International Library Associations


W. Boyd Rayward
University of New South Wales

Published as "Library Associations, international " in
Encyclopedia of Library History,
edited By Wayne A.Wiegand and Don G.Davis, Jr.
(New York: Garland Press, 1994), Pp. 342-347.

The key international library organisation is the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) set up officially in 1927. Other more specialised library organisations followed it after the Second World War. Most of these have been absorbed into IFLA's organisational structure where they represent their particular interests as sections or round tables. Others have sought affiliation with it and are now international association members with voting rights.

The history of the international library organisation falls roughly into three periods. First is a pre-World War 1 stage centred mainly on IFLA. Immediately following the second World War was a period of recovery and consolidation. Then came a period of expansion and organisational proliferation leading to the present. For the purposes of this article, the present is rather arbitrarily taken to begin in late 1969 when Herman Liebaers, Librarian of the Belgian national library, Bibliothèque Royale Albert 1er, became IFLA President.

During Liebaers's term of office, IFLA as it is to-day began to take shape. The present permanent secretariat was opened in the Hague. Liebaers was able to marshal major support from the Council on Library Resources both for the secretariat and for the Universal Bibliographic Control (UBC) program that focussed so productively many aspects of IFLA activity and set the pattern for future program initiatives. He also promoted broader international membership in the association, especially from the "third" word. Moreover, after a number of years of sometimes heated discussion, new statutes were adopted with important new categories of membership in 1976. As a result membership began to explode. A long-planned new organisational structure also came into force in 1979.

Of course, all of these matters had a history pre-dating Liebaers, but it is only in the mid-1970's that a recognisably modern IFLA emerges. Its dimensions were similar to those of today. It had 140 national members (now 144), some 500 associated institutional members (now around 1000) and half a dozen international association members (now 14). Its organisational structure and approach to programming, though to be further elaborated, were also directly antecedent to those of today. It is possible to argue that, during this period, international library organisation achieved a mature stage of structural complexity and procedural formalism centred on IFLA, an over-arching non-governmental organisation, on the one hand and UNESCO, the governmental organisation most directly concerned with library matters, on the other.


Before 1927 there had been a number of international library conferences. That of 1877 in London had seen the founding of the British Library Association (LA). Other international conferences were held on the occasions of the international exhibitions at Chicago in 1893, Paris in 1900, San Fransisco in 1904 and Brussels in 1910. A resolution was taken at the Paris conference that it should re-convene every five years; it did not. The 1910 conference was organised by an avowedly permanent committee which immediately disappeared. Thus no permanent body emerged from these conferences either to perpetuate the conferences themselves, the organisation of which had to be laboriously begun anew each time it was decided to hold one, or to undertake any task of international significance.

Of course, the International Institute of Bibliography, which was to become the International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID) (qv), had been set up in Brussels in 1895. It led a vigorous international life before the First World War and held major conferences in 1897, 1900, 1908 and 1910. These conferences, however, had little influence on librarians, though the work of what was known familiarly as the Brussels Institute dealt in some respects with library matters and accounts of this work were presented to the various library conferences. The founders of the Institute believed that libraries were an important aspect of the broader questions of bibliography that were their main concern. This belief in the long run helped to excite on the part of librarians a suspicion and distrust of "documentalists" that has not yet been fully dissipated.

IFLA to World War 1

The initiative for the creation of what was to become IFLA was taken by Gabriel Henriot, President of the Association Française des Bibliothécaires and professor in the American Library School in Paris. He proposed to the Congrès International des Bibliothécaires et des Amis du Livre, meeting in Prague in 1926, that a standing international executive committee for libraries be elected by the various national library associations. He noted that the creation of a Sub-committee on Bibliography of the League of Nations International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, the setting up for the Committee of a permanent secretariat in Paris, known as the International Institute for International Intellectual Cooperation (IIIC) or Paris Institute, and the reorganisation of the League's library in Geneva, added urgency to the task.

The conference accepted Henriot's suggestions and adopted a resolution creating a provisional committee. Henriot was charged with the task of seeking the agreement of the IIIC to the idea that the committee's headquarters be set up under the aegis of the Institute and actually in the Institute's premises in Paris. At the 1927 Paris meeting of the League of Nation's Committee of Library Experts, William Warner Bishop, Director of Libraries at the University of Michigan and Chairman of the American Library Association's International Relations Committee, was able to block this move. He favoured the creation of a fully independent body.

