(Pre)Conditions for Success: What Governments Need to Do to Fulfil Libraries’ Potential

Much library advocacy at the moment is focused on how libraries can contribute to the response to, and recovery from, the COVID-19 pandemic.

In previous blogs here, and from libraries and library organisations around the world, there has been a focus on what our institutions can do to build back better – through wider and more meaningful access to information, stronger connectivity, better competences, more rapid innovation, and making the most of culture and heritage.

We promote the importance of school and public libraries in building foundational literacy skills from a young age. Of public and community libraries in promoting inclusion, offering internet access and training, and providing a portal to new opportunities for those at risk of being left out or left behind. Of academic and research libraries in supporting more open science and scholarship, and helping the researchers of tomorrow. Of national and heritage libraries in ensuring that documentary heritage can both inform decision-making today and build identity and community cohesion.

In short, the library vision of the future is of more literate and better informed people, and fairer, more inclusive and more engaged societies.

As before, our staff, services and spaces will be at the heart of this.

Yet these are things that cannot be taken for granted. While libraries and library staff – with the support of organisations like IFLA and other library associations – work to deliver the best possible support in the circumstances, they also rely on the actions of governments and other decision-makers – policies, laws and funding – to fulfil their potential.

This blog sets out five ways in which governments and other decision-makers can support libraries:

1. Ensure that librarians working in frontline roles should benefit from the same vaccine priority as other frontline workers: there is a clear value in ensuring that if libraries are to re-open to provide in-person services, staff should be able to benefit from the protection that vaccination can offer. Of course, this also is a plus for users, who will be able to make use of better staffed institutions, although precautions seem likely to remain necessary until a much larger share of the population is vaccinated.

2. Ensure that libraries benefit from adequate internet connections and hardware: the pandemic has made clear the importance of connectivity in enabling at least some elements of life to continue despite lockdowns, accelerating an existing trend towards digital tools and services. With the need for continued care to limit infections, the ability of libraries to make full use of the internet will remain important for some time to come. Stronger connectivity also opens up possibilities for extending internet access out into communities, for example through TV Whitespace technologies or community networks, allowing users to make more use of library content and beyond, helping to combat digital exclusion.

3. Ensure that libraries are involved in planning: as governments and other decision-makers look to define plans for ongoing response and future recovery, we cannot take for granted that they will understand the specific nature of libraries and the services they offer. Outdated perceptions of our institutions can make things worse, often ignoring the rich programmes of activities and support offered by libraries of all types in the pursuit of their missions. The best solution to this is to make the case to be part of committees or groups which are planning ahead. This can help not just ensure that the rules applying to libraries are relevant, but also open up possibilities to engage in wider programmes and projects.

4. Ensure that libraries are funded and staffed to offer support: while the need for adequate funding to support the work of libraries is nothing new, it is likely to be necessary to make the case as strongly as ever now. This is both because of the pressure on funding that is likely to result from the economic consequences of the pandemic, but also because providing services in a pandemic may simply be more expensive. For example, digital resources can cost a multiple of the price of their physical equivalents, while implementing services under restrictions can prove more staff-intensive. In such situations, innovation and efficiencies alone are unlikely to be enough if a good level of service is to be maintained.

5. Ensure that libraries benefit from flexibilities to carry out their missions: connected to the question of resources is that of what libraries can do with them. It is essential that the public or institutional funding that goes into libraries is not made less effective because of laws and regulation. A key example is around copyright, which determines what uses libraries – and their patrons – can make of works they have acquired or accessed. But other restrictions may also limit what libraries can do, for example by preventing the extension of library card privileges to refugees or others in the community, or by preventing the formation of partnerships.

The subject of how libraries can realise their potential in the context of the response to, and recovery from, COVID-19 will be at the heart of a series of side-events organised at UN regional sustainable development fora in the coming months – watch our website for more, and share your own ideas below!