Tag Archives: libraries

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 <https://www.aib.it/struttura/commissioni-e-gruppi/cnbp/> (last checked October,28 2020)

[2] See Turricchia, R., L’impatto del Covid-19 sulle biblioteche dell’Emilia-Romagna, AIB Notizie, 6 agosto 2020 <http://aibnotizie.aib.it/limpatto-del-covid-19-sulle-biblioteche-dellemilia-romagna/> (last checked October, 18 2020)

[3] For evaluating first effects of lockdown on libraries see AIB Studi , vol. 60, Jan./Apr. , 2020, < https://aibstudi.aib.it/issue/view/1167/> (last checked October, 18 2020) and the on-line window on National Italian Libraries’ Day – BiblioPride < https://www.aib.it/attivita/bibliopride/bibliopride2020/>

Why Privacy Matters, For Everyone: Chose Privacy Week 2019

Choose Privacy Week was initiated by the American Library Association to draw attention to the importance of privacy, and what people can do about it. It is a great opportunity to learn about the important role librarians play in achieving this.

This year’s theme of Choose Privacy Week is “Inclusive Privacy: Closing the Gap”, and raises awareness of the privacy inequities imposed on vulnerable and historically underrepresented groups. It highlights how libraries can close the privacy gap for those who need it most.

Why Privacy Matters

Privacy is of course a right. As set out in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people should be able to live free of arbitrary interventions in their private life.

There is a good reason for this. The possibility to have a private life is central to much of what makes us human. In particular, it gives us the freedom to think, speak and access information freely.

IFLA’s submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on Privacy stresses this point, underlining that without privacy, there can be a powerful chilling effect on creativity and innovation.

Privacy has traditionally been seen as a means of protecting the individual against efforts by states to import control. However, increasingly, it is privacy in the face of companies that is coming to the fore.

Data collection has never been easier, and the companies whose services we use are increasingly able to draw conclusions about us on the basis of what they see. Indeed, many of these conclusions may reveal traits and preferences of which we are not necessarily conscious ourselves.

Clearly advertising has done this for years, but the possibility to do so in such a targeted, individual manner is new.

If this was only about advertising, it would not necessarily be so important, although clearly still has a certain ‘creepiness’ factor. However, more is at stake. It can also shape the content we see on line – which stories, posts or search-results are promoted.

Ironically, perhaps, the effort to personalise services comes at the cost of individuality and privacy, as a coded version of your personality is constructed, held on a server somewhere, and then used.

This is not just an issue on social media, but also in the research space. With efforts to move from institutional to personal log-ins to academic articles, the possibility for publishers and platforms to monitor use, and make their own efforts to tailor results and experience also arise.

This is a problem, because it means that we cannot assume that the person next to us is seeing the same thing as we would. Moreover, given that the algorithmic version of your personality can only work on the basis of past data, it does not allow for you to change in the future, potentially locking you into a particular set of preferences and interests.


Privacy Can’t Be A Luxury

Yet privacy – and the need for privacy – may not be equally distributed or equally shared.

A first challenge is for people who belong to a vulnerable or marginalised group. In many cases, they may feel the need to hide what it is that makes them unique, given political, cultural or social pressures in the society around them.

The internet has been a major source of support for many in this position, given the possibility to connect to those in a similar situation elsewhere, without having to use what may be a hostile public space.

To have these characteristics and interest coded and used to shape advertising and online experience (and potentially even inform governments) takes these gains away.

There may also be challenges for people on lower incomes, who may, for example, be more reliant on smart phones to access the internet (which pose a number of privacy concerns).

They can also be obliged to share more personal information anyway online in order to apply for government services or other programmes. A 2017 study on privacy, poverty and big data by Data & Society reveals some key trends.

Add to this stories of internet subscribers being asked to pay more for a privacy-friendly connection, or the fact that more expensive phone brands are using privacy as a selling point, and the potential connection between income and the right to a private life becomes clear.

Finally, there is often not a connection between the risks faced, and the ability to do something about it.

Recent privacy legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union, gives important new rights to individuals. The success of this depends on people being sufficiently skilled and motivate to choose privacy.

Yet is seems clear that even where there is awareness, there may not be the skills – or even the attitude – necessary to act on it. As the Data & Society study shows, while there is demand, people with less money, less time, and less education may feel helpless in the face of companies and government agencies.