The proposal for what was to become IFLA was then carried a step further some months later at an informal meeting called by Bishop on the occasion of the American Library Association's fiftieth anniversary conference in Philadelphia. The ALA agreed to seek the opinion of appropriate national groups with a view to constituting the provisional committee definitively in Edinburgh the following year at the anniversary meeting of the Library Association

At Edinburgh, Isak Collijn, Director of the Royal Library in Stockholm, was elected by the representatives of the fifteen countries present Chairman of what was called the International Library and Bibliographical Committee. It was resolved that among the committee's purposes would be the selection of the time and place for, and the provision of assistance in the organisation of, international library conferences. The Committee would also "make investigations and recommendations concerning international relations between libraries, organisations of librarians and bibliographers, and other agencies." The formal creation of the Committee at Edinburgh now had to be ratified by the national bodies.

By the time the first plenary meeting of the Committee was held in Rome in March 1928, a bare six months later, twelve countries had already ratified the Edinburgh resolution. On a proposal from Carl Milam, ALA Executive Secretary, six sub-committees were set up. They represent what were then seen as the main subjects with which the new organisation should be involved: classification schemes for international use (interestingly, this was never pursued, presumably because of FID's relationship with the UDC, which was the existing international classification), international catalogue rules, current bibliography and a code of rules for bibliographers, international scholarships, fellowships and exchanges of library personnel, education for librarianship, and a bye-laws committee. It was also decided that an International Library Congress should be held the following year in Rome. A proposal from Marcel Godet, Swiss National Librarian, on how the business of the congress might be conducted was discussed, accepted and referred to the Congress itself. Essentially, Godet proposed that the congress limit itself to matters that were either international or general in scope and that were introduced either by the international committee itself or by a national member. Godet also indicated that it would be necessary for the congress to examine relations with the League of Nation's intellectual cooperation committee and its Paris Institute on the one hand, and the Brussels Institute and its conferences on the other.

The first World Congress of Libraries and Bibliography held in Rome and Venice in 1929 was a chaotic affair, but had important outcomes. A new name for the fledgling organisation was adopted, International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). Its permanent executive committee was henceforth to be known in English as the International Library Committee. T.P. Sevensma, Librarian of the League of Nations, was appointed permanent Secretary, some difficulties with the League over the appointment having been resolved. He was to remain Secretary until 1958 when he was made Honorary President. Sevensma's associate in the League Library, A.C.Breycha-Vauthier, was coopted as Assistant Secretary, a post he held until 1958 also. He then became Treasurer until 1964. Carl Milam presented draft statutes which were adopted in principle and referred to member nations for ratification. Above all a full program of issues were identified for the attention of the International Committee in the following years.

Gradually membership in IFLA grew: 24 in 1930, 34 in 1935, 41 in 1939. The existence of the federation stimulated the formation of national associations where there were none. An Italian body was set up, for example, after the World Congress in 1929 and a Spanish one after the Second World Congress in Barcelona and Madrid in 1935. The annual meetings of the executive committee became notable events in the library world and served to highlight, as they still do, the importance of libraries in the cities and countries where they were held - and occasioned some rivalry as the local groups tried to secure the Committee's acceptance of the invitations they issued.

IFLA was strongly European in orientation. This was largely a result of the general economic problems that bedevilled these PREWAR years, along with the costs of travel and distances that were still difficult and time-consuming to overcome in the 1930's. In October 1933 a meeting of the Committee was held in Chicago, the only non-European meeting before the War, but small and assembled rather hurriedly when grant money was finally secured to underwrite the travel costs of the overseas delegates, it was followed a month later by what was regarded as a "regular" meeting at Avignon. Strongly worded invitations from India and China in 1936 had to be declined because of cost. All of the European members present when the matter was discussed indicated that they would not be able to attend a meeting in either of these remote places. While there were members outside Europe, including the Philippines, Japan, Mexico and Egypt, as well as India and China, it proved almost impossible to keep them closely and systematically in touch with the central body. Representation from Latin America generally proved an intractable problem in these early years.

