17 May marked the annual World Telecommunication and Information Society Day. This year’s theme, “Accelerating digital transformation in challenging times”, encourages libraries to reflect on their own digital journeys over the past year, and on the next steps in reaching global connectivity goals and ambitions.
For over a decade, libraries’ roles in the information society have been fairly well-established. The WSIS Tunis Agenda and the Geneva Plan of Action, as early as 2003-2005, sought to engage and support libraries as public access points, facilitators of digital skills learning, and champions of (cultural) content generation.
To this day, these elements reflect some of the key goals libraries pursue in their work to support meaningful digital inclusion. However, as the theme of this year’s WTIS Day highlights, the pandemic has accelerated the global digital transformation, and the past months have posed both a considerable challenge and an impetus for innovation as libraries shifted to digital.
Library innovation in challenging times
This included, of course, digitalising some of the core offers, such as expanding digital collections, introducing or broadening online reference services) and putting other traditional activities online (e.g. book clubs and storytime events).
But this year also saw libraries come up with creative ways to put forward diverse and expanded offers, such as virtual cooking and gymnastics events in libraries in Italy, or the ICT-enabled remote bibliotherapy and psychological support in libraries in Lithuania and Romania. There were various interesting ideas for digitally recreating various elements of library user experiences – for example, a “virtual study space” held by an academic library in Turkey through Zoom.
The sustained emphasis on using technologies as ‘a force for good’ also helps us think about the broader social impacts of such digital initiatives. For example, one approach to maximising libraries’ positive impact emphasised broadening their reach. There were many examples of libraries introducing or easing the process of digital membership applications and e-cards to make sure that more people can benefit from their services with the shift to digital. There have also been examples of libraries working to offer access to valuable materials without any restrictions on membership – like the Central Library in Tallinn setting up a digital access platform for ebooks available to all citizens.
Another way to understand the societal impacts is by focusing on how libraries worked to meet communities’ needs – for example, the many ways academic, school and public libraries supported the educational shift to digital. In Kenya, for instance, a community library set up a temporary multimedia studio which teachers used to conduct and livestream daily online classes.
Lessons learned and moving forward
The library actions listed above set out ways in which libraries are working to address the broader digital connectivity gap and inequalities that the pandemic has so sharply highlighted.
While examples such as these are inspiring and show the flexibility and adaptability of the global library field, all this of course depends on local circumstances and capacities. There were cases where the pandemic highlighted the need for library connectivity, better access to technologies, digital skills-building opportunities for librarians, or more supportive policy frameworks.
The need is great, and WTIS Day 2021 sets the goal not just of continuing, but rather of accelerating digital transformation. For libraries to play their part in more rapid progress towards meaningful digital inclusion, they will need to be properly recognised in national policies for meaningful digital inclusion. A good starting point is therefore the ITU’s own Connect 2030 Agenda – so what does it contain and what role can libraries play in helping realise it?
Libraries and the Connect 2030 Goals
The Agenda was developed by the International Telecommunications Union and its members to define the targets and transformations in the digital sphere needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. It comprises 5 key goals – to power Growth, Inclusiveness, Sustainability, Innovation and Partnerships.
The first two goals contain indicators on digital inclusion and connectivity – both on the global scale and for developing countries and underserved user groups (i.e. women and people with disabilities) in particular.
Among these targets, there are areas where libraries already work to help their realisation – e.g. on the number of people using the internet, on the affordability of connectivity (which public access can help achieve), and digital skills.
The Agenda also sets out various targets focusing on digital policy frameworks, such as:
- The “number of countries with a specific policy for ICT accessibility” (all countries by 2023);
- “By 2023, all countries should have a National Emergency Telecommunication Plan as part of their national and local disaster risk reduction strategies”;
- “By 2023, all countries should have policies/strategies fostering telecommunication/ICT-centric innovation”;
- “By 2023, raise the percentage of countries with an e-waste legislation to 50%”
All these areas have already attracted interest and generated discussion within the library field. From the US, for example, we have insights on the role of libraries in crisis and natural disaster response – including their role in offering access to the internet, electricity, and in helping spread critical information during the crisis. Similarly, there are country-level case studies which outline the role libraries can play in supporting ICT innovation. For example, the ITU’s recent report on Moldova points out the contribution of the Novateca Libraries to helping build the soft (e.g. skills) and hard infrastructure which encourages innovation in the country.
As such, there are different ways libraries can contribute to these ambitions – and as more countries move to develop and adopt policies on accessibility, ICT innovation, e-waste and emergency telecommunication by 2023, it is well worth it for libraries to keep informed and engage with these policy dialogues in order to be recognised as partners in achieving success.