Speech: British Library International Programme

I was honoured to be invited to speak alongside Dame Carole Black, Chair of the British Library Board at the recent event celebrating their International Leadership Programme. A summary of my speech is provided below:

Thank you so much Dame Carol and the British Library team for giving me this opportunity to address you today.

I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about milestones.

2023 is an auspicious year for milestones. My own organisation, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals is currently celebrating 125 years since the granting of our Royal Charter.

We were founded, 125 years ago, at the first international librarians conference to be held in the UK. Librarians from all over the world came together to share ideas, to build connections and to reinforce our common values.

I have a copy of the agenda of that event in my office. It is an agenda that would seem remarkably familiar to us all as librarians today. The issue of opening hours, of the relatively poor employment conditions of librarians, of how to maintain our professional status and the challenges of new technology – at that time the telegraph and its corrosive effect on communication.

For 125 years, we have stood for a belief in empowerment through libraries, learning, literacy and access to knowledge. Not as a British or even Western principle, but as a global set of values that unite our profession.

This year, we also celebrate the 50th Birthday of this extraordinary institution and the launch of its new strategy, Knowledge Matters. I took a moment to re-read the debate of the original Bill in Parliament which led to the foundation of the British Library, and enjoyed this from Viscount Eccles in the 3rd reading of his bill on the 16th May 1972:

“I do not take the view that those who come after us will discard reading books in favour of some electronic devices. Of course they will want to acquire information by the most effective method, but they will also want to enjoy themselves as individuals and to withdraw from the hurly-burly of a world which looks like becoming more crowded, more restless and more noisy. For that reason I think that for as long as any of us can look forward our library system will be a real asset in the quality of life of this country; and at the top of that system we are now creating the British Library.”

For 50 years, this library has stood as a symbol of access to our common fund of knowledge – not just in the UK but through the connections that the library has been able to forge around the world. I believe that at heart all libraries are one library – a tapestry of knowledge, learning and dialogue that spreads across the world, and this library is one of the most precious jewels in that tapestry.

2023 also marks the halfway point in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals – the 17 global challenges set out in 2015 to shape our global collaboration towards a better world.

The Goals speak to some of our most urgent priorities as librarians and information professionals. The eradication of poverty, including increasingly information poverty and digital exclusion. Guaranteeing quality education for every child and dismantling the structural inequality experienced by women and girls all over the world.

Working towards a sustainable planet and a just transition to Net Zero carbon emissions.

And yet in his speech in New York just this week UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted how Governments around the world are struggling to achieve progress toward the goals, saying:

“We need ambitious national commitments and interventions to reduce poverty and inequality by 2027 and 2030. And clear policies, investment plans and partnerships to drive progress across major SDG transitions.”

As librarians around the world we are not just united by our common belief in empowering people through literacy and learning. We are united by a professional responsibility to use our skills and ethics to help our societies be more just, more inclusive, to unlock more of the creative potential of their people.

I think the British Library’s international programme plays an essential role in building bridges, creating lasting connections which enable us to come together, share our experiences and reaffirm our shared commitment to building stronger and more inclusive societies.

Thank you

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