There is a big difference between a shopping list and a successful recipe. Access to the raw materials is necessary, but not enough to make a meal. Without an idea of quantities, how and when to add ingredients, and cooking times and methods, we don’t get very far.
Much the same is true with information – if we do not know how to find it, apply it, re-use it and share it, we lose much of its value.
The 2017 Development and Access to Information (DA2I) report, produced by IFLA in partnership with the Technology and Social Change Group at the University of Washington, sets out four essential ingredients for access: information and communications infrastructure, social and cultural norms, legal and policy frameworks (on copyright, freedom of expression) and individuals’ capacities.
The first three are necessary to ensure that all individuals have the possibility to get hold of information that is relevant to them – without Internet connection or devices, relevant available content, or an environment that permits and encourages learning and personal development, clearly access to information cannot happen.
But the key factor in making access truly meaningful lies within the individual. It is the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to understand, apply and even re-create information.
This can go from something as simple as where to find opening times for the local pharmacy on a website or understanding the weather forecast for the coming days, to more sophisticated tasks, such as recognising bias in news reporting, or evaluating how algorithms may be influencing what we are seeing online.
Libraries have long helped their users to develop these skills, by promoting ‘information literacy’. The use of the word literacy is deliberate – information literacy follows on from basic literacy (the ability to read and assimilate written material), but crucially implies the ability to be smart in the way we find information, and focused in the way we apply it.
At a time where there has never been more information being produced, the importance of this work has never been so great.
Clearly there remain issues around freedom of speech and copyright – libraries promote the first, and offer a response to the second, where the costs of buying content are prohibitive for many, if not most. These will need to be addressed.
However, libraries have a unique role in helping people in all sectors of society navigate the abundance of information online. Not everyone feels comfortable online. It is not necessarily a question of age – the image of the digital native, easily able to get the best out of the Internet, does not apply to all. And the risk of being duped or failing to find or take advantage of available information is a universal problem.
To achieve development with no-one left behind, all individuals will have the ability to ‘cook’ with information, finding ways to use it to improve their lives and ways of working, be they farmers, researchers, parents or policy-makers. They will need to be able to look across available sources, find those elements which apply to their circumstances, and even become producers of information, for the benefit of their communities.
The task is not easy – clearly it is quicker to tell people what to do directly. But this is not a sustainable solution, and neither empowers individuals nor stimulates innovation or creativity. Fortunately, we have libraries, with years of experience of teaching information literacy in ways that are suited to their communities.
With the support they deserve, they can go a long way towards building the information empowered society that will be necessary in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda.