What we value: first days in Wrocław

It’s August, which means it’s time for my annual pilgrimage to the World Library and Information Congress run by the International Federation of Library Associations. These trips are a blessing because they get me out of my little pond and into the great big world of different experiences and perspectives.

This year we’re in Wrocław (pronounced Vrots-wav), Poland’s fourth largest city, with a history going back 1000 years. It’s this history, and the speeches I heard at at the conference opening ceremony, that have got me thinking about what societies value.

Wrocław was founded on the lowland banks and islands of the Oder river at the crossroads of two important trade routes – the Amber Road from the Baltic region to the Mediterranean, and the Via Regia between eastern and western Europe. Control of the city has shifted with the political and military fortunes of Poland, Germany, Prussia and Bohemia. Here’s the central market square in 1900, when the city was called Breslau and was part of Germany.

In the winter of 1945, Breslau was fortified by the Germans and beseiged by the Russian army for months. Almost 70 per cent of the city was destroyed.

At the end of World War II, Breslau was transferred to Poland and renamed Wrocław. Poland was under communist rule until 1989. During the height of anti-communist protests and martial law in the 1980s, Wrocław students took a creative approach to resistance – blog post here.

Today Wrocław’s historic buildings have been restored (interspersed with communist-chic concrete apartment blocks and a few bits of modern architecture). The city is a thriving business centre, university town and the European Capital of Culture in 2016. The place is loaded with churches, concert halls, festivals, galleries, museums, libraries and even a historic puppet theatre.

The IFLA conference is being held at Centennial Hall, a 1913 architectural wonder with a massive concrete dome. It’s kind of spectacular, kind of ugly, and possibly looks best from the air.

Hundreds of wonderful conference volunteers.

The opening ceremony took place on Sunday, with 3100 librarians in attendance. What struck me about the ceremony was the speeches from Polish guests – the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Culture; the Mayor of Wroclaw; the Director of the National Library of Poland. I wouldn’t normally say that speeches are a highlight of any opening ceremony, but these made me think. And what I thought was: You can only truly value something when you’ve lived without it.

When Poles speak passionately and intelligently about the importance of libraries as civil institutions that foster open access to information, democracy and an informed and critical citizenry, they’re speaking as people who have lived through – and overthrown – Cold War communism. When they talk about why societies need to safeguard cultural memory and heritage, they know what it means to lose most of their treasures (and millions of their people) to the devastation of war. I was sitting there with a bunch of Australians all saying: “Wow”. These are not speeches you’d hear from an Australian politician. Not issues many Australians give much weight to (unless they happen to be Aboriginal or a refugee, in which case I think they’d totally get it).

We should listen to people who know what they’re talking about when they say these things are important and shouldn’t be taken for granted.