Nevertheless IFLA's achievements were considerable. It worked closely with the Paris Institute in the period before the War. This is not surprising as the members of the Committee of Library Experts, effectively after 1927 an off-shoot of the League Sub-Committee on Bibliography and Science, one of the first groups set up to guide the League's work in intellectual matters, were the major figures in IFLA. Each body used the other as a vehicle of communication, the Paris Institute with the library association members of IFLA and the library communities they represented, IFLA with the governments associated with the Institute. The preparation and publication of an international code of abbreviations for periodical titles, and a supplementary scheme of Slavic abbreviations, for example, was a joint venture, as was a Guide to National Information Services and International Loans and Exchanges, H.Lemaître's Vocabulary of Technical Terms, a new edition of Index Bibliographicus and an international survey of public libraries published as Bibliothèques populaires et loisirs ouvrier. On the other hand, for example, alarmed by the impact of the world-wide Depression on library budgets, The International Library Committee used the Paris Institute to transmit to the appropriate authorities its resolution that governments maintain "undiminished" their financial support for intellectual workers, education and libraries. This initiative was thought to have had some success, in part because of League endorsement

There were two major independent achievements during these difficult years. First was IFLA's attempt to get the German book trade to regulate the rapidly rising and excessive price of periodicals in the areas of the natural sciences, medicine and technology. Over a period of three years a number of German publishers negotiated with the International Library Committee on this problem and did, indeed, moderate their price structures. Second was the creation of an international system of inter-library lending based on a uniform code of regulations and using standard forms. Proposed at the Second World Congress of Libraries and Bibliography in 1935, by 1939 the system had been adopted by nineteen countries.

The problem of developing a satisfactory relationship with FID (at this time known as the International Institute for Documentation, IID ) was a troubling one throughout the 1930's. No real discussion of the kind anticipated be Henriot in the formative days of IFLA about the Brussels Institute had as yet been held. At the Second World Congress in May 1935, however, a Special Libraries Sub-Committee was set up. Chaired by E. Lancaster-Jones of the Science Museum's Library in London, this was to liaise not only with special libraries but also with documentation centres. Lancaster-Jones, a colleague of S.C.Bradford, was active in the British Society for International Bibliography which had been founded in 1927 by Bradford and others to be the English corresponding member of the IID. Frits Donker Duyvis, one of the Institute's three Secretaries General, was also invited to become a member of the new sub-committee. In addition both Bradford and Donker Duyvis were appointed members of IFLA's Sub-Committee on Normalisation (i.e. standardisation) in the Field of Books and Libraries. Here, then, through overlapping memberships were some slight connections between the two organisations.

In September 1935 the International Institute for Documentation held its thirteenth conference at Copenhagen. One of IFLA's Vice-Presidents attended and played an active role in a session devoted to collaboration between librarians and documentalists. The conference resolved that IID should enter into closer relations with IFLA than had hitherto been the case and proposed that each body should send representatives to each other's conferences. It also decided to refer to IFLA the materials it had been collecting towards an international cataloguing code. As a result of this initiative, at the next IFLA meeting, which occurred in May 1936 in Warsaw, the nature of the relationship between the two organisations became a major agenda item. Marcel Godet, IFLA's President, in a thoughtful opening address, discussed the evolution of libraries and documentation centres and the ways in which they were similar and different. He was to return to this theme of ambiguity and ambitious and competing claims in greater detail in his 1938 address. While the pattern of reciprocal attendance at each other's meetings with brief reports of developments began at this time, relations, as Godet's addresses indicate, were only diplomatic and "frontier incidents" were still all too likely to occur.

IFLA's last prewar meeting was held in the Peace Palace in the Hague. At this meeting the Sevensma Prize, celebrating the Secretary General's 60th birthday, was announced and administration of the prize was to become a regular feature of post-war IFLA activity.

Recovery and Consolidation

Early in 1946 a small meeting of prewar IFLA stalwarts was held at the library of the old League of Nations, now part of the new United Nations. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to support the resumption of IFLA's work helped defray a larger, informal meeting in November. The first full post-war session was held in Oslo the following year. Here it was decided that a third World Congress of Libraries and Bibliography would be held in 1948 in the US (the Congress was eventually held in Brussels in 1955). The prewar committee structure of IFLA was re-activated with some minor changes. Above all an agreement was signed with the new international body that replaced the League of Nation's International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation and the IIIC in Paris, UNESCO. IFLA was recognised as the principal organ through which UNESCO would work with the library world. A first practical realisation of cooperation was the jointly sponsored International Summer School on Public Library Practice held in Manchester and London in 1948. In 1949 UNESCO allocated an annual subvention to IFLA for general administrative support.

By 1950, IFLA's membership had reached 50. It now worked closely with UNESCO and, continuing the prewar pattern, collaboration with FID extended to representation at each other's conferences and to three joint committees: education, standardisation, and special libraries (this was discontinued in 1952). The extensive consultation, and less extensive but important collaboration, between IID and IFLA led to the possibility of eventual amalgamation being raised - and evaded - as early as 1948.

