Nick Stopforth, SCL Digital Lead and Head of Libraries and Culture for Doncaster


Last week I was very privileged to attend the Arab Publishers Conference 2015 in Sharjah, UAE, as a panel speaker on the subject of ‘A Look At Tomorrow’s Library’. I attended representing the Society of Chief Librarians and at the request of the Publishers Association. It was my first time speaking at an international conference, first time visiting a Gulf State, first time sharing the stage with a panel of experts with Arabic as a first language, with my attendance generously sponsored by the event organisers. And what an amazing 36 hours it was.

I quickly learnt that the experiences, challenges and potential solutions for Arabic publishers (Arabic being the primary language across 16 countries and of course a much wider diaspora) are very similar to those in Western Europe. Speakers and delegates’ questions focused on issues of copyright, DRM and piracy, digital platforms, apps, support for smaller publishers, use of social media and so on. I heard, for example, Alec Ross extol the benefits of understanding and embracing the positives of digital (and the risks of not doing so) from a publishers’ perspective in Arab countries, and Ashleigh Gardner explain Wattpad to a new audience of potential writers and publishers on the mobile writing platform.

My panel debate was chaired by Maryam Al Shenasi from the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.  In the debate, Gerald Leitner, Secretary General of the Austrian Library Association, spoke very eloquently about challenges facing libraries around modernisation, digitisation and content. Dr Tariq al Shalyiyl spoke about the need to open up informatics to new audiences through digital publishing, and his research into modernising workforces, which sounded very similar to SCLs approach to developing library staff through e-learning. The standard format for the conference is for panels of two European speakers and two Arabic speakers – with headsets and translations gratefully received, my lack of Arabic speaking skills was accommodated for! Khalid Azab talked about the challenges faced by the Library of Alexandria, and this led to a broader line of enquiry from the audience on cultural leadership at a time when historic collections in specific areas of the Middle East.

And so what was not lost in translation at all is that yet whilst there is an inherent commonality within the library profession and its sectors across 4000 miles, there are cultural differences in our areas of focus which are determined by our histories and geopolitics. Whilst I spoke about the need for strategic partnerships for libraries in new areas, with the tech sector for example, and the need to attract inward investment to help underpin the resourcing of libraries effectively, this suddenly felt far removed from my panel peers who at times touched upon issues of library preservation, survival, and reclamation, in Syria, the Lebanon and Iraq, and the professionals who work for their public in areas where their cultural assets are being, in the most extreme cases, deliberately destroyed.

The leadership to resist, maintain and renew libraries for people in areas where there is at times limited access to books and wider knowledge, and in some areas extremely low literacy rates, demonstrated to me another type of cultural leadership, which was carried by my peers with great measure and dignity, which requires great resilience and strategic collaboration.

The generous and professional welcome extended to me in Sharjah left me to reflect on how feasible it would be to establish a new cultural partnership, between library services in the UK and Western Europe with our peers in the Middle East, whether around partnership programmes, shared digital resourcing, and shared learning. I could see, even within the briefest of introductions, that there is much we could do to support one another on an international platform, across publishers, libraries, agents and authors, to learn more from each other’s digital experiences and build a shared digital resilience. If there are cultural institutions who are already working in this way, or who would like to explore this line of thought in more detail, I’d be delighted to hear from you.