Mind the Gap: Libraries combatting inequalities, within and between communities

Urban October 2022 – which started with World Habitat Day yesterday, and ends with World Cities Day at the end of the month, focuses on how we can realise the potential of cities and human settlements to be drivers of sustainable development.

Living together is a key human characteristic, creating possibilities to share, cooperate, and do more than we ever could on our own, or if we lived only in family groups. At the same time, urbanisation can concentrate problems of poverty, poor health and wellbeing, pollution and more.

There is therefore a heavy responsibility – but also opportunity – for leaders to shape cities for the better, maximising the benefits that proximity can bring for all.

The word ‘all’ is important here. As highlighted in the theme for World Habitat Day, we need to ‘mind the gap’, being aware of the divides and inequalities that exist between people and communities, and then to acting to reduce these.

So in this blog, we’ll run through just a few of the ways in which libraries contribute to ‘minding the gap’:

A universal service, close to citizens: in the case of public and community libraries in particular, libraries are perhaps the ‘model’ cross-cutting public service. As set out in our blog earlier this year on the concept of the 15-minute city, libraries are multifunctional and close to citizens, providing opportunities for interaction and have a clear focus on helping people improve their lives.

This universality is important – no member of the community should feel unwelcome in a library. Indeed, libraries arguably provide a valuable ‘low-intensive’ space where people engage with each other precisely because they come from the same area, rather than because they have a particular goal in mind.

Active outreach to all members of communities: linked to the above is the fact that not only are libraries open to all by default, but are also often charged with making proactive efforts to bring those at risk of exclusion back into the community.

Crucially, libraries are also about activation, with the UNESCO-IFLA Public Library Manifesto underlining the importance of knowledge creation alongside knowledge consumption. This is vital if we are to ensure that everyone’s voice can be heard, and everyone can enjoy their human rights, including their cultural rights.

A global knowledge network: the first two points here are very much focused on ‘minding the gap’ within communities. However, the fact of having a library – in particular one that is connected to the internet – does effectively give a community an entry-point to a global knowledge network.

This is, in part, about possibilities to access library networks in order to access a wider range of information, but also about the role of libraries in enabling a connection to global work around open government or citizen science for example. In the end, this also boosts countries’ – and the world’s – capacity for sustainable growth by making innovation itself more inclusive.

A pillar of regeneration efforts: as set out in our article released at the time of the World Urban Forum, libraries can be key players in efforts to revitalise communities which face decline or other problems. Drawing on the urban development literature, the article underlines the different ways in which libraries can make a difference, when involved appropriately.

Crucially, this work does note that there is perhaps not enough consideration of libraries at the moment in regeneration planning, and that much more could be done in order to realise this potential.

A foundation of evidence-based policy-making: while Development Information Day, also celebrated this month, is not formally part of Urban October, the value of knowledge and data gathering, curation, and access cannot be forgotten. With little room for manoeuvre left if we are to achieve the UN 2030 Agenda, decisions at all levels need to be taken on the basis of the best possible evidence.

Libraries are of course essential to this, acting as the backbone of research infrastructures focused on positive policy change. Obviously, in order to support use of research outputs, open access and broader open scholarship principles are essential, as set out in UNESCO’s own Open Science Recommendation. There are interesting questions, of course, around how the benefits of library and research services – as already exist at the national level – can be better brought to local and regional government.

 

There’ll be plenty of other examples which you may be aware of – do share these in the comments box below, or on social media using the #UrbanOctober hashtag!

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