For IFLA, in this period of rapid change, it had become clear that it could not continue in its prewar mould. Its new President in 1952, the Swiss National Librarian Pierre Bourgeois, stressed the need to reform the organisation and instituted a revision of IFLA's statutes. These were adopted in 1953 and provided for the membership of international associations.

Slowly, perhaps a little ponderously other library associations now began to emerge into international life. They represented special interests and their relationship with the older general body, IFLA, became an issue of some importance. In 1949 an international conference of music libraries was held in Florence and this led, after a second conference in 1950, to the setting up of a provisional committee for an Association Internationale des Bibliothèques Musicales (AIBM - now International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres), which came formally into existence in Paris in 1951. Supported by UNESCO, one of its major initial tasks was to compile and publish the Répertoire international des sources musicales (other major bibliographic ventures were begun in 1966, Répertoire international de littérature musicale and 1971, Répertoire international d'iconographie musicale). In that same year a proposal from Sweden was presented to the IFLA Council that the need for a section devoted to technical university libraries should be explored. Permission for an international survey to be undertaken to that effect was given and the results of the survey were reported at the Council meeting in 1954. Another initiative taken at the 1953 meeting saw the creation within the IFLA structure of a semi-independent Section Internationale des Bibliothèques et Collections des Arts du Spectacle. Moreover, the Council was informed that it was now proposed to re-activate the International Committee of Agricultural Librarians. This had originally been set up in 1937 in close collaboration with the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome. Its former secretary and the former librarian of the International Institute of Agriculture, Dr S.v. Frauendorfer, asked the IFLA Council to acknowledge the value of such a committee and to agree to its eventual affiliation with IFLA.

For UNESCO the question of coordinating the proliferating activities and organisations in the general field of libraries, bibliography and documentation began to assume considerable importance. In 1948 it instituted a consultative round table of the executive officers of FID and IFLA to which were soon added those of the International Council on Archives, the AIBM, and the International Standards Organisation (ISO). In 1953 UNESCO proposed that a super-coordinating body be set up, what was called a Comité de Liaison. Draft statutes for this body were circulated and widely discussed. At the same time UNESCO indicated that it would provide funds in 1953 and 1954 towards the organisation of an international conference which embraced all international library and documentation interests. IFLA's own planning for a third world congress in 1948 and then 1950 had encountered continual financial and other difficulties and it kept being postponed.

Expansion and Organisational Proliferation

The Third International Congress of Libraries and Documentation Centres was held in Brussels in 1955. It represents both an important culmination of developments after the Second World War and a point of departure. Because of the constraints of UNESCO funding, It was essentially three separate conferences in parallel - IFLA, FID, and AIBM. And at this conference UNESCO's plans for creating a formal coordinating mechanism for FID and IFLA were scuttled. The three parties now agreed that the existing informal arrangements were all that were necessary This marked the end for a decade of what had been intense and time-consuming marriage broking. Subsequent attempts to get the two organisations to form more than a rather remote platonic relationship, for example a major meeting in the Hague in 1966, have been no more successful, though the idea of federation or amalgamation has never quite disappeared.

Following preliminary discussions in the preceding years, three new bodies were created at Brussels in 1955 and affiliated with IFLA: the International Association of Agricultural Librarians and Documentalists(IAALD), the International Association of Technical University Libraries(IATUL) which became a section of the parent body, and the International Association of Theological Libraries. A resolution of the parliamentary libraries that an International Union should be set up to represent their interests on the model of the agricultural libraries, stimulated acrimonious discussion and was essentially rejected.

Gradually in the following years some of the important discussions and resolutions taken at Brussels, the last IFLA meeting of its kind and an echo ofprewar aspirations, led to significant achievements especially in the Section on Public Libraries, the Section on National and University libraries, and the Committee for Rare and Precious Books. Moreover, in 1954 UNESCO had asked the IFLA Committee on Cataloguing to investigate the international standardisation of cataloguing rules. A working party was set up to examine the coordination of cataloguing principles. The 1955 congress, where the working party met three times, gave a considerable fillip to this work.

Though President Bourgeois as early as 1952 had spoken of his vision of strong regional conferences replacing what had become large, unrepresentatively European meetings, it was only very gradually that IFLA was able to abandon its Euro-centric focus. The constant prodding of librarians like Ranganathan, who was active in both FID and IFLA in this period, helped keep the issue alive, though inadequate resources and organisation were as much responsible for IFLA's narrowness as anything. The creation of a Latin-American Library Committee in 1958 was a notable attempt to reach a much-neglected area of the world.

