Tuesday, May 9, 2023

"Mundaneum: Machine to Think the World": A New Permanent Exhibition

 Knowledge sharing facilitates a peaceful culture: this is the ever-present belief of Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, founders of the Mundaneum. The Mundaneum hosts the IFLA Satellite that LIBHIST SIG has organized before WLIC 2023, with the title "Preserving our origins: Approaches to the organization, curation, and historiography of the record of national and international organizations in libraries, information, and documentation". Visiting the exhibition and the Mundaneum archive will make us reflect on the message of "Machine to think the world" and how these pioneers were anticipators of Web technology. Jacques Gillen is the Archivist of the Mundaneum and author of books on Otlet and La Fontaine. In this post he introduces the Mundaneum exhibition.

"Mundaneum: Machine to Think the World": A New Permanent Exhibition

by Jacques Gillen

10 May 2023

On 28 April, the Mundaneum inaugurated a new permanent exhibition dedicated to its history and the values that underpinned the utopian project led by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine. 

The end of the 19th century saw unprecedented technological, scientific and ideological progress. Means of communication and transport were developing at great speed, profoundly changing Western society. A new world, one in which anything was possible, had now begun.

The profusion of new ideas spawned the colossal project of collecting the ever-increasing amount of knowledge, classifying it and sharing it with as many people as possible. This universal knowledge, which was accessible to all, would then be the path to world peace. 

1895, the "Mundaneum" machine took off. At the root of this humanist and universalist project is the deep conviction that peace in the world is possible thanks to the classification and sharing of knowledge. 

Behind these ideas, which embody an unwavering belief in progress and human knowledge, are men and women with incredible but often forgotten destinies: Paul Otlet, recognised as one of the fathers of the internet; Henri La Fontaine, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; and Léonie La Fontaine, a key figure of Belgian feminism. 

Paul Otlet, Henri and Léonie La Fontaine dedicated their lives to this ideal which was embodied in the Mundaneum, truly a “machine for thinking about the world” and a precursor to future developments. 

A crazy dream, sustained by the tenacity of these committed pacifists who were ahead of their time, a marvelous utopia that is still meaningful, the Mundaneum fits into this journey through five keys to understanding, which allow for multiple extensions, including the most current. 

A veritable laboratory for thinking about the world, the Mundaneum has for decades housed and embodied the dreams of visionaries who devoted their entire lives to knowledge, information and documentation sciences, right down to inventing a real search engine long before the internet. This innovative project paved the way for many of the technologies that are now part of our everyday lives. 

What remains today of this extraordinary adventure? A unique archival heritage, strong universal values and a utopian vision of the world that is still relevant and questions all of us as citizens. 

As a private archive center and museum space recognised by the Federation Wallonia-Brussels, the Mundaneum preserves and promotes more than 6 km of documents! Recognised by UNESCO's Memory of the World programme and the European Heritage Label, it presents itself as a place of reflection based on the ideological and historical heritage of its founders. 

This new permanent exhibition invites you to understand this formidable machine for thinking about the world, which offers timeless insight into our social issues, and invites you to take on a journey through time to better understand the world of tomorrow.

More info: www.mundaneum.org/en



Gillen, Jacques (2013). Henri La Fontaine, Prix Nobel de la paix en 1913. Un Belge épris de justice, Bruxelles: Racine.

Gillen, Jacques (2011). Paul Otlet: Fondateur du Mundaneum (1868-1944); Architecte du savoir, artisan de paix. Bruxelles: Les Impressions nouvelles.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Libraries are the Heart of the University

The posts on this LIBHIST SIG blog aim to identify turning points in the history of libraries around the world. This post is the first in a series of histories from libraries in various countries written by members of the LIBHIST SIG. We have invited to write this first post Kaisa Sinikara (University of Helsinki), researcher and university librarian emerita.

Libraries are the Heart of the University

by Kaisa Sinikara

30 April 2023

The development of Finnish academic education and libraries

In Scandinavia, academic libraries have many similarities; the National Library and the university libraries are open to all and collaboration between libraries is strong. In this text, I write about the basic development of the university libraries in Finland, focusing on the oldest university, and the international influence supporting the changing periods.  

