Libraries and Human Rights in 2021: Evolving circumstances, constant commitment

Every year, international Human Rights Day on 10 December commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948. This year’s theme – Reducing inequalities, advancing human rights – is a strong call to action to deliver on equality and fundamental rights for all, particularly in times of crisis. As libraries uphold their commitment to promoting and championing human rights, this day offers an opportunity to reflect on progress made, continuing efforts, and new developments.

Libraries’ relationship with human rights is multidimensional – in no small part shaped by their overarching commitment to free and equitable access to information, as well as their everyday work relating to the rights to culture, science, civic participation, education, and free expression. On the other hand, libraries’ work itself can depend on an enabling environment around them which respects fundamental rights.

Meanwhile, the broader human rights landscape continues to evolve – with both new initiatives to defend fundamental rights, as well as events and developments that challenge these in new ways.

Consider some of the ongoing human rights discussions taking place today: the ways that online algorithmic content delivery and curation systems can impact the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression; the implications of mis- and dis-information (and some responses to it!) on freedom of opinion and expression; the effects of digitisation (and the growing involvement of private sector actors which often accompanies it) on the right to education, or the ways the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the cultural sector and people’s enjoyment of cultural rights (and digital cultural opportunities that try to offset some of these setbacks), and others.

These are just a few of the recent human rights developments that can have an impact on library work – on the roles that library services play in delivering on fundamental rights, on day-to-day library practices, on new services they develop, and so on.

As both library processes and the communities around them change and evolve, new human rights considerations, implications and good practices emerge.

What can this look like in practice? The members of the FAIFE Human Rights Working Group – Buhle Mbambo-Thata, Fiona Bradley and Margaret Brown-Sica – have highlighted several examples of emerging human rights considerations which impact libraries, drawing on examples from three regions – Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia in Asia-Oceania, and Canada and the USA in North America. While some emerging human rights issues are experienced across the regions, others are more specific to one or more countries:

  • Oceania and Australia, among other regions, are already experiencing the effects of climate change – more extreme weather, rising waters, and intense bushfires. Access to environmental information as defined under UDHR Article 19 and the Aarhus Convention are essential. Yet, libraries face many technical, legal, and cost barriers to provide information, particularly in local languages.
  • Australia has adopted legislation outlawing modern slavery in supply chain and business practices. This means that libraries, and all other organisations, must evaluate their suppliers’ compliance with ensuring that no books, materials, furniture or other items have been produced with forced labour. Some library vendors are required to report their own practices annually (see, for example, a RELX Modern Slavery Act Statement).
  • The Asia-Oceania region has also spearheaded numerous laws and initiatives that seek to address online harms and content. These impact the types of content libraries, including public libraries, may offer, and the steps they may need to take to prevent access to such content. Some recent developments in this area include the Christchurch Call, a series of commitments by government and tech companies to combat extremist online content, and a collaboration between Australia and Fiji on eSafety and reducing online harms. In the meantime, both the Australian Library and Information Association and public libraries in Australia support a range of activities around eSafety, particularly for children – from cybersafety checklists for libraries to Safer Internet Day campaigns, and other ways to promote responsible and safe use of the internet and ICT.
  • Access to information remains a crucial and fundamental human right – and such access is increasingly mediated by the internet. Libraries rely on digital tools more and more often to deliver services, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when physical access has often been restricted. However, for political reasons, internet blackouts and shutdowns continue to occur, hindering access to library services – including recently in several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and other regions.
  • There has been a positive development in the protection of personal information in South Africa through the implementation of the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act, which prohibits use of personal information without the consultation of the owner. This falls into a broader trend of new-generation data privacy laws that aim to deliver on the fundamental rights to privacy in the evolved digital environment, which libraries also operate in.
  • The United States has recently seen a resurgence in efforts to ban books, particularly in school libraries. The focus has been on materials that document and discuss the lives of people who are gay/queer/transgender or Black, Indigenous or persons of color. The American Library Association has issued a statement addressing this issue: “We are committed to defending the constitutional rights of all individuals, of all ages, to use the resources and services of libraries. We champion and defend the freedom to speak, the freedom to publish, and the freedom to read, as promised by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.” 
  • Canada marked its first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, 2021. The Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA-FCAB) published a report which urges action by libraries to deliver on Indigenous Rights, and highlights the many measures that can help achieve this. These focus in particular on decolonising libraries and spaces (which includes, for example, ensuring that space planning and design are culturally appropriate, territorial acknowledgements, library programming created in collaboration with local Indigenous stakeholders, and more), and decolonising access and classification (i.e. addressing biases and integrating Indigenous epistemologies into knowledge organisation and information retrieval systems) as part of this movement.

As the examples above show, there is a wide range of emerging, changing and evolving human rights considerations and good practices that shape library practices today. Maintaining dialogue and sharing experiences within the global library field remains a valuable tool to find effective ways to deliver on human rights commitments – so, on this Human Rights Day, we encourage and welcome you to share your own thoughts and perspectives on emerging human rights trends!

What key human rights considerations are prominent in your own local, national or regional library fields? What new developments have shaped your views on library human rights commitments? What good practices can help navigate this changing landscape?

You can join the discussion by using hashtags #Libraries4HumanRights and #StandUp4HumanRights – and we look forward to continuing these important conversations both today and throughout the year!

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