information there. That’s what we have done. But IFLA doesn’t have this kind of service, they cannot help you with this kind of request.

In your speech, you mentioned you spend a lot of time abroad working in libraries. How do these experiences influence you and your work?
Yes. In fact, those projects I mentioned, most of them are - well, I was an advisor, not working there, but I was very familiar with what happened there. I was working in Tanzania, in the library of the ANC refugee centre SOMAFCO, but I was involved in other projects too. But that time I was there in Tanzania, it was very interesting. I must say that it really opened my eyes to see a different life than here in Europe. Because it’s a very hard life there, many people in Africa struggle to survive, and they still try their best to serve people in libraries, with very scarce and little resources. It really opened my eyes when I saw that. This work is important, especially there, where there are too few libraries. They need many more, but the large population and long distances to libraries are a problem.

The Finnish Library Association has another project nowadays in Tanzania and in Namibia, where I’m also an advisor. IT skills are taught to librarians there, so they can teach people. And that’s very important, because otherwise, they are out of the loop, because so much knowledge is now on the internet, therefore they have to know how to use it. And libraries are the places where they can find a free to use computer.

What was the most remarkable experience in this part of your career?
Then and also now, I have been travelling and visiting libraries. I very much like to see how enthusiastic people are about their work, everywhere. This is - this work is something that people really do with their heart, and really want to help people by providing information and answers to their questions. I have also been very passionate in my work in libraries, therefore I really like that work and how it can help people. In my presentation, I spoke about those library stories gathered from users in Finland, how they had been helped by librarians in many situations in their life. And that’s why I find libraries so important. They can reach a very intimate area of one’s life. It can help people in those personal questions. And that’s, I think, very important. Not only the intellectual questions, but also the personal questions, For instance, how to find a new kind of career, search for information about it and finally think: “Maybe I could do this if I have lost my job.” These questions are very practical, but also personal at the same time.

Okay, and the last question: what is your impression of Brno? Are there any big differences between Brno and Finnish cities?
Oh, yes. You have many more big beautiful buildings, old buildings, and castles here. At least one here, big one (mentioned Špilberk Castle). We have some castles in Finland, but in the Czech Republic, you have so many of them, everywhere. So it’s a big difference. Brno is the same size as our capital, so it’s quite familiar in that way, but the atmosphere is different, because Brno is older. I don’t know how old Brno is, but you can see it in the architecture, so I feel very good here. You can see it at the city library too, as it’s in a Baroque palace, but it’s a very modern library with latest innovations. That is such a good combination. I really felt good there, and I said: “This is really a library for people and I’m sure they love it.” And they are developing new services all the time. They are going to open a cafeteria in March and there’s a very nice place for computer users who can come straight from the street, so it’s very open to people. It’s good part of this old city. I’ve been really impressed by the architecture. And some of the Finnish students also said, “When you just raise your head, you see so many nice beautiful details in every building.” That’s so beautiful, really.

Who is Sinikka Sipilä?
As mentioned above, Ms. Sipilä currently works as president of IFLA in 2013-2015 term. Her presidential theme relates to developing strong societies by contribution of libraries and their activities. Here you can read the full text of her theme. Since 1997, she leads the Finnish Library Association as Secretary General. Her work experience includes heading both academic and public libraries. She has also participated in a number of international projects (Africa and Asia).

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