The establishment of universities in Finland follows that of international university history. Queen Cristina of Sweden founded the first university, the Royal Academy of Turku in 1640; the country was several hundred years part of Sweden. Finland’s period of autonomy as a Grand Duchy of Russia was between 1809 and 1917; The University was named Imperial Alexander University. After Finnish independence (in 1917), the official name was changed to the University of Helsinki. It was the only institute for the higher education to 1908.

In 1908–1920, four new institutes of higher education, complete with libraries, were established in southern Finland.[i]  From 1958 to 1993, a total of 15 universities were established around the country, motivated by changes in society and the need to provide education opportunities for post-war generations. The establishment of polytechnics began in the 1990s; there are 22 universities of applied sciences. Many of the universities have later been merged into larger units. 

The national libraries and the university libraries in Scandinavian countries

The Scandinavian countries have implemented different solutions concerning the organizational structures of the national library and the university library of the capital city. In Denmark and Iceland, the university and the national library together form one organization which reports to a ministry. In Sweden and Norway, the university library and the national library have been separated; the university library is a part of the university, and the national library reports to a ministry.[ii]

The National Library is the main memory institution in Finland; for historical reasons, it was the main library of the University of Helsinki 1640–2006. Centuries of the library have been discussed in a separate study (Knapas 2012).[iii] The development of the faculty and department libraries at the University of Helsinki remained unknown; only a study concerning the Undergraduate Library was published in 2011.[iv] The history of the new Helsinki University Library (1828–2012) was the first time discussed in my recent study (Sinikara 2022), available as an open access monograph.[v]

The first departmental and seminar libraries from 1850 onward

The departmental and seminar (later faculty) libraries began to emerge alongside the main library following the University’s move in 1828 from Turku to Helsinki, the country’s new capital, after a big fire destroyed the buildings and collections of the Academy of Turku. The increasing specialization seen especially in the natural sciences and in the medical sciences would have required a great deal of attention to be focused on new international publications. The University’s main library did not have the resources to rise to the challenge. A similar development of departmental libraries was taking place in Germany and other parts of Central Europe that served as sources of scholarly inspiration. 

To support new teaching methods, seminar libraries began to emerge in the field of humanities from the 1880s onward. The first actors in this field were young professors of linguistics, who adopted the seminar model of the Humboldt University (Germany) around the same time as the first universities in the US. The Faculty of Theology and Faculty of Law also established seminar libraries at the beginning of the century. The faculties appointed a professor to supervise the libraries, as well as a part-time librarian, who was usually a member of the teaching staff, to handle practical matters. Reports about library operations became an established part of the University’s annual reviews. 

The model of having an independent library expanded to the 1970s, when every faculty and institution had its own independent library. The library network of the University of Helsinki followed the tripartite model of old European universities in the early 1990s.


International influence and library professionals before and after the 2nd World War

International development of the science and the academic libraries were actively monitored in Finland, first by the professors then by the library professionals. As already mentioned, Germany and other parts of Central Europe served as sources of scholarly inspiration during 19th century and in the early 20th century.

Before the 2nd World War, the number of librarians was small but international collaboration was seen essential. The Finnish Library Association was established in 1910. The Finnish Research Library Association established in 1929, especially for being able to take part in the international collaboration; university librarian Georg Schauman was 1929–1930 the first chairman and after his death, his successor Lauri O. Th. Tudeer 1931–1938. The chairmen of both Finnish library associations participated in the first international library congress in Rome and the associations have been members of IFLA since 1929.[vi] The first Finnish President of IFLA 2013–2015 was Sinikka Sipilä, the secretary general of Finnish Library Association 1997–2015. (https://www.stks.fi/in-english/)

Following World War II, scholarly influence was sought increasingly from the Anglo-Saxon world. The language of science shifted gradually from German to English, which was also reflected in the university libraries’ collections. Library work on the faculty libraries became increasingly professional from the 1930s onward, when the first librarian´s posts were created in a couple of faculty libraries. It took another quarter of a century for professional library staff to become common in other faculties.

