Polish American Librarians
Embrace “Global Vision” in Wrocław

Strengthening Poland-USA Library Connections

Some 330 American librarians attended the 83rd World Library and Information Congress August 19-26 in Wrocław, Poland. Convened by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, the IFLA conference is the world’s largest such gathering, bringing together 3,100 top-level library and information science and technology professionals from academic, public, school, medical, scientific, and government libraries from 122 countries. Among the delegates from the United States were several members of the Polish American Librarians Association who helped staff the American Library Association exhibition booth and disseminated material about Polish libraries and cultural institutions in the USA.

Bringing the weeklong IFLA congress to Poland was something of a coup for the Polish organizers, and it proved to be the perfect time to showcase Poland’s blossoming economy, regarded now as one of the healthiest in Europe. A mere 20 years ago, a meeting of the library federation in Poland seemed like a pipe dream to many Polish and Polish American librarians, but the emergence from communism of a democratic and capitalist Poland has been strong and steady. As the library profession’s major international organization, IFLA offered a rare opportunity for U.S. librarians who serve the Polish American community to influence and learn from their colleagues from Poland and around the globe and to raise awareness of the Polish diaspora. This congress marks the third time IFLA has met in Poland in its 80-year history. The other conferences occurred in 1936 and 1959, both in Warsaw. The abundance of fresh paint and consumer goods evident in post-communist Poland, however, belies the urgent need for information professionals in government and business to harness information technology in the service of education and knowledge, especially in view of the changing demographics of immigration and the widening gap between rich and poor.

Among the delegates from the United States were members of the Polish American Librarians Association (PALA), including President Leonard Kniffel of Chicago, Vice President and President Elect Ewa Barczyk of Milwaukee, Krystyna Matusiak of Denver, and Iwona Bozek and Krystyna Grell from the Polish Museum of America Library in Chicago. They helped staff the American Library Association exhibition booth and distributed material from Polish libraries and cultural institutions in the USA. Marek Sroka of the University of Illinois Library delivered a paper about his research in a little remembered Rockefeller Foundation project that funded the rehabilitation of Eastern European libraries following World War II.

From the American Library Association’s booth in the exhibition hall, PALA members distributed information about Polish American libraries and cultural institutions and talked with visitors from every part of the world. PALA is aiming for Affiliate status with the ALA but needs to maintain a stable membership of at least 100 people to do so. At the American caucus early in the conference, PALA President Leonard Kniffel urged American librarians to join, saying, “You don’t have to be Polish and you don’t have to be a librarian to support PALA’s efforts to improve the representation of Polish and Polish American history and culture in library collections, programs, and services—the basic reason for PALA’s existence. PALA is currently about 40 members short of the 100 members necessary to seek Affiliate status.

The Polish American delegation arranged a meeting with Polish Library Association President Elżbieta Stefańczyk, who was also a cochair of the national organizing committee for the conference, and mapped out a strategy for cooperation that will benefit Polish and Polish American librarians and library patrons. The Polish Museum of America Library in Chicago, for example, holds many books and materials that are not available in Poland because of the destruction that occurred during World War II. The Polish Librarians Association, on the other hand, offers access to Polish genealogical and historical resources that American librarians can use to help their patrons with their research. Regular exchange of information via the organizations’ websites and newsletters is planned.

The exhibition boasted some 60 exhibitors–high-tech companies, university and trade book publishers, and professional associations, including the Polish Library Association, which is headquartered in Warsaw. Around its periphery, 248 sessions involved the delegates in seminars, meetings, and presentations that fostered discussion of the similarities between libraries, no matter where in the world they are located.

The congress allowed Polish American librarians to raise awareness outside the Polish community. Many members of the American delegation began the congress by trying to learn how to pronounce Wrocław, which invariably led to laughter and then into a serious exploration of the city’s history and architecture and pre-World War II life as the German city of Breslau. A breathtaking dance and acrobatic performance, as well as a cultural evening with a light show and an elaborate array of Polish food, from peasant to haute cuisine, made Wrocław’s historic and technologically well equipped Centennial Hall (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) the ideal venue for the congress, which convenes annually in a different spot around the world—Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2018.