This is just as true in the case of right to be forgotten cases. While there is certainly a place for such rules in protecting people against unfair, irrelevant or incorrect information about them being found through search results, the risk is that it becomes a tool for those in positions of power to ‘edit’ the historical record.


How Libraries Can Help

A year ago IFLA and the FAIFE Committee used the momentum of the Chose Privacy Week to bring awareness to how personal data ownership affect libraries and library users and offered practical steps that individuals can take to keep their private lives private in regards to the General Data Protection Regulation.

A year after, there is still a need to work to ensure that everyone really is aware of, skilled and motivated to use their choice of privacy.

Libraries have an expertise in information management, and a responsibility to help others develop their own information literacy skills. With more and more library resources found online, libraries can not only offer a means of accessing information and expressing yourself in as private a way as possible, but can encourage privacy-friendly behaviours in their users’ own lives.

In short, the library is not only a trusted source of information but also a community support and can “close the privacy gap” for its users by providing a safe space, training and resources to help them take control of their private lives and data.

Here are a few steps that you can take to ensure the users privacy:

  • Make use of the privacy guidelines for libraries. In 2016, IFLA published the IFLA Statement on Privacy in the Library Environment. The Statement is intended to give guidance to libraries and information services in an environment that includes mass surveillance by governments and routine user data collection by commercial interests that provide content or services through the Internet.
  • Reduce data traces online. Greater care in choosing privacy settings, and simply better data hygiene can all help. And there are great tools such as the Data Detox Kit already available.
  • Apply tools to protect user privacy. ALA has created a list of resources on relevant tools, you can find the list here, while Scottish PEN has a Libraries for Privacy Toolkit.
  • Watch presentations and webinars on the subject. You can learn a lot by watching webinars such as the IFLA webinar on the GDPR, or the ALA video on raising privacy awareness in your library.
  • Help raise awareness throughout Chose Privacy Week!

Digital Cooperation Day Three: How can libraries play a strong role in partnerships and decision-making related to the internet?

The final day of our consultation on IFLA’s response to the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation looks at how we can give libraries a stronger role in decision-making about digital issues.

As highlighted in previous blogs, libraries already have a strong record of cooperation. The sorts of partnership involved vary according to the type of library, from local community groups to major multinational companies, but all can help achieve library goals.

What about cooperation at the global level? IFLA regularly represents libraries at the Internet Governance Forum, and there are often librarians at regional and national editions. Indeed, a key benefit of participation in these meetings is the potential they offer to build and pursue partnerships.

However, not all discussions about major digital issues are so open. Libraries are not always so well listened to in other fora, despite the contribution they can make.

So our final question focuses on what should be done to ensure that libraries play a strong role, both in order to influence decision-making, and in order to ensure that their potential to provide solutions to digital challenges is not left unrealised.

Does there need to be a more formal role for voices like those of libraries? Greater consultation? Discussion of digital issues at local levels?

Let us know what you think! You can also post your ideas on social media with the hashtag #LibrariesDigiCoop.

You can read IFLA’s initial submission to the High Level Panel on our website. See all of our blogs on Digital Cooperation here.

Digital Cooperation Day Two: What can libraries contribute in the key areas where digital cooperation is required?

Day two of our consultation on IFLA’s response to call for contributions launched by the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation focuses on how libraries can make a difference to the challenges set out.

Why cooperate? Libraries have long worked with others – governments, partners – in order to provide better services, going beyond what they can do alone. Libraries are often as much of a platform for others to deliver as an actor themselves.

This is logical – everyone has different strengths, roles and possibilities. It makes it possible to achieve goals, and tackle problems, effectively.

The same goes for the online world. The emergence of a digital economy and society both changed the way we think about existing challenges, and created new ones. These can be linked to a lack of cooperation or shared understanding between players.

To respond, it is necessary to cooperate, bringing together different actors – governments, private companies, individuals, organisations, and of course libraries!

What these actors can do, together, is one of the key areas of focus of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation.

So our second question is about what libraries can contribute to responding to these challenges. The Panel suggests inclusive development, inclusive participation in the digital economy, data, protection of human rights online, human voice and human agency in the digital age, digital trust and security, and building the capacity of individuals, institutions and governments for the digital transformation as particular challenges.

Let us know what you think!

You can read IFLA’s initial submission to the High Level Panel on our website. See all of our blogs on Digital Cooperation here.