The 1970s was a period of active library planning both nationally and at the University of Helsinki. The Information Age development progressed in the libraries from the 1960s onward. International collaboration between scientific libraries was supported by the establishment of LIBER (The Ligue des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherche) in 1971. There have been two Finnish Presidents of LIBER: 1995–1998 Professor Esko Häkli (National and university librarian 1976–2001) and 2014–2018 Kristiina Hormia (Director of Library Network Services, National Library).[vii]

Several library professionals who had worked as Fulbright scholars in the US also came with new ideas. One of the proposals was to establish a national library, operating under the Ministry of Education, and to transfer the national services of the main library to that entity.  All the other library services at the University of Helsinki would then be merged into a single organization. The number of library staff continued to increase. The University of Tampere began to provide higher education in the field.

However, instead of merging the libraries, what took place was an increasing divide and polarization of relations between faculty libraries and the main university library. The polarization was partly caused by the core values of the faculty and departmental libraries. Established by professors, they were closely linked to their background, and professors continued to be involved in the management of libraries long after library work had been transferred to professional library staff.


Structural changes are needed for the e-environment during the 1990s and the 2000s

A new period began in the 1990s. Wide-ranging changes in library services were prompted by the introduction of IT and the related need to harmonize processes. In the early 1990s, Finnish university libraries introduced a common IT library system. Increasingly strong cooperation led to the next step. At the end of the decade, a national service unit and a consortium for negotiating e-publication licences were established. The Ministry of Education gave central responsibility for the national library network’s system services to the main library of the University of Helsinki. When the national responsibilities further expanded to encompass the country’s entire library network, the name of the library was changed to the National Library of Finland in 2006. Administratively, the library remained part of the University of Helsinki.

In the 1990s, the network of faculty libraries went through major changes after the crises experienced by the University. The severe recession that hit Finland led to cuts in resources. The performance management model was also introduced in central government at this time. Extensive redevelopment was launched, and the University’s decision of clustering closely related disciplines onto four main campuses also triggered the development of campus libraries. The introduction of IT made the collections visible to everyone, paving the way for centralized operations. The digitalization of scholarly publications required reforming and centralization the personnel’s competence. In 1998–2001, a campus library was created for medical sciences, for applied natural sciences, agriculture and forestry and for “hard” natural sciences. The libraries of the humanities and social sciences were merged into a single campus library ten years later than the other three campus libraries. The proposed library merger, which initially provoked internal polarization within the library network, was carried out in 2010, when the university established the new Helsinki University Library, the largest university library in Finland. This encompassed four campus libraries and a centralized unit for internal services. The new main library in the city centre was opened in 2012.

The new organization was based on the plans that had been prepared to address the changes arising from the digital data revolution. This planning had been prompted by the international peer evaluations (the panel members from Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland) carried out in 2000 and 2004 and the development needs to be observed in them. One important decision in 2002 was, that the University created the post of development director in charge of coordination of the libraries. This post later became that of the university librarian at Helsinki University Library, launched in 2010. The establishment of Helsinki University Library required the University and faculty management to make a strong commitment to change.

The need to centralize library operations because of changes in the operating and information environment can be seen in all Finnish universities. Faculty and departmental libraries were not a feature of the older universities alone. In fact, the model was adopted in most of the universities established in the 20th century. In the early 1990s, Finland had 21 universities, with a total of approximately 460 library units. A decade later, the number had been halved, partly because of the increasing automation of libraries. The centralization trend grew stronger in the 2000s and 2010s, and the number of universities dropped from 21 to 15. Their library services have been concentrated in just under 40 service units.

Libraries as the partners of the academic community

The history of the University libraries is closely linked to the events taking place at the University and in society overall. Years of growth and expansion have time and again been slowed down by crises, including two world wars and economic meltdowns, such as the collapse following the civil war after the country gained independence, the depression of the 1930s, and the recession of the 1990s. Setbacks such as these have been followed by years of intense activity, involving structural changes, or at least attempts to make changes, and the introduction of new ways to produce and share information. 

Libraries are not just part of the university's infrastructure but an integral part of the academic community. They have been used as metaphors for the heart of the university. It is only by studying the history of libraries that one can understand the functioning of this heart at different times.

[i] The University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics, Åbo Akademi and the University of Turku. Of these, the University of Technology had operated as a vocational school providing education in the field since the 1840s.

[ii] Cotta-Schönberg, Michael & Kolding Nielsen, Erland. 2008. The relationship between the National Library and the metropolitan University Library. The Nordic scene. Alexandria. The journal of national & international library and information issues. [5.4.2023]. Available: https://doi-org.libproxy.helsinki.fi/10.1177/095574900601800302.

[iii] Knapas, Rainer. 2012. Tiedon valtakunnassa. Helsingin yliopiston kirjasto. Kansalliskirjasto1640–2010. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura; The Helsinki University Library The National Library 1640–2010. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.

[iv] Kuusi, Hanna. 2011. Lainatut, viivatut, tentityt. Ylioppilaskunnan kirjasto Helsingin yliopiston opiskelijakirjasto 1858–2009. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.

[v] Sinikara, Kaisa. 2022. Tiedeyhteisön kumppanina. Laitoskirjastoista Helsingin yliopiston kirjastoksi 1828–2012. [5.4.2023]. Helsinki: Helsingin yliopiston kirjasto. Available in Helda Open Books: https://doi.org/10.31885/9789515150462. Abstract in English p. 347–352. 

[vi] Ruhanen, Tuula & Sarvilinna, Marja. (Ed.) 2018. Muutoksen tekijät hyvässä seurassa. Suomen tieteellinen kirjastoseura 1970–2010.  Helsinki: Suomen tieteellinen kirjastoseura.

[vii] The history of LIBER:  Häkli, Esko. 2011. Innovation through co-operation. The history of LIBER Ligue des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherche 1971–2009. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Researching IFLA's History: Archives


Researching IFLA's History: Archives

Peter Lor



Those who were able to attend the SIG’s open session at the Dublin WLIC, may remember that I referred to archival sources in my keynote paper, “Towards IFLA's centenary: historical sources and themes” (available at https://repository.ifla.org/bitstream/123456789/2005/2/083-lor-en.pdf).  I had planned to follow up those preliminary observations by spending a week exploring the IFLA archives. These are housed in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (the Royal Library) in The Hague, the Netherlands. After that I was to spend two days in Paris at the UNESCO archives.


Here is a report on what I found.

Most IFLA staff were on leave or working from home, but two of them, Anne Korhonen and Louis Takács, came into the office specially to help me. Assistance was needed firstly to arrange for my visit, and secondly to locate the IFLA archives. The latter is not normally a problem, but on this occasion the elevator which is normally used to access it was being serviced, and it proved quite difficult to navigate through the KB’s vast stacks to get to the IFLA archives. They are in a separate locked bay, quite close to the FID archives, which are also of interest to us.

Contrary to what I had seen on my previous visit (c. 2007) I found the archives well organized, arranged according to the various categories of documents. It is an extensive archive, dating from the early 1920s. Louis estimates its size at around 250 linear metres, including material of various types, such as pamphlets, leaflets, posters, press clippings, bound volumes (such as the IFLA Publications series), glass plate negatives, photographs, slides, audio recordings and CD-ROMs. (This is not an exhaustive list.)

Louis showed me a collection of material dating from IFLA’s early “League of Nations” period, when Tietse Pieter Sevensma served as IFLA’s secretary general. Sevensma was the head of the League of Nations Library in Geneva, and IFLA’s secretariat was housed there. This collection covers the period from the founding of IFLA in 1927, through the Inter-War years and the Second World War, when IFLA was largely but not entirely dormant, until IFLA was restarted in 1946. Because Sevensma’s successor as chief librarian of the League of Nations Library, A.C. Breycha-Vauthier, was later the treasurer of IFLA, this collection also contains later materials up to 1964. These materials had been transferred to the IFLA secretariat in The Hague in the late 1980s. In the meantime, Louis informs me that a great deal of material relating to IFLA can be found on a newly released online platform created by a massive project of the United Nations Library and Archives Geneva, called the “Total Digital Access to the League of Nations Archives”. The project ran from 2017 to 2022 and covers “League of Nations archives from 1920 to 1946, archives on international laws to protect refugees and minorities, the history of multilateralism, and international peace movements dating back to the late 19th century.” Read a news release about it at https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/news/2022/04/preserving-and-enabling-history-multilateralism-new-online-platform-gives. I’ve asked Louis to write a note about these resources for our blog.   

In 1989 Frédéric Saby, then a student at the French national library school, spent four weeks at IFLA headquarters in The Hague doing a stage (practical student assignment). He spent the time sorting and inventorising IFLA’s archives. He also spent two days in London at the headquarters of the (British) Library Association, identifying material in the papers of Anthony Thompson, IFLA’s last part-time secretary general. Thompson served in this capacity during 1962-1970, before Margreet Wijnstroom (1971-1987) was appointed as IFLA’s permanent full-time secretary general and the secretariat was moved to The Hague (Saby 1989b). I was able to obtain a copy of his classified inventory (Saby 1989a). This is a very useful tool for those interested in IFLA’s early history and IFLA’s role during the Second World War.

Louis Takács helped me to identify what we thought would be the most relevant files, and these were moved temporarily to an office made available for my use. I started by inspecting the proceedings of IFLA’s annual meetings, generally known by their initial French title of Actes du Comité International des Bibliothèques. The annual meetings of IFLA in the early years were called “sessions” and were essentially committee meetings of what was called the International Library Committee, which later became known as IFLA’s General Council. These were published under various titles from 1931 to 1968, as the names of the meetings changed over the years (IFLA 1931). They are very detailed, taking the form of committee minutes in which the comments of the participants are summarised in some detail.  I was greatly helped by the availability of a detailed cumulative index to the Actes for 1928 to 1964. This had been compiled by S. Randall and Anthony Thompson and published as part of the regular “IFLA Communications” in the journal Libri (Randall and Thompson 1966). (I am seriously in need of cataloguing assistance here, as there is no obvious way to add these complex documents to my Zotero citation database.)

I was concentrating on my main topic of relations between IFLA, FID and the League of Nations (from 1946 UNESCO), and UNESCO’s influence on IFLA’s development from a “gentleman’s club” to an international NGO. I was also noting material on some other themes: how the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and later the approaching Second World War (1939-1945) affected relationships with the members from the relevant countries;  IFLA’s semi-dormant period in Geneva during that war; the readmission of Germany after the war (a particularly interesting topic currently seen from the perspective of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine); the presence (or absence) of women in the annual group photographs of delegates; and the gradual increase in attendance by delegates from the Global South.

All this was taking so much time that in the first two days I barely managed to work through nine of the Actes (and none of the other materials). Then I developed Covid and had to self-isolate in my son’s 11th floor flat in a suburb of The Hague. Here I had the benefit of views through huge picture windows, from which I managed to identify eleven bird species, but could do no further work in the IFLA Archives, I also had to cancel my stay in Paris, where I had intended to visit the UNESCO archives.

This was a tantalising glimpse of a veritable treasure house of historical material. I hope to be back in The Hague next year, before or after the IFLA WLIC in Rotterdam in August.



IFLA. 1931. “Actes Du Comité International Des Bibliothèques [1931-1968; Title Varies].” The Hague: IFLA.

Randall, S., and Anthony Thompson, eds. 1966. Index Cumulatif Des Matières/Cumulative Subject Index, Sessions 1928-1944, Volumes I-XXIX,  et IFLA Communications FIAB (LIBRI) 1951-1964. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Saby, Frédéric. 1989a. “Archives de l’IFLA: Inventaire Du Fonds de Genève 1927-1965.” Unpublished typescript. The Hague: IFLA. IFLA.

———. 1989b. “Stage in The Hague, June 1989: Report.” Typescript. The Hague: IFLA (unpublished). IFLA Archives, The Hague.