Last week, I had the privilege of attending the International Federation of Library Associations and Agencies annual conference in Cape Town, South Africa. Such gatherings make starkly apparent the wide variations in the resources available to libraries in different parts of the world, but they also give reason for optimism about libraries, generally.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Dynamic Libraries: Access, Development and Transformation,” signaling the strong connection between development of a democratic society, economic development, and the role of the public library in the community. Being in the young democracy of South Africa reminded me of the importance of the library as both a symbolic and physical place. In a democratic society, all groups, no matter what their histories and backgrounds are, must have equal access to information and knowledge. The library, even more than public schools, provides that level playing field for all. This sounds idealistic, I know, but it has the virtue of being true.

The sessions at IFLA covered the full range of concerns that we face worldwide as a professional body––copyright, legal deposit laws, digital library development, privacy issues, information literacy, collections in a digital age. All of these are important issues that need the best thinking of librarians everywhere. Still, it is a stark realization for me that the “problems” we western librarians describe seem like utopia to lesser developed parts of the world. What is common among all librarians, though, is their desire to provide more resources and better services for their users.

The IFLA meeting was most useful in disturbing my complacency. The resourcefulness and the enthusiasm of the South African librarians as they develop public libraries near schools to reinforce the connection between education and life long learning in a democratic society or as they help build learning spaces for all groups of students regardless of gender, age, or ethnic affiliation in the 23 institutions of higher education provide real inspiration for the rest of us. In the broad American library community, we have many problems to solve, we have funding limitations, and we have insufficient time. But I left Cape Town believing that with the resources we have (and I fully recognize that they are insufficient), surely we can do more to ensure that our libraries provide more opportunities for individuals from all sectors of society to gain access to education, to learn new skills so that they can find jobs, to explore new ideas, and to connect with their communities. This is the real value of international meetings. They put problems in a different perspective, and sometimes, they motivate us to do more.