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WESS goes to Florence

To the second international conference of ACRL’s Western European Specialists Section, held in Florence, Italy, on April 4-8, 1988, came 90 U.S. librarians to meet with 60 Western European librarians, publishers, and book distributors. The aim of the conference, entitled “Shared Resources, Shared Responsibilities,” was to enable these people to meet with each other and to discuss current collection development realities, trends and problems. One particular emphasis for American librarians was on how to locate some of the more elusive European publications.

Reception, sponsored by Casalini Libri at the Villa di Mezzomonte outside Florence. Michael Albin (center), Head of Acquistions at the Library of Congress.

The opening session immediately brought to the fore a recurring conference theme—the difference in philosophy between European and American academic librarians. The Europeans see their primary function as curatorial and the Americans see theirs as delivery of information. Herbert R. Lothman, author and international correspondent of Publisher’s Weekly, delivered a salvo against the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in recounting his difficulties in doing research there. The next day Le Roy Ladurie, administrateur generale of the Bibliothèque, responded sharply to his criticisms but did admit to the poor health of the Paris libraries. Implicit in some of his remarks was the thought that perhaps the expectations of American scholars were unrealistic in their demands for a level of service not contemplated or offered.

The conference provided 19 sessions packed with information; each 90-minute period included at least three short papers. Topics ranged widely from “Large Microform Collections” and “Databases and Online Communication” to “Local History and Regional Publishing” and “Women’s Studies in Western Europe.” One would have liked more time for discussion.

One of the most interesting sessions, “European National Libraries in Transition,” revealed that the concept of a national library is surprisingly difficult to define. The French, according to Le Roy Ladurie, are now trying to disperse their central national library into a number of other locations around Paris, and to provide telecommunication with other natural resources as a supplement to their collections.

The Italians do not really have a national library, according to Anna Lenzuni of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, but they have regional centers. The Biblioteca Nazionale serves as a central institution only for bibliography.

Several European countries, including Belgium, Switzerland, and Spain, in trying to deal with substantial ethnic and linguistic regionalism have opted for decentralization of library collections. These countries are trying for a better balance between conservation and communication, but in many the museum, not the library, is regarded as the center for information. All librarians emphasized severe financial constraints.

The crux of many library problems continues, as always, to be a question of finances—not enough government or institutional support of the library, rising costs of books and periodicals, and the cost of new technology. In another excellent session, “Databases and Online Communication I,” Karen Hunter of Elsevier Science Publications observed that we are technically capable of doing much more with electronic delivery of information than library finances will allow, and that scholarly publishing in electronic form is not encouraging because the market is small, fragmented, and poorly funded. The PC revolution has created wants that cannot be fulfilled at present. Commercial vendors are interested in huge datafiles for many users; the only successful scholarly databases have been tax- supported.

Leslie Hume of the Research Libraries Group also spoke of the proliferation of very specialized scholarly databases and about the need for comprehensive sources or indexes to make these accessible. She sees a need for databases with an interdisciplinary focus, for more archival repositories in electronic form, and for more access to visual materials. She reiterated the need for institutional funding, since scholarly databases are not revenue- producing.

What emerged from these meetings was that European libraries are exploring the sharing of resources, mostly within their own boundaries, but that national libraries are contending with problems of increasing regional ethnic focus. It is clear that in Europe, as in the U.S. ‚ that new technology is forcing librarians to make hard choices. The Europeans are trying to make appropriate and financially possible selections of electronic technologies, but are finding difficulties with incompatible hardware and rapidly changing products.

Most Continental librarians continue to see their role as curatorial; however, they do not aim at completeness of collections as do American research librarians. In fact, the idea of a complete collection appears unrealistic to European librarians, as indicated by the discussion at the session on “The Conspectus as a Collection Management Tool for Western European Studies.”

All in all this first overseas ACRL conference was both enlightening and stimulating. U.S. librarians found much to exchange with others from their own country as well as with the Europeans. As always, the informal exchanges were as valuable as the working sessions.

Florence was an ideal choice for a site, although perhaps too seductive a city for conferees. It took real strength of character to resist the lure of the museums, churches, and Renaissance streets in favor of meetings. And the hospitality (repasts and entertainment) arranged by Mario Casalini of Casalini Libri was superb—probably never again will a library conference offer such feasts in such elegant surroundings.—Claire Dudley, Science and Nonprint Editor, Choice, Middletown, Connecticut.

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