IFLA continued to grow inexorably. In 1958 it had 64 national members from 42 countries and four international association members. In that year its Swiss President concluded his term of office. The Secretary General, Sevensma, and Assistant Secretary General, Breycha-Vauthier, both based in the former League of Nations Library in Geneva, resigned after thirty years in office. The result was an immense vacuum, though a new Secretary General, J.Wieder, attempted to carry on as before in time taken from his professional work. But it was becoming clear that IfLA's increasingly voluminous and complex business was now being conducted in a way that led to mounting criticism of the organisation's structure and working methods. Indeed IFLA had come to be regarded as clubbish, old-fashioned and even irrelevant by many. A major turning point occurred when the Council On Library Resources announced in 1958 that it would subsidise an international conference on cataloguing principles, thus helping to bring to fruition long ongoing work within IFLA. This conference, a watershed of modern librarianship, was carefully planned with widely circulated working papers. It was convened in Paris by UNESCO in 1961 and provided a basis for work that led eventually to IFLA's program for Universal Bibliographic Control, launched formally as such under the Presidency of Liebaers. It was also obvious that to participate effectively in such a venture more was needed by way of organisational support within IFLA than had been the case in the past.

In 1961 UNESCO increased its subvention to IFLA and agreed to allow a large proportion of the money to be used to employ a full-time secretary. In late 1961 Anthony Thompson took up this office and moved to Munich to be close to the then President, Gustav Hoffmann. When Sir Frank Francis succeeded Hoffmann in 1964, Thompson located the secretariat in his own house in Seven Oaks some twenty miles outside London. Having a permanent secretary, especially one with Thompson's linguistic skills, represented an important stage on the way to a fully professional organisation for IFLA. Another stage was marked by the publication in 1963 of a long-term program, Libraries in the World, which emphasised IFLA's aspiration to world-wide scope and implied considerable structural and programmatic development within the organisation.

During these years, IFLA also continued to provide a background against which other international library organisations appeared. In 1959 the International Association of Law Libraries had been founded in New York and sought affiliation with IFLA. In 1968 the International Association of Metropolitan Libraries (INTAMEL), was set up and worked in close association with the Public Libraries Section of IFLA (It became a round table of IFLA in 1976). Also in 1968 at the IFLA Council meeting in Frankfurt am Main, a decision was taken to form a specialist association of European research libraries that could act outside the IFLA Section on National and University Libraries. This was regarded as being too complex and various in the interests it attempted to embrace. The Ligue des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherche (LIBER) was formally constituted in 1971 with support from the Council of Europe.

The following year saw the formation of another regional grouping - the Association of Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries (ACURIL). This was sponsored by the Association of Caribbean Universities with which it has continued to be affiliated. The secretariat, created in 1973, is located in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Commonwealth Library Association, regional in another sense, was inaugurated in 1972 in Lagos, Nigeria through the sponsorship of the Commonwealth Foundation, a body set up by the (British) Commonwealth governments for the "nurturing of professional activity throughout the Commonwealth as an important component of the development process." Its secretariat is maintained in Jamaica by the Jamaican government. It is affiliated with IFLA and ACURIL.

For IFLA, continued growth brought increasing problems. Its conferences grew to almost unmanageable size. The secretariat was placed under enormous pressure and was seen as in urgent need of expansion. Though IFLA's statutes were revised once again in 1964 and helped introduce a clearer management structure, they, too, soon proved vulnerable to criticism. With Herman Liebaers's accession to the Presidency, a new stage of formalism and complexity was reached in IFLA's management and organisational structure. Such developments were necessary but inevitably imperfect concomitants to the organisation's great success as it has adjusted to changing times, extraordinary growth of membership, and the reality of limited resources always stretched too thin.


de Costa,Serpil. "Foundation and Development of IFLA, 1926-1939," Library Quarterly 52(January 1982):41-45

FIAB/IFLA, Actes du Conseil, 1931 - 1968

IFLA Annual, 1969 to date

lFLA's First Fifty Years: Achievement and Challenge in International Librarianship. Edited by W.R.H.Koops and J.Wieder; Munchen: Verlag Dokumentation,1977.

Rayward, W. Boyd, "International Library Organisations," ALA World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services. Chicago: American Library Association,1986. pp.381-385.

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