4 Days to Human Rights Day: Libraries as Champions of Free Expression

Libraries, Free Expression and Free Access to Information

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Freedom of access to information and freedom of expression is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). It provides a powerful basis for efforts to ensure the free flow of information.

As IFLA has argued, access to information is at the foundation of successful development policies, by ensuring not only that everyone can make better choices themselves, but can also take part in collective decision-making.

As with all human rights, constant work is needed to support their realisation, and ensure that people are not missing out. It is perhaps not by accident that within a year of the agreement of the Universal Declaration, the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto was also signed, stressing the importance of everyone having access to a place where they could learn and grow, without discrimination. Libraries have, arguably, become symbols of a societal commitment to freedom of access to information.

But what about their role around free speech? The original Public Library Manifesto argues that libraries ‘should not tell people what to think about, but […] should help them decide what to think about’.

Yet this element of libraries’ work is perhaps less known, and indeed can get lost behind the stereotype of libraries as quiet places, more focused on consumption, not creation, of knowledge and ideas.

This blog will look at two ways in which libraries are involved in linking together the two elements of Article 19, and indeed can be as strong a force in promoting free expression as they are in promoting access to information.


Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Libraries have a strong vested interest in free expression. Without the production of varied new books, articles and other materials, librarians will find it harder to develop diverse collections responding to the needs and interest of their communities.

For example, in order to serve users who belong to marginalised groups or communities, libraries may well require books that talk about their experience, and their concerns. Yet if writers are not allowed to take these perspectives, or approach these subjects, the supply of books dries up, and libraries cannot fulfill their mission.

In turn, by giving access, libraries can ensure that these works are read, and so help their authors reach more people than otherwise would be possible.

Initiatives such as Banned Books Week bring these two elements of Article 19 together by highlighting the impact of  censorship both on the ability of library users to choose what they want to read, and the ability of writers to have their voices heard.


Towards Convergence

Seeing free expression and access to information as two sides of the same coin nonetheless implies a binary view of the world – that there are some people who produce, and some who consume knowledge.

While this may have been true when publishing a book or communicating views required expensive equipment and infrastructure, this is no longer the case. It has never been easier or cheaper to produce an article or book, or record a new work, and then share it with the world.

Indeed, there is a strong argument that the most effective form of access to information is when someone is able not only to find, understand and use information, but also create and share it.

Through the production of new information, not only do individuals fully realise the potential of the information they have, but others benefit from the results. The results of these new possibilities are already visible through the huge variety of content and ideas available on the internet.

Here too, libraries have a role.

Many have long encouraged activities such as creative writing, but now are branching into maker spaces and other means of promoting creativity. Supporting the application of tools such as text and data mining on library materials allows for new research. And through Wikipedia editathons and community archiving, they are helping under-represented groups become creators themselves.


The summary of the first phase of IFLA’s Global Vision sets out that libraries should be champions of intellectual freedom. This implies breaking away from stereotypes, from the idea that libraries are only really about access. But it is a necessary break, and an opportunity to realise fully the potential of our institutions as drivers of development.

2 thoughts on “4 Days to Human Rights Day: Libraries as Champions of Free Expression

  1. Mark Perkins


    “so intellectual property trumps access”

    As a factual statement of the current state of affairs, I would agree; this is because capitalist / commodity / market principles are basic factors guiding politics worldwide and are in currently more powerful than human rights…

    In fact, the basic elements making-up ‘intellectual property’ predate the UDHR, although the term/concept “intellectual property” is more recent.

    During the period of the drafting and ratification of the UDHR, the world was split between market & non-market states, so the wording of the document was more neutral regarding property & ‘intellectual property’.

    So, as an analysis of Human Rights Law at the international level, I do not agree.

    Given that there are no definite articles supporting either intellectual property or access, this a ‘battleground’ of ideas. This is reflected in certain decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union which have tried to balance ‘fundamental rights’ with copyright.

    Mark P.

  2. Chris Zielinski

    In fact “Freedom of access to information” is NOT guaranteed in Article 19, as I explain in my blog “Is Access to Information a Human Right?” (https://ziggytheblue.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/is-access-to-information-a-human-right/) . My conclusion is “Ithe “information and ideas” to which we have an access right are generally held to be expressions of political and other current social opinion – the sort of thing you find in newspapers – and not, for example, practical information related to human development – as contained in journals, books and manuals.”
    Of course, access to information essential to human development SHOULD be a human right. My concern is that, by claiming that it already is a human right, we may be preventing it from becoming one.
    Incidentally, as was pointed out to me by Mark Perkins when I first published my blog, “the Comments on Articles…are the official interpretations of the Treaty articles, especially the “CESCR General Comment 17″. These Comments (available from https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%2fC.12%2fGC%2f17&Lang=en) make it clear that we can’t equate intellectual property rights with the human rights in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) – so intellectual property trumps access.
    In that case, we can’t claim that the UDHR establishes or expresses an access right to essential information.
    Having said that, there is an international document which does better in this regard, and it is the UNESCO “Recommendation concerning the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace” among the legal documents at http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=17717&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html , where “Universal access to cyberspace” is efind as equitable and affordable access by all citizens to information infrastructure (notably to the Internet) and to information and knowledge essential to collective and individual human development (definition (m)).

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