9 June marks International Archives Day – falling in the middle of a week dedicated to celebrating and highlighting the work of the archive and record management sectors. We warmly congratulate our colleagues across many types of institutions – from national to community archives, and of course libraries carrying out archival activities. We stand in solidarity with them to continue building societies where preserving and ensuring access to information powers fundamental rights, wellbeing and development!
One of the key themes for this year’s celebrations is empowering accountability and transparency – how archives help people protect their rights and hold governments accountable through access to information.
This offers a good opportunity to reflect on where the global dialogue on transparency and accountability stands today – and how together libraries and archives can support and help drive progress.
The push for transparency in challenging times
The pandemic has, without a doubt, raised urgent questions about transparency and access to information, with many stakeholders highlighting the key role of universal access to government and public interest information. In particular at a time that governments are making decisions on an emergency basis, it helps ensure that people are well-informed about the situation, uphold accountability and build sustainable policies.
Transparency International, for example, pointed out that freedom of information rights gain additional urgency as pandemic responses impact people’s right to movement and assembly. The latter can also mean that opportunities for participatory democratic processes – and for media and civil society organisations to travel, gather and publish public interest information – are also severely reduced.
These discussions helped identify good practices and principles – e.g. proactive disclosure, building a robust digital infrastructure – which can help ensure that people’s fundamental right to information is upheld during this time of crisis.
Thinking to the future, the possibility for citizens to hold governments to account for the decisions and actions they have taken during the pandemic will depend on the possibility to access, rapidly and easily, relevant documentation.
As Freedom in the World 2021 Policy Recommendations highlight,
[…] Freedom House surveyed democracy and human rights experts working in over 100 countries, asking how democratic governments can help support democracy and human rights during the pandemic. Providing the public with access to fact-based information was a top response.
Powering a culture of transparency, accountability and access to information
In their work to support openness and transparency, archives, libraries, and information professionals have already identified many areas where their help can have a strong impact.
These include, for example, helping build accessible and user-friendly platforms for people to access public information, raising awareness about the public’s rights to information, offering engagement opportunities and helping their communities build up the skills needed to effectively use and leverage this information.
Such questions have been high on the agenda for IFLA over the past months. Principles and good practice examples have been outlined in IFLA’s recent Statement on Libraries and Open and Good Governance, our input to the UN Human Rights Office on Fostering Access to Information Held by Public Entities, and a briefing on libraries and open government.
The encouraging news is that libraries around the world continue to explore new and different ways to support these principles. For example, in the Netherlands, “digital government information points” are set up in more and more public libraries – with around 200 points set up since the initiative was launched in 2019!
They help people with many different questions – accessing e-government services, understanding legal terminology in official letters, referring people to NGos or government agencies that can best address their queries, and more.
In the USA, Indiana University Libraries received the U.S. Government Publishing Office’s 2020 “Library of the Year” title for the creative ways to connect people with government information. For example, their “Government Info Alerts” initiative offers people biweekly updates on new publications and development – tailored to their areas of interest on the basis of a short survey.
These examples reiterate that building a culture of transparency, accountability and access to information calls for multifaceted solutions on both supply (how information is offered) and demand (how people are encouraged and enabled to use it) sides.
Both archives and libraries are well placed to meet this need – ensuring long-term preservation of records, building user-friendly solutions for digital access, removing access restrictions, balancing the rights to access information with the rights to privacy, and more.
Of course, collaboration and exchange of good practices are a key ingredient to achieving these goals! This is well-reflected in another key point of the 2021 International Archive Day discussion – networking and collaboration.
So we want to once again congratulate our colleagues – and look forward to continuing working together to help power transparency, accountability and access to information!