Dr Ellen Tise, President/ IFLA, in Colombo

"I am so glad I have been able to reach out to this part of the world since it’s my first time in the South Asian region." And she did reach out since she met the presidents of library associations of most of the SAARC countries and plenty of Sri Lankan librarians. Dr Ellen Tise, President of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) was here to attend the International Conference organized by the Sri Lanka Library Association as the final event of celebration of its golden jubilee, with the theme – Libraries; Access to Information and Empowering People.

Dr Tise is certainly a woman to be admired. Election to the presidency of the world body of library associations is tough; she had to contend against probables from the US and the Netherlands. Her winning the most number of votes at the IFLA meeting in 2007 to be voted President Elect was an achievement for a woman, and coloured. In 2009 she became the President of IFLA for a two year period. (I will refer to her as Ellen since that’s how I addressed her during our three and a half days involvement with the conference, its inauguration, dinners and visit to Kandy.)

Ellen calls for immediately being taken notice of and then follows admiration. She is dignified, yet extremely humane and feminine. She will make an excellent, weighted-with-serious-issues address and then when chatting laugh uproariously at something said. During my chat with her to get personal details, she and I spent spells lasting two minutes or more, just laughing at something one of us said. Her many personality facets are admirable. I am sure she is a hard worker and a stern senior director of the J S Gerioke Library of the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. She is most definitely fully committed to her job as IFLA President, visiting countries, deciding policy and doing her major portion to raise librarianship to what it should be. "What I value most, treasure most, is the enrichment which comes through exposure and opportunity to bring countries together through their library associations. It’s inspirational since our work is strongly social, educational and cultural as we reach out to different parts of the world, different countries, different peoples in a strongly pro-active manner."

Her presidential theme, selected when she was elected President IFLA is "Libraries Driving Access to Knowledge". She gifted us bookmarks, very appropriately, with this theme on it and over a black woman’s head these words: "Growth, development, democracy, prosperity, wisdom, health, freedom" - her ambitious aspirations for the future not only of libraries and librarians but for the world itself. To her the key enablers for access to knowledge are librarians who are more user-oriented, active in advocacy, creating partnerships and fostering opportunities for convergences with stakeholders through facilitating access to information in "an enjoyable, comforting and exciting space and /or place." That last I particularly like since libraries are no longer places of silent sternness, uncomfortable physically and emotionally, as they were when librarians were more strict custodians than benign givers and servers.

The name South Africa immediately brings up the idea of Apartheid. So I asked her whether she was affected or involved in the struggle against it. She said yes, but not to the extent of going underground. There are four racial categories in South Africa, officially recognized and needing to be mentioned even now when one applies for employment, for instance. The whites head the list as most privileged, now equal to others, the coloureds, the Indians and the blacks or Africans. Ellen falls into the coloured category and fared not ill during the time of Apartheid, it being the tail end of the scourge when she was growing up. The different categories had segregated schools, resident areas, beaches and different entrances in shops open to at least the first three groups. The coloureds were treated only a little less well than the whites, so the schools Ellen went to were adequately endowed with resources. Entrance to secondary school and university had to be to establishments for coloureds so her family moved from the small town they had lived in – De Aar – to Johannesburg and then to Western Cape where she studied and worked in the University of Western Cape, about 25 miles outside of Cape Town. She did a basic degree and then qualified in library and information science (LIS), having in her pre-university years studied for a diploma in LIS and worked as a library assistant.

In education too segregation was present. The whites and browns and probably the Indians too, if they opted for this, were taught in Afrikaans with English as a second subject. The blacks were taught in the various indigenous languages like Zulu with Afrikaans or English as optional subjects. In fact the Soweto uprising (1976) was when the white government decreed that the blacks would be taught in Afrikaans. Her father had once protested when a white standing behind him in a shop queue was served before he was. Ellen took part in rallies in support of the elimination of Apartheid and joined a politically active women’s group, about the time of Mandela’s release from prison.

I asked her the inevitable question about her impressions of Sri Lanka and warned her not to reply with the usual answer that we are a warm, friendly people. She thought for a minute and then pronounced: "Having such an important person gracing the inauguration of the conference and speaking freely with people." She was referring here to the Prime Minister, who, accepting the SLLA President Upali Amarasiri’s invitation to be chief guest at the event, was present at the inaugural event on the 6th. Minister John Seneviratne too was present.

A word about IFLA is apt here. It is the parent body of library associations of about 150 countries and is headquartered in the Hague, Netherlands. It was inaugurated at a meeting of library professionals in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1927.

I am confident Dr Ellen Tise, President of IFLA, will leave our shores happy that this Island’s library association is strong, fifty years old and has showcased itself well in all the presentations made by librarians. Presidents of library associations of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives were also present and made their presentations.

"Because of my background, I seem to reach out more to members from the Third World. Hence with my coming over to Sri Lanka for the fiftieth anniversary of its library association, I had the joy and privilege of meeting with presidents of library associations of SAARC countries."

Nanda P Wanasundera

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