Overall highlights of the Wrocław congress included the news that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is awarding IFLA a $31.1 million grant for a project to unite the entire library profession around a “Global Vision” for the essential role that library information science and technology professionals play in economic development, the quest for knowledge, and the preservation of cultural heritage. The grant caps the foundation’s 15-country $13.5 million investment in the “Global Libraries” program, which aims to improve the lives of 1 billion “information poor” by 2030 by positioning the world’s 320,000 public libraries as “critical community assets and providers of information through relevant technologies.”

“Where were you going, Poland, before you were so rudely interrupted?” asked Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski during his keynote address. The professor of Polish-Lithuanian history at University College London summarized hundreds of years of Polish history during which the interruptions of war and foreign domination prevented Poland from “moving toward modernity without autocratic monarchs or violent revolution.” He reminded the international audience that the democratic Polish Constitution of 1791 was the second such document in the world, preceded only by the American Constitution of 1789.

Digitization of rare and unique library and archival material is accelerating in Poland at breakneck speed, said Krzysztof Szubert, a strategist for Poland’s Ministry of Digital Affairs, who pointed out that Poland currently has the distinction of being the fourth fastest growing economy in the European Union and is looking toward a “digital data driven future” where “data is a catalyst for economic growth.” Making information freely accessible for public use in libraries and archives is one of IFLA’s core values, but the ministry, like the international library federation, must also support equitable copyright law that is fair to those who create the data in the first place.

At the closing session. Wroclaw Mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz praised the congress theme of “Libraries. Solidarity. Society.” and the national pride so evident throughout the congress, but he asserted that “nationalism” is quite another matter and librarians understand the difference. “Nationalism is like a sweaty man who needs to take a shower,” he asserted. “Take a shower Europe. Take a shower Poland,” he said.” Having just launched the quest for a unified international professional vision for libraries, the audience cheered Dutkiewicz with a standing ovation.

Founed in 2010 and based in Chicago, PALA is an institutional member of IFLA. Librarians and library supporters alike can learn more about the Polish American Library Association on its website at www.palalib.org, the American Library Association at ALA.org, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Global Libraries at GatesFoundation.org. For complete World Library and Information Congress coverage, visit the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions at IFLA.org.


Statement to the American Caucus at IFLA August 19, 2017, by PALA President Leonard Kniffel

Dobry wieczór. Zapraszam wszystkich do Polski. Good evening and welcome to Poland. Polish people have lived in the United States for over 400 years, beginning in 1608 in the Jamestown Colony, and there are ten million Americans of Polish descent in the U.S.A. today, making it the largest diaspora of Poles in the world. I am one of them, as I know many of you are, and I am currently President of the Polish American Librarians Association, or PALA, as we call it.

This is a very special IFLA for members of PALA, a dream come true that IFLA is back in Poland where it has met only twice before, 1936 and 1959. We’ve waited a long time. One way that some of us will be participating in the Congress is by helping to staff the American Library Association booth in the Exhibition Hall, including myself from Chicago and PALA Vice President/President Elect Ewa Barczyk from Milwaukee, Iwona Bozek and Krystyna Grell of the Polish Museum of America in Chicago, and Krystyna Matuszak of Denver. We will be distributing information about the Polish Museum of America and other Polish-American organizations.

PALA is already seven years old, and we are recruiting members in order to apply for formal Affiliate status with ALA this year, so please stop by the ALA booth and pick up a membership brochure. We need to get our membership back up to a hundred, and we are about thirty members short. You don’t have to be Polish to support the goals of PALA and to help us improve services to the Polish community and raise awareness of Polish history and culture in the libraries of America.

Also, if any U.S. delegates need assistance in a discussion with Polish colleagues here in Wrocław (or if you just want to practice saying “Wrocław”), PALA members would be happy to assist, so please come to the ALA booth. And while you are there pick up a free copy of my new book, a childhood memoir titled BusiaSeasons on the Farm with My Polish Grandmother. We have fifty copies to give away, courtesy of ALA and PALA, to encourage you to support us with your membership. All proceeds from future sales of the book will benefit the Polish Museum of America in Chicago and the new Hamtramck Historical Museum in the historically Polish community of Hamtramck, Michigan.

Come and see us in the ALA booth. I welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions, as I am reporting on this conference for the Polish American Journal, a widely read English-language newspaper for the Polish-American community.

Dzękuje Bardzo. Thank you very much.