This week’s blog comes from High Life Highland Libraries, who recently attended a conference in Austria as guests of the Austrian Library Association.

On the 14th May a team from High Life Highland Libraries attended the International Library Congress 2018 in the beautiful city of Graz, the second largest city in Austria, as guests of the BVÖ, the Austrian Library Association.

This was the latest instalment in what has become a blossoming partnership and friendship between HLH and the BVÖ. In the summer of 2017 two Austrian colleagues undertook work experience placements on the Far North Mobile Library, as part of the BVÖs exemplary international training programme for library volunteers. Their experiences touring the north coast and accompanying mobile librarian Michelle Currie are featured on a BVÖ blog. Our guests were a great hit with the locals; word quickly travelled the length and breadth of the Highlands that there were Austrians on the vans and they were up for a blether!


The conference, celebrating the anniversary of 100 years of the Republic of Austria, explored the theme Libraries and Democracy with discussions surrounding the following premise:

‘Libraries are the most widely used public cultural and educational institutions, providing full access to education and information, and thus have great political relevance. They guarantee and promote freedom of information and diversity of opinion - they are mediators and places of fundamental democratic values.’

This theme was explored and debated in a series of workshops, presentations and panel events. There were contributions from colleagues from Austria, Columbia, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.S. Topics ranged from an international panel discussion of Library Laws, (with HLH represented by John West), to a fascinating and deeply moving portrayal of a local library by guest of honour, José Alberto Gutierrez. José, a former bin man from Bogotá in Colombia, related how he created a free library of more than 20,000 thrown away books called The Strength of Words to support families in helping their children with homework.

The HLH team laboured long into the evening as they scrubbed up and boarded a cable car to attend the evening festivities in the historic Schlossberg castle overlooking the city. Dinner was accompanied by suitably atmospheric readings from local crime writer Robert Preis and the music was provided by a band featuring the sons of a Graz librarian. International relations were firmly cemented at the dinner table, if not on the dance floor!

At the conference finale, the HLH team appeared onstage for a joint session with Susanne Tretthahn from the BVÖ and volunteers Astrid Neureiter and Sonja Teufel-Müller. Our Austrian colleagues gave a hugely entertaining, informative and well received presentation succinctly paraphrased by the following BVÖ tweet:

At the #bvoekongress18 they tell their Scottish colleagues about their routes and beautiful encounters with readers (and sheep).’

This was followed by a question and answer session with the HLH team with regards to Library services in the Highlands.

The conference culminated in an awards ceremony celebrating innovation in practice in Austrian libraries. The top prize of 3,000 Euros was awarded to Frastanz Library for their "Coming and Going" initiative which explored migration and linked this with local history; clear parallels with the Scottish and Highland experience. Other winning projects with a resonance for Scottish Libraries included makerspaces, programming robots and teenage literary cafes.

The conference allowed the HLH team to network, share experiences and learn from our international colleagues. The challenges and opportunities we face are, perhaps unsurprisingly, very similar as we constantly innovate and strive to attract appropriate levels of public funding and investment to allow us to remain a “bulwark of democracy” at the vanguard of public service.

Next steps

High Life Highland are continuing to work with the BVÖ; new volunteers will be joining us in the summer for placements on the west coast and on the Isle of Skye, (sun cream and duffle coats at the ready). Susanne will be delivering a presentation at IFLA´S World Library and Information Congress on The Austrian Library Association‘s International Program for Volunteer Librarians – ‘Travelling with a Mobile Library’. This will feature High Life Highland’s very own “Bücherbus”!

All at High Life Highland would like to thank our Austrian colleagues, including Susanne, Judith, Anja, Astrid, Sonja and Doris for their hospitality and friendship and extend a very special thank you to Markus Feigl, the Executive Director of the Austrian Library Association, for such a warm welcome and for personally introducing us to the joys of Austrian cuisine. Yes Markus, Scots really do eat blood pudding for breakfast.


Photo copyright © BVÖ/Martin Wiesner