How to IFLA Right

Through generous professional funds offered in conjunction with my post as a resident librarian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, I was able to attend the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) at its 2016 meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Here are a few tips about how to navigate IFLA.

Networking ain’t cheap, yo.
My participation in IFLA as a volunteer based in the Midwest– the same region where the conference was being held– cost $1,500. Again, as a volunteer, that sum excludes the registration fee. Participants should expect to pay upwards of $1,000 to participate. Here are some of the more specific costs of my experience:

Flight: $484
Hotel (for six nights): $480
Meals + Taxis: $300+
Registration: $280- $1,000+ (for students, non-members, etc.)/ $0 (for volunteers)

Seek support.
While attending the IFLA conference is expensive, we are not without hope. Typically there are opportunities to see the cost significantly subsidized. For example, this year, 50 IFLA IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) fellowships were awarded to students and LIS professionals. Agreeing to volunteer for a minimum of three shifts eliminated the registration cost for more than 350 participants this year alone. Also, some highly specialized awards exist, too. Are you a first-time attendee? Are you a marketing whiz? Are you from an Arab country? Here’s a page that documents a history of other types of grants that have been awarded for IFLA attendance in the past.

Ceremonies, keynotes, sessions, posters, tours, vendors, institutions, etc.
As listed above, there are certain events and meetings that make up the majority of IFLA’s annual programming. Each meeting has an opening ceremony which may include performances, special guest speakers, panelists, international LIS workers presenting their research, companies selling their products, and schools advertising their programs. So everyday, there is much to see. One goal that may not be obvious to the first-time visitor is that IFLA aims to highlight the local region’s attractions. In Columbus, this included their nationally ranked zoo and local libraries like the Columbus Metropolitan Library. You may want to consider making some of the touring opportunities a priority.

E’rbody’s real linked in.
If you plan on attending in the future and don’t have a data plan on your phone, you might want to get one. While our venue at the Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC) in Ohio had its own wireless capability, it was popular to follow the live stream of reactions to the many activities and speeches in the moment. In true LIS fashion, the librarians and library workers wanted to document the event and the hashtag #wlic2016 (World Library Information Congress 2016) was all atwitter– literally– for the duration of the conference, August 13th- 19th. There I could find all the comments, photos, and highly anticipated talks. If not a phone, another device with wireless access will do fine.

Not all swag is good swag.
There will be tons of freebies: bags, candy, pens, brochures, etc. You will likely be tempted to hoard it all. In the end, however, when you are determining what you can take home in your carry-on luggage, you will need to limit the weight of your baggage. Be selective about what you collect at the conference. If what you are picking up is going to eventually end up in the trash, just leave it. On the other hand, if you see something small in abundance that your co-workers back home will appreciate, consider bringing them a souvenir. Indulge selectively.

Representation is tricky.
One of my jobs was to direct attendees to language stickers they could apply to their ID badges that would indicate the languages they spoke. The stickers, however, only represented the official languages of IFLA: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish. Moreover, the images displayed on the stickers were of certain countries’ national flags. So, if you spoke Korean, Portuguese or Yoruba, which are not official IFLA languages, there was no sticker to represent these languages. And, if you were Mexican, Chilean, or Costa Rican, and wanted to represent the language you spoke, you had to use a sticker representing the Spanish flag from Spain, much of Latin America’s former colonial power. This paradigm set up some conflict of opinion with some attendees outrightly refusing to apply the stickers altogether.

Not everyone is who they seem.
I sat down to have lunch before a volunteer shift and chatted with the young women sitting near me. Across the table was a red-vested volunteer like myself that looked a lot like Santa Claus: white, male, and with abundant facial hair the color of snow. Turns out he was a Middle Eastern studies specialist and had studied languages from the region for years. As a student of Arabic, when I found out all this information about him, I started asking him all sorts of questions about his career. Had I judged him exclusively on his appearance, I would not have learned nearly as much about his experience with international collections and would have missed out on making a meaningful contact.

Attend the party.
Like anyone else, librarians get down after hours and IFLA accommodates. What does that mean? They like to party, chat, dance, move, and consume responsibly. At this particular conference there was an event with a live-band, a sound system, and bodies moving to the rhythm. Even if you don’t shake it fast, after a day of poster sessions and talking to vendors, you can enjoy being a spectator on the periphery.

IFLA has a “mature” following.
The average age of attendees at the conference was likely in the late 40s to mid 50s. This might be because new professionals must creatively search out ways to fund their participation and more seasoned professionals have access to funds that prioritize their participation in professional organizations. For the younger generation of librarians, IFLA is a wonderful opportunity to network and seek out potential collaborative opportunities with library workers holding senior positions. Have your business cards at the ready.

There’s no one way to do it right.
Not participating in tours is okay. Skipping the opening ceremony is acceptable. Seeing the sights near the local venue is allowed. Taking long breaks and chatting someone up in a cafe from overseas is welcome and even encouraged. And attending half of a talk is also fine. Attending conferences requires energy and every attendee approaches them differently. While the schedule is prepared quite some time in advance, it is advisable to highlight some features that are of definite interest and then create a loose agenda. The contact I made with people I knew in the halls of the venue and the people I met waiting in line at the Starbucks formed some of my most memorable moments of my experience. So be flexible and open to adjusting your plans. IFLA 2017 will be held in Poland and IFLA 2018 will be in Malaysia. It’s not too early to start planning your participation now!

Katrina Spencer works in Madison, Wisconsin as the university campus’ Diversity Resident Librarian. She is interested in promoting international and area studies collections. For more on her activities, see

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