Here, but Not Evenly Distributed: Libraries, Innovation and the Right to Science

Every innovation with global impact nonetheless starts somewhere. The World Wide Web was conceived of at CERN in Geneva. Radio in Bologna, Italy, block printing in China.

Between the moment of invention – or discovery – and worldwide uptake, there is a more or less rapid spread, through communication, trade, and imitation.

Who is able to benefit from the results of scientific research and innovation (and when) has a major impact on development. A key example today is still the internet, to which only half of the world’s population currently have access.

This situation provides a reminder (if one was needed) of William Gibson’s quote about the future, which he described as ‘here, but not evenly distributed’.

It also provides a reminder (much more necessary, most likely) of Article 27a of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which underlines that ‘everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’.

What was written in 1948 is as relevant as ever today. The need to support the spread of new technologies to developing countries features in the UN’s 2030 Agenda (SDG 17). In line with the overall objective of the Agenda, no-one should be left behind for want to access to existing ideas.

This is not just a question of luck or economics, but of fundamental rights. We need to make the road from invention and discovery to global application as short as possible.

What stands in the way?

A key issue highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights in her 2012 report is excessive privatisation of knowledge. There always needs to be means of giving access to science, of finding a balance between incentivising creation and giving everyone a chance to benefit. When the cost of articles, books or other materials is too high, people are excluded.

Libraries provide a key response to this. Through their own collections – and collaboration across borders – they have a major role in the spread of innovation and research. At the same time, they access content legally, and make a major contribution to the creation and publishing of knowledge.

In this same spirit, libraries have also been at the heart of the Open Access movement – trying to find a model of sharing knowledge without any financial barriers. Open Access also features among the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur.

The broader Open Science movement offers further possibilities, ensuring that it is not just the results of innovation, but the process itself that is as inclusive and effective as possible.


A focus on sharing not just technology, but all forms of knowledge, is arguably missing from the UN 2030 Agenda. And there are questions – around expanding internet access, and finding sustainable models for Open Access. Yet the key elements of any future drive in this area are in place in the shape of libraries.

Clearly we are still some way from delivering the right to science, but the Universal Declaration reminds us that the effort is worth it.

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