On November 7th, I had the privilege of speaking to a wonderful set of librarians at the Sharjah International Library Conference (SILC) in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. This conference brings several hundred librarians together from all over the world as a part of the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) and is organized in part by the American Library Association (ALA) as an aspect of their international outreach efforts. There were a number of US-based librarians that were invited to participate, including Wanda Kay Brown, ALA President and Director of the C. G. O'Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University. The reception and interest in the work of US libraries by the international community never fails to inspire me.
The SIBF is so large and overwhelming that it is an event best described in statistics: 2.52 million visitors to the Fair this past year, which was composed of over 2000 publishers from 81 countries. It is a massive undertaking and was so large that it beggared belief. To provide some context for comparison, you may be familiar with the huge Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which tops out at just under 200,000 attendees, practically quaint compared to the numbers of people coming through SIBF.
The Library Conference portion of SIBF is significantly smaller, with just a few hundred attendees, although the diversity of those in attendance was a welcome change from traditional library conferences that I have been a part of elsewhere in the world. ALA President Brown remarked during her opening keynote address that it was the most diverse crowd of librarians that she has ever spoken to, and that is equally true for me.
The diversity of the attendees and speakers wouldn’t have been obvious, though, if you were only looking at the titles of some of the presentations, a fact which reinforces how very similar library issues are regardless of location. See if you can guess from where these presentations originated:
- Oral Histories: A Role for All Libraries
- How to get People to Use the Public Library
- Libraries Fostering Tolerance in Their Community
- Libraries and Information Freedom
The answers, in order, are Kuwait, Egypt, UAE, and Tunisia. The wonderful librarians who delivered these sessions (Asma Al-Kanan, Library Director, American University of Kuwait; Ahmed Aman, Coordinator of Misr Public Libraries; Eman Bushulaibi, Director of Sharjah Public Libraries; and Imen Aloui, Library Director, Ecole Nationale d'Ingenieurs de Tunis) were exemplars of the sort of universality of the library that never fails to inspire and re-solidifies my belief in the importance of the profession.
I had the opportunity to present two talks at SILC, the first of which was the plenary keynote for the second day of the conference, Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning in Libraries, and the second of which was an overview of blockchain and decentralization technologies and their potential effects on the information ecosystem. These were well received, with many questions and much interest in the areas of emerging technologies for libraries.
The focus of the plenary presentation on artificial intelligence (AI) was to set a baseline both for what AI is capable of now and what it might be capable of in the near future, along with a discussion of how the rate of change of digital processing has changed our expectations. The presentation then moves into a discussion of how basic pieces of the research process are likely to be changed by machine learning systems on the vendor side, and what that might do to the library and librarians as patron expectations and efforts move to closed-system artificial assistants.
The conversation around blockchain and decentralization was far more basic, concentrating on introductions to the concepts around blockchain. The primary focus of this presentation was to try to illustrate how information expectations and flows change when systems are decentralized and there is no central authority related to communication systems.
The conversations that I had with librarians at SILC were uniformly positive and wonderful. There is a sameness to the people that are drawn to the service of the library, to helping people to be more informed, to dedicating themselves to the freedom of people in the world to be inquisitive and to seek knowledge to make their lives better. This, combined with the overwhelming nature of the scope of the Book Fair, and watching thousands and thousands of UAE children browsing the books and coming away with new ideas and new information, made me feel honored to be a part of the ALA outreach effort.