Member, Partner, Host: Libraries and Civil Society

Logo for 2017 International Civil Society Week

Logo for 2017 International Civil Society Week

Libraries play a major role in supporting the development of literate, informed, and participatory communities. They in turn benefit from the energy and enthusiasm of individual users. Strong societies and strong libraries go together.

They can also have an important role in partnering with civil society organisations, such as charities, groups or movements. The relationship is not always easy to define though.

Libraries themselves are organised very differently from one country to the next – even from one state to the next. Librarians can be civil servants, public employees, or more independent. They certainly provide a public service, even though they tend to be seen as less ‘governmental’ by users who might be intimidated by a more formal institution.

Yet as professionals, they have a clear public-interest goal – to facilitate access to information – that is more durable, and deep-set, than shorter term political priorities. This is a goal that cannot necessarily be achieved purely by action within the profession.

Civil society itself tends to be defined by what it’s not – that is government or business – than what it is. The result is a highly diverse field of individuals and organisations, who look to represent larger or smaller groups or interests. In looking to reflect all of the different views and currents running through society, it can struggle to send a single message, and include many whose views may appear extreme. But it also contains many intelligent, passionate people whose goals align perfectly with the public interest objectives of our institutions. It is the best means we have of ensuring that the public interest is heard when decisions are being taken.

It is clear that there are opportunities, but also complexity. For individual librarians, it may not be possible in their professional capacity. Libraries as institutions may face strict rules about working with non-public actors. Library associations, which are often established as independent organisations, do potentially have a possibility here though.

The session organised by IFLA’s Section on Managing Library Associations focused on this point in its open session at IFLA’s World Library and Information Congress last year. Two of the papers in particular tell an exciting story of how library associations have developed partnerships with other organisations, and in doing so taken their place as partners – and members – of civil society. A third example, from outside, highlights how libraries can act as hosts, and in doing so gain from civil society organisations’ expertise.


Hungary – School Librarians Join the Fight for Public Education

A paper from the Hungarian School Librarians Association sets out their process of joining a coalition of non-governmental organisations fighting against legislation that would have radically centralised the public education system. Following a poll of their members, they chose to join with organisations representing teachers, students and parents. The umbrella logo selected for the movement – echoing the umbrellas carried by those who joined the biggest demonstration that took place – also provides a good metaphor for the convergence of sixty different groups.

Yet in their opposition to the legislation – and in their positive support for child-centric learning, equity, a focus on skills, democracy, autonomy and transparency – they found a single voice. This voice not only amplified the messages of the librarians, but also gave them greater profile.

As the article underlines, ‘the good school library and the democratic school strengthen each other. That’s why we have to stand for democratic values, in order to protect our long-term professional interest. We have to act proactively to maintain an optimal political environment which allows the school library to a democratic unit of the school; the information and learning centre where the student’s knowledge and creativity can take flight!’ Membership

Colombia – Libraries Find a Voice through Civil Society

A second paper looks at the Colombian library sector, and its journey from non-engagement in copyright reforms in 2011 to a groundswell in favour of change in 2016.

Copyright is at the heart of what libraries do. While on a day-to-day basis, they stick to the rules when making use of exceptions and limitations, it is usually reform that will deliver the best results for users. Fortunately, we are not alone in wanting to drive change, with organisations representing users also engaged in the same efforts.

In Colombia, there had previously been little focus on the possibility to engage with, and convince government. This changed, following the creation of Fundación Connector, which brought new skills and enthusiasm to the national library field. Through developing new tools and evidence, and supporting libraries in holding meetings, presenting at events and responding to consultations, it created a new energy in the sector. This means that libraries are now seen as an essential stakeholder in debates not just about copyright, but also about anything relating to access to information.

UK – Library Hosts Cryptoparties, Delivers Intellectual Freedom

Finally, an example from Newcastle, UK. This does not come from the Session at WLIC, but still illustrates a final way in which libraries can work with civil society as host and hub. In the case of Newcastle, it was through inviting privacy NGO the Open Rights Group to hold a cryptoparty at the City Library.

Privacy is essential to free access to information, implying that users can search for what they need without fear of surveillance or interference. Cryptoparties offer people knowledge and tools for doing this, and can provide a perfect fit for libraries which may not have the capacity in-house to do this. What libraries can offer is a space – one that is recognised and trusted by the community. Especially in the technical field, the importance of bridging the gap with less confident users is high, and the library can provide a means of doing this.

The Newcastle cryptoparty offers a great example of how a library with some autonomy can forge links with a civil society organisation that shares our values, but can also bring unique expertise.



A speaker at this year’s American Library Association Annual Conference described libraries as political, but not partisan. Promoting free access to information and free expression, especially when some would prefer to shut it down, is indeed a political mission. In achieving this, we have much to gain from working with – and seeing ourselves as – civil society actors.