Information matters for children.
This is most obviously the case for education, as children learn about the world around them, progressively broadening their horizons, and discovering new opportunities.
But it also matters for health and wellbeing, from helping find solutions in response to specific mental or physical issues, but also in supporting young people to form their identity and become comfortable with themselves.
Crucially, it is also key if today’s children are to become the full adult citizens of tomorrow, able to engage meaningfully in civic, economic and social life.
This reality is recognised in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose anniversary is marked by World Children’s Day.
Article 13, mirroring Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, underlines that: ‘The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice’.
Similarly, Article 17 notes that ‘States Parties […]shall ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health’.
Clearly, the creation of relevant information is crucial to delivering on these goals. Article 17 goes on to note that the production of children’s books and other relevant programming should be encouraged.
Yet it also stresses the need for dissemination – i.e. making sure that this information ends up in the hands of the children who can benefit from it. While some children are lucky enough to live in households which can buy sufficient materials to fulfil their information needs, this is not the case for all. This is where libraries come in.
Indeed, we know that children at risk of marginalisation – for example those from immigrant or second-language backgrounds, who have fewer resources at home, or whose parents have less formal education – depend more on libraries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised serious concerns here. Children who rely on libraries – at school or in the community – have not been able to use physical locations, access physical materials or benefit from in-person services, from reference to storytimes.
Libraries have of course responded, recognising that for access to information to fulfil its potential as a force for equality and social mobility, it is vital to ensure that all children can continue to benefit.
As such, there are many examples of how libraries have sought to support teachers in providing education during the pandemic, as well as carrying out activities such as storytimes online. Take a look at IFLA’s COVID-19 page for more.
There are of course challenges also. An obvious one is connectivity – as UNESCO has underlined, billions of people remain without internet access, many of whom are children. Of course, even where there is connectivity, children may not have the devices they need to take advantage of online teaching.
However, in attrition to connectivity, there is also the challenge of content. Libraries and their users continue to depend, in far too many cases, on goodwill – either through unilateral actions, or following agreements with libraries – in order to be able to give digital access to the materials they already have in their collections.
While goodwill – for example in order to allow for uses beyond what is already standard practice in libraries – is certainly welcome, it cannot alone be relied upon to deliver on a right set out in international law.
As set out in a previous blog, there is a risk that the class of 2020 will be the least well informed in years, unless it is made clear (as governments in Australia and Japan look set to do) that in-person and remote access to information are treated in the same way under copyright laws.
If we are to ensure that children’s right to information is realised, we need to ensure a coherent and comprehensive approach, involving connectivity, device access, and content, including through digital library services which ensure that no child is left out for lack of resources.