The emergence of the internet has undoubtedly revolutionised the information landscape, taking us from a situation of information scarcity to one of abundance.
This has of course massively affected the role of libraries, which can no-longer claim any sort of monopoly on provision of access to information, at least beyond that which people’s personal libraries can provide.
Libraries have responded, focusing collections on materials which cannot necessarily be found freely online. They have also placed a greater emphasis on providing a space where people can interact with information and build communities.
As is already reflected in IFLA’s Intellectual Freedom Statement, which turns 20 this year, libraries should act as ‘gateways’ to information.
Crucially, this is the word chosen, rather than ‘gatekeepers’, which would imply that libraries choose what information people should see or not, or even, what information people should see.
This is an important distinction. Given the commitment of libraries to providing access to information, claiming a right to restrict this sends an odd signal. It risks making libraries look paternalistic and even arrogant – something that will not serve our institutions well as we seek public and political support into the future.
This is not to say that there are no situations where access needs to be controlled – because materials are vulnerable, sensitive, or (unfortunately) because of the conditions under which they were acquired. Moreover, the fact that libraries cannot acquire everything does create a limitation of sorts on possibilities for access, at least until a copy can be found from elsewhere.
However, these situations are clearly the exception not the rule. As the Intellectual Freedom Statement suggests, it seems fitting that library and information workers should think first of all about how they can give access, rather than how they should restrict it.
Fake News and the Risk of Back-Sliding
Especially with the rise of concern about ‘fake news’, there has also been a tendency to talk about libraries as places where you can find reliable information. Surveys have shown that this is indeed a key strength of libraries in the eyes of communities.
This is welcome – it is certainly true that libraries work hard to acquire high quality books and materials, and librarians aim to help users find the sources that help them best.
However, the idea of libraries as the place where you find reliable information – ‘true news’ – brings with it the suggestion that our institutions have a monopoly on truth and fact. This risks reversing the progress marked in the Intellectual Freedom statement – the recognition that libraries are gateways, not gatekeepers.
Where libraries arguably do have a monopoly is as places where it is possible to develop the skills, at any time of life, to use and interact with information. To recognise that there is often no one right answer, but degrees of accuracy and reliability, and to deal with this accordingly.
This comes both from the diversity of collections libraries can offer, from different sources and publishers, and from the skills of librarians themselves.
Indeed, it’s possible to argue that libraries are not just gateways – passive spaces where people can come in order to read an borrow books, or use the Internet – but gate-openers – to a more active and useful engagement with information.
The 20 years since the agreement of IFLA’s Intellectual Freedom Statement have seen huge changes in the way we access and use information. In doing so, they have confirmed the choice of the word ‘gateway’ rather than ‘gate-keeper’ in relation to libraries’ role in relation to access to information.
Today, with a growing emphasis on building skills – and the risk of back-sliding linked to the ‘fake news’ phenomenon – perhaps it is time to think about taking the next step, from gateways to gate-openers.