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  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 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.


IFLA and the League of Nations

IFLA and the League of Nations

Louis Takács

IFLA Communications Officer



Those of you with any interest in IFLA’s early history might want to read on.

The United Nations Library & Archives Geneva has just completed their massive “Total Digital Access to the League of Nations Archives (2017-2022)” project. IFLA was headquartered at the League from 1928 to the WWII era and although they sent us 15+ linear meters of IFLA-related documents in the late 80s, a lot of additional material remains in Geneva. This includes an indeterminate amount of material relevant to IFLA’s early history.

I made some quick searches on their new repository and found a lot concerning pre-war IFLA, including:

This shows why some IFLA historians claim that the idea of IFLA came from the U.S.

reference to the founding!

They even scanned some of the Actes du Comite International des Bibliotheque, an early version of IFLA’s Annual Report:

Using search terms such as:

“Comité international des Bibliothèques" or “International Federation of Library Associations”

“Commission internationale de coopération intellectuelle” or “International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation”

“Sevensma” (IFLA Secretary General, 1929-1958; he was also the League librarian for many years)

yields a lot of interesting hits.  We have some of this material in our own archives but much of it is unique to the League’s archive.  


Access to the platform started less than a year ago

and as of 6 October 2022, it’s complete.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Introduction to the Library History SIG

 Introduction to the Library History SIG

Prepared by Peter Lor on behalf of Anna Maria Tammaro, Convener

27 May 2022


“History Bunk”

Globally, libraries and information services have deep roots in their societies. As everything changes, there is much we can learn and gain inspiration from the struggles, successes, and failures of our predecessors and elders in various parts of the world.


Organizational Information

The Library History Special Interest Group (LibHist SIG) is a long-standing unit. Currently it is sponsored by the Library Theory and Research Section, in Professional Division E.

SIGs are run less formally than Sections. We have a committee of nine members, chaired by our Convener, Professor Anna Maria Tammaro. You do not have to formally join up and pay a subscription as you would if you wanted to join an additional IFLA section. Just send a message to Anna Maria and she will add you to our discussion list. We also have a blog at Our web page is at Web page:


Current Projects

Over the years we have had many interesting sessions with contributions from many countries, on varied topics.

Our current projects:

  • IFLA will celebrate its Centenary in 2027 and currently we are focusing on projects to prepare for that:
  • Checking the existence of oral recordings from past librarians
  • Capturing Oral Stories from today’s librarians, especially oral histories from past IFLA Presidents, Secretaries General and IFLA personalities
  • Developing a programme of research into aspects of IFLA’s history, with a view to a special session at the WLICs leading up to 2027, and for publication in a book to be published in the centenary year.

IMPORTANT: These projects offer scope for LIS students to help with reference queries, and for those looking for a topic for a thesis or dissertation in library history and professional association studies, e.g. applying organizational theory. To learn more, check our website and attend our open session in Dublin.

WLIC Programme

Annually we try to have two meetings: an open session and a business meeting, also open to all.

Dublin 2022: Tuesday 26 July

SIG Committee at 14:45-16:15 (all interested members welcome to audit)

Open Session on “Sources and Themes for the Historiography of IFLA” 16:30-18:00

To prepare for a commemorative volume of chapters about various aspects of IFLA’s history.

Call for papers is still open, but not for long!