Infrastructure is what enables things to happen. Typically, we think of it as things like bridges, power networks or pipes, that allow people to travel around, and to receive electricity and running water – physical connections going from one place to the next.
Policies for infrastructure are therefore often seen as mainly being about construction, maintenance and rules about use.
Similarly, internet infrastructure tends to be thought of in terms of cables, masts and data centres – the hard structures and buildings that mean that content can be brought to our devices. Policies here focus on the laying of new cables or roll-out of new technologies, or steps to facilitate use of resources such as spectrum.
However, we can also think about infrastructure – and the policies that go with it – from the perspective of whether they are reaching their goal.
In the case of the internet, this goal, as has been recognised by the WSIS process and beyond, is to get everyone online. If this is not the case, infrastructure risks being a driver of inequality, rather than equality, with those left unconnected risking being left even further behind.
If we are to do this, we therefore need to think of infrastructure as including every actor that enables people to get online – in particular, libraries.
The Last Mile
An obvious way in which libraries help deliver the goal of an internet infrastructure that reaches everyone is by giving people opportunities to get online that they may not have otherwise.
At a basic level, this is about providing internet access to people who have no connection or device at home, through library terminals or WiFi.
However, there can be many other reasons why someone with both of these may still need library access to be able to make full use of the internet – slow speeds or data caps, the wrong type of device, or other restrictions.
Libraries can be both a stepping stone to the internet, and an ongoing alternative for others.
In both cases, they help ensure that the rest of the internet infrastructure – the cables, masts and data centres – can be used by the widest possible number of people.
Confidence and Collections
We can, however, look further still. Because the objective of investment in infrastructure is so that it can be used. A road network without any drivers with licences, or a waterpipe without water may require less maintenance, but arguably is not doing its job.
An internet infrastructure, in turn, is not effective if there are neither users with the skills and confidence to use it, or content or services that they can use.
In both cases, clearly, libraries can help.
Regarding skills, while some libraries have dedicated programmes for building digital skills, others simply provide an environment where users can feel comfortable going online, knowing that there is someone around to help if needed.
Regarding content, libraries can both help provide relevant content by digitising collections (something that is particularly important in the case of less widely-used languages), but also by ensuring that users have access to copyrighted content that would be too expensive to buy.
Any Comprehensive Plan for Internet Infrastructure Includes Libraries
With a difficult economic situation likely to last for some time, governments will need to ensure that all spending is effective as possible. Providing services that benefit some, but not others – especially when these risk exacerbating existing divides – is less excusable than ever.
Libraries provide a response to this, not only in covering the ‘last mile’ (be this a physical distance, or linked to other potential barriers), but also in providing the skills and content that turns connectivity into development for all.
With this year’s Internet Governance Forum focused on ‘internet for human resilience and solidarity’, the case is stronger than ever for including libraries in any consideration of comprehensive internet infrastructure policies.
Find out more about IFLA’s participation in the 2020 Internet Governance Forum in our news story. This blog draws on ideas shared by Stephen Abram.