Today is the second ever International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace. Created as a result of a Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, it aims to provide an opportunity to highlight the values – and the merits – of multilateral approaches to addressing challenges.
The creation of the day itself is timely. With populist leaders coming to power in a number of places, and placing the (proclaimed) immediate interest of their countries first, there is a need to find opportunities to set out why we work together.
But why is this specifically relevant to libraries, and how does the library and information world contribute? This blog explores the answers.
Why Does Multilateralism Matter for Libraries?
While the word ‘multilateralism’ belongs more to political science than to library and information science, the approach it describes is a familiar one for the library field.
Indeed, the existence of organisations like IFLA is evidence of the understanding that cooperation across borders matter.
If libraries are to be able to work together, they need to follow the same standards, for example for cataloguing. This enables the sharing of materials, and increasingly, the creation of shared resources and databases.
Similarly, so much of the life IFLA is built on the understanding that everyone has something to learn from others elsewhere in the world. The good practices and guidelines we develop are the result of intense sharing of ideas and examples, in order to raise standards everywhere.
These two cases reflect two of the key characteristics of good multilateral cooperation – readiness to develop and follow shared rules, and acceptance of the need to engage as equals.
We’ve seen a similar approach develop with the internet, arguably developing a form of (imperfect) information multilateralism, where, at least in theory, everyone has the possibility both to access and contribute information, and where there is no single dominant power.
Why do Libraries (and Information) Matter for Multilateralism?
In turn, this multilateral approach applied to libraries and information can support successful international cooperation, not least the delivery of the United Nations 2030 Agenda.
As set out above, we arguably already have a form of information multilateralism, thanks originally to the global network of libraries, and now complemented powerfully by the development of the internet.
This is what allows for the international research that provides an evidence base for political efforts, for example, to tackle climate change, or to produce documents such as the Global Sustainable Development Report published by the United Nations last September.
Now, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are rapid steps towards building up banks of resources across borders and to make them openly available, with the goal of accelerating progress towards finding effective treatments and cures.
This sort of work is only possible when researchers everywhere can share and combine knowledge in order to work towards shared conclusions.
As hinted when referring to the internet as being an imperfect form of multilateralism, there is more to be done to ensure that we really are in a situation where we have an information environment where everyone is able to contribute and benefit, and so help build solutions.
Amongst the issues needing to be addressed are the fact that almost half of the world’s population are not online, and of those who are, many still lack the connection speed, skills and confidence to make the most of the internet. Others who would normally have access are seeing it restricted through internet shutdowns.
Restrictions on content – from the barriers caused by the fragmentation of copyright laws and censorship, to a lack of information in local languages – also play a role in limiting the resources we can draw on.
Libraries of course – both through their day-to-day work with the communities they serve, and their cooperation across borders – can make a major contribution to overcoming this situation, but require governments to play their part also, providing the right laws and support for success.
Doing so will help achieve the goals of multilateralism globally.