COVID-19, libraries and human rights: Notes from Italy

As most people know, Italy was the first European country to be affected by the pandemic with significant consequences (up to October 15, 2020, 382,602 recorded cases and 36,372 deaths). Already in February 2020, the first ‘red zones’ were set up to try to stop the spread of the contagion. At the governmental and regional levels, between 30 January and 11 March 2020, several government decree-laws were issued that severely restricted people’s daily lives, affecting individual and collective rights: the obligation to stay at home (except for carrying out essential needs such as shopping – only food), the interruption of cultural and social sports activities, closure of schools and universities and numerous production activities, suspension of a large part of health care services, the prohibition to visit the sick and the elderly.

For the public, from the perspective of human rights at large, the most striking limitation was related to mobility, with the prohibition on moving more than 200m away from one’s home to take a walk. Another severe limitation concerns participation in democratic life, with the impossibility of holding meetings, assemblies, public demonstrations, debates, and participating as citizens in the proceedings of town councils. As regards to the freedom of information, it is essential to point out that a reason considered to be valid for leaving one’s home was to go to the newsstand to buy the newspaper or magazine, a necessity considered on a par with buying food or going to the pharmacy.

Libraries were officially closed from 9 March 9 to 30 April, but several libraries already imposed substantial restrictions in services or closed from February 23, and many only reopened towards the end of May or later. At the time of writing (October 2020), some libraries are still closed.

In response, the National Public Libraries Committee of the Italian Library Association launched a participatory process in the spring, involving librarians from different regions of Italy, to start a public debate on the future of library services from the perspective of their current experiences [1].

Library online events: helping deliver on the rights to information, culture and education

Libraries’ responses to the pandemic varied. For example, university libraries operated according to rules set out by their host institutions (related to the interruption of lessons in attendance, teaching activities, and remotely held exams). Public libraries tried to restore lending services as soon as they could. In contrast, events, guided tours, reading groups, activities with schools were canceled. It has been calculated that in the Emilia-Romagna Region alone (about 1,500 libraries), more than 2,000 events in libraries and archives were canceled during the lockdown period [2].

However, many libraries worked to make up for the closures with home loans and by organising online events focused on “distance reading.” Many activities were dedicated to children and young people, to support and supplement school activities, or to support children staying at home. Libraries organised hundreds of events to help deliver on the rights enshrined in the “Rights of the Child” Convention – their right to information, special needs, education, rest, leisure, and play.

One example is the readings for children at the Municipal Library of Cisterna di Latina. Other activities were organised for adult target audiences – for example, a contemporary poetry reading at the Library “Il Mulino di Vione” in Basiglio (Milan)[3].

Digital content and resources: adapting to circumstances and responding to demand

For the society at large, the rapid shift to digital in education, work, and leisure saw some evidence of a forced “digital training” of the population in Italy. Evidence of increased readiness to use the internet for daily tasks can be seen, also, in the development of e-commerce during the lockdown. There, for example, it is estimated that by the end of 2020, there will have been a 26% increase in e-commerce revenue. In parallel, people shared music made from home in #iorestoacasa.

Libraries have worked to extend their digital offer to keep pace with these changes. A great deal of work has been done on digitizing the collections of museums and historical libraries, with numerous art exhibitions and museum collections turned into digital guided tours. As cultural institutions were closed and leisure travel was forbidden as well, these actions were particularly effective in order to guarantee the right to education, and participation in cultural life.

Libraries have also been engaged in promoting digital resources, particularly the MediaLibraryOnLine (MLOL) platform, which already existed but was underused until now. Of particular interest are the growth figures of this newsstand service platform.

USE (Jan. 1 – Sept.1) Growth in 2019 compared to 2018 Growth in 2020 compared to 2019
Reading sessions + 25,32 % + 97,45 %
Titles + 9,66 % + 0,11 %
Users + 18,91 % +82,32 %


Table 1 – MediaLibraryOnLine (MLOL) Increase of Sessions and users (courtesy Giulio Blasi – Horizon Unlimited)


Even with the “official” reopening of the libraries, it remains complicated to consult materials, and practically impossible to read newspapers in libraries. As a result, this push to use digital resources should be encouraged so as to avoid the reduction in the possibilities of access to information in a country like Italy.

This is important, given that the right to information is a relatively recent social right, as set out in Constitutional Court resolution no. 420 of December 7, 1994, which enshrines the necessity “to guarantee the utmost pluralism of information channels to satisfy, through multiple diverse voices, people’s right to information”.


Enrica Manenti (Italy) – IFLA FAIFE Network

October 28, 2020




[1] See <> (last checked October,28 2020)

[2] See Turricchia, R., L’impatto del Covid-19 sulle biblioteche dell’Emilia-Romagna, AIB Notizie, 6 agosto 2020 <> (last checked October, 18 2020)

[3] For evaluating first effects of lockdown on libraries see AIB Studi , vol. 60, Jan./Apr. , 2020, <> (last checked October, 18 2020) and the on-line window on National Italian Libraries’ Day – BiblioPride <>

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