Tag Archives: COVID-19

Learning and sharing globally: Interview with Mario Coffa

We interviewed Mario Coffa, the man behind the Library World Tour project that is collecting interviews with leading library actors and thinkers around the world, building up a great collection of insights into the present and future of our field.

This interview complements the article already published in the bulletin of IFLA’s Section on Education and Training in July!


1. What is your goal with the library world tour project? How do you see it contributing to the field in Italy, in Europe and globally?

From the beginning, the goal of this project has been “sharing”: I strongly believe in creating a network of professionals, not only within our communities (as users) but also among librarians. And doing it with librarians all over the world was my challenge. Being able to share different experiences in different countries has given me (and still gives me) the opportunity to raise the level of the debate.

Another very important goal follows directly from sharing, that of reflection; as in a conference, listening to a multitude of experiences other than one’s own creates a sort of reflection on one’s own experience and on one’s working methods. At least for me, it has always been like this. Listening – or in this case – reading different ways of working can provoke discussion and debate and at times can be a “healthy provocation” which  stimulates one’s sensitivity. I believe that one always comes out stronger and more stimulated from the comparison with other people and other experiences.

A further goal was that of collecting data resulting from the comparison between various experiences and that this is always a fascinating aspect to analyze. In the past months I have done some extractions from the interviews which have produced both simple statistics – such as the coverage in the world of my project[1] – and an elaboration of the main topics that have been dealt with and the keywords that most of the interviewees used[2].

This last data allowed me to understand how in many cases the solutions to and proposals around certain issues are similar. For instance, training needs and professional recognition are common themes in many countries, as is the adoption of new digital tools that complement traditional working methods.

Furthermore, the dramatic experience of the Covid-19 pandemic – the subject of many questions in the interviews – has brought out many critical issues, showing how great the value of the librarian profession is: courageous colleagues have played a fundamental role in their communities through their work, even when libraries were closed, by carrying out activities that sometimes went beyond any conventional form of work. The solutions were many and varied but also very similar in so many cases and this was all data that contributed to one of the aims of my project.

Of course the aims of the project are intended to be relevant in all countries, starting with mine, Italy, where the project is at least known within AIB (Italian Library Association). Currently the project is supported by the patronage of the Umbria section of AIB and by Insula Europea, an academic journal that publishes articles with my interviews.

2. You have interviewed key leaders and thinkers from around the world – what similarities do you see in their preoccupations?

As you rightly say, most of the people that I interviewed are very influential, either in the world of libraries, or for the role they hold or have covered at an institutional level, or for their writings. But I also interviewed students because I thought it was interesting to have the point of view of those who dream of becoming a librarian and want to know what is the academic path to follow to perfect their studies before acquiring skills in the field.

In general, I was able to verify that everyone is aware of how fundamental our work can be, for example as “guarantors” of information; in the era of fake news, the library as an institution can guarantee a reliable and genuine information channel. Our work is based on catalogues, databases and the web, but unlike a simple search on a search engine, we are often able to use what is called the “deep web” very well and refine the search by skimming the information in the most suitable form for the user.

Many well-equipped libraries in terms of IT and digital tools provide not merely bibliographic services but also civic and administrative consultancy. There are libraries, such as those of the “Idea Center” model – but there are several cases here in Italy[3] as well – that offer administrative documentation services and assist users with those tools required by the various governments to access information. This does nothing but give further depth to our function as “informers”, which goes well beyond being a librarian looking for a book in the catalogue or taking care of the collections! Our role as social aggregators within the library becomes essential at this point.

However, this also provides for a strengthening of our digital skills through continuous training, allowing us to adapt to these transformations. It is for this reason that I don’t like terms like “library 2.0”: the library 2.0 is nothing more than a library that adapts to new times and new conditions. Furthermore, many of the interviewees share the need to create an increasingly dense network within their reference communities based on environments that are no longer just physical but digital.

In my opinion, the members of the community we must reach out to are not those who come to the libraries every day, but those who have never been there. This is the real focus we must work on.

3. IFLA’s Global Vision recognized the need to respond to regional characteristics and priorities – what examples of differences in focus do you see coming out?

IFLA’s work in recent years has been really incisive and confirmed the advocacy of the policies and activities it organizes and supports. Needless to say, regional and local differences, as well the characteristics of each individual country, must be taken into account.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, not every library was well-equipped in terms of both technology and space. The pandemic was in fact a double-edged sword: if on the one hand it was a driving force for accelerating the “digital revolution” already underway for years, on the other hand it has shone a light on weaker and less equipped realities. Here, the differences between countries emerge.

The general level of education of each country also affects this gap, because while some countries have activated numerous processes and paths of “digital literacy”, others still talk of “information literacy” at various levels.

I believe it is a priority to provide the basic tools for accessing information first, before educating the community in the use of more technologically advanced systems: only at this point can more advanced levels of computerization be activated. The general situation of a country is not automatically suggestive of the level of its libraries. As a matter of fact, I was able to discover very “advanced” libraries in countries that are generally defined as “underdeveloped”, either politically or economically.

What might be seen as an anomaly – but I believe it is not! – depends a lot on the work that many librarians do in spite of the very few basic resources available, and on the attitude of the country towards culture. This demonstrates how in many cases the problem of economic resources is but one of the reasons for the contraction in development and cultural growth: in many cases one just needs to apply the manual of good practices to make up for the financial gap.

This does not deny the importance of financial contributions, but you can do a lot even with what you already have. Our work gives a lot of space to creativity and individuality, powerful tools of quality and freedom. I have noticed that many countries, for example in Africa, design and program their libraries on the “European” or “American” model, seen as “exemplary”. This makes us think a lot and if on the one hand it gratifies us as Europeans or Americans, on the other hand it gives us the burden of representing our service and our libraries to the fullest, because it is our ultimate goal, our model.

5. In particular, you have gathered many perspectives about digital libraries and the role of digital technologies in libraries – do you see a consensus forming on this?

Definitely yes! As previously mentioned, albeit in a dramatic situation, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital revolution process that had been underway for years. Both as citizens and as librarians we found ourselves having to deal with new digital tools by necessity; distance learning, smart working, digital platforms and all, this has inevitably transformed our lives, even in our work as librarians.

Front-office work in libraries has been transformed into remote service in order to guarantee access to bibliographic material when the quarantine forced us in our homes. We all have reevaluated our service and found ourselves dealing with hundreds of requests with empty libraries! It was an exceptional job, created to cope with an emergency which showed us how much we can do in extreme or exceptional situations.

I have read of librarians taking books to the homes of Covid patients, leaving the books outside the door along with food supplies. I saw in my library requests by students who had to write essays and thesis and librarians who found themselves becoming lawyers, doctors and philologists in order to find suitable material for a degree thesis or an academic project. From public to university libraries, from neighborhood to national libraries, the activity of adapting to new forms of technology has been a great part of the work of librarians lately. We have also discovered the importance of the Open Access world, thanks to which we have sometimes made up for physical and paper copies. In short, the future of librarianship now is enhancing those services and digital tools that make a librarian’s work more complete: a librarian with these skills can become almost a “teacher”, as they guide users to navigate the library both within its walls and within its databases and platforms.

6. How do you see new ideas traveling around the world?

I see a lot of excitement. I see a great desire for reonstruction in many situations. I witness a general feeling of sharing and evolution after a dramatic historical experience which was very demanding, both politically and morally. The crisis of values, the economic crisis, the loss of work, the