7th SIBF/ALA Conference highlights strategic shifts the
library sector worldwide is adopting to navigate the ‘new normal’

Annual three-day event has 723 library experts and academics from 51 countries in attendance

Sharjah, November 11, 2020

The seventh edition of the Sharjah International Library Conference (SILC 2020) being held in collaboration with the American Library Association (ALA), witnessed a virtual inauguration yesterday (Tuesday) on the sidelines of the Sharjah International Book Fair 2020, with 723 librarians, archivists, and industry professionals logging in from 51 countries to participate in the global professional development event.

Being hosted virtually from the USA, this edition of the conference themed ‘Libraries and Librarians Meeting the Challenges in the New Normal’, is one of the main highlights of the 39th edition of the book fair, and sees its largest ever participation, including delegates from 11 new nations making their debut in the three-day event.

Welcoming participants to SILC 2020, HE Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, Chairman of Sharjah Book Authority (SBA), said: “Given the global challenges posed by Covid-19, especially to the field of education and learning, this edition of Sharjah International Library Conference is a crucial platform for looking into answers. Now more than ever, libraries worldwide need to develop strategies to enable everyone continued access to knowledge, research and learning resources in our ‘new normal’. Librarians are leaders of this positive change, and your innovation and efforts in the coming period will be key to meeting the kind of challenges the library sector has never seen before.”   

ALA President and Acting Director of the Researcher and Reference Services at the Library of Congress, Julius C. Jefferson Jr’s keynote remarks, titled ‘Meeting the Challenge in Times of Crisis’, highlighted how the entity had navigated the crisis brought on by the pandemic and emerged stronger.

“This is a pivotal time for libraries and the communities we serve. The crisis is also a time of opportunity and hope, not only for the library community in America, but across the world. ALA was able to overcome the challenges by keeping communication lines open; focusing on recovery and advocacy efforts; listening to members’ responses; and looking for ways to move forward. ALA initiated a virtual ‘Holding Space’ tour, which began in July and featured virtual visits to 11 libraries across the country. The goal was to listen and accept the truth, reality, and experiences of library workers and the communities they serve.”

“We found that libraries across the country are doing concrete, effective work, serving the needs of their communities. They are critical infrastructure in their communities, especially in workforce development, innovation, connectivity, leadership, and community engagement. Library workers are committed and resourceful and have served as second responders in times of crisis. Many libraries were collaborating with local partners and finding ways to remain essential, useful institutions. Libraries need our help. If they lack resources to serve all people, this experiment will fail. In this year of crisis, we as a community must move forward together,” he concluded.

Virtual all the way: Staff resourcefulness & resilience enabled Abu Dhabi libraries adapt quickly

Shaikha Mohamed Almehairi, Director of the Libraries Department (LD), Abu Dhabi Department for Culture and Tourism (DCT), delivered the inaugural session titled ‘Leading Staff Responding to the Challenge: Flexibility, Creativity, Reorganisation and Wellness Care’.

Discussing the challenges that the 7 DCT libraries in Abu Dhabi faced in the first days of the pandemic, she said: “With library closure and cancelled programmes, the staff was confused and disoriented. Then we decided to go virtual all the way, using social media to connect, even delivering workshop kits to children at home. We organised more than 100 workshops sessions per month. We took our competitions online, carried out the first inventory ever for digital resources and drafted new policy and procedures.”

When members’ consumption increased, LD purchased more digital resources, created subject guides, and facilitated online learning and cross-training for staff. Restructuring of staff, automation of book purchase and a major IT revamp saw the DCT libraries being rated among the best in the country. “Staff resourcefulness, resilience and accountability saw us through the crisis,” concluded Almehairi. “We learnt that staff are our most important assets, and success depends on three things: communication, communication, and communication!”

Valued and visible: Digital libraries the way forward for Ireland

In the second workshop of the day, themed ‘What happens when a strategy meets a crisis?’, Stuart Hamilton, Head of Libraries Development at the Local Government Management Agency, Ireland, spoke about how the pandemic had put the nation’s ambitious Public Libraries 2022 strategy on hold.

“Our 30 public libraries closed on March 12, but we promptly extended memberships though our national delivery service was suspended,” he said. “We focused on home deliveries, supported the health services by requisitioning our 3D printers to manufacture PPEs, initiated quarantine for returning materials and opened online membership which saw 30,000 new members join in March.”

The switch to digital saw a 313% increase in new users of eBooks and audiobooks service and 467% increase in demand for e-learning courses. “We are now offering only online services, which show continued growth, and waiting for the lockdown to be lifted,” said Hamilton. “The flip side of the pandemic is that we are now highly visible and valued. Digital is obviously here to stay, but how it will sit with our regular services has to be worked out. We have to learn new skills, increase availability of devices and decide how to rejig our old methods for the new reality.”

The SIBF/ALA Conference is the only event ALA organises out the US. This edition of SILC sees six discussions by experts from around the world. The second day’s sessions will  include ‘Staff Development in Time of COVID and Beyond: Challenges & Opportunities’, presented by Dr. Heba Mohamed Ismail, Libraries Technical Manager at Egypt’s Society for Culture & Development; and ‘Do’s and Don’ts for Successful Risk Management in Libraries’ presented by Emad Saleh, Professor at Information Science Department, Helwan University, Cairo, and Vice President of the Arab Federation for Libraries & Information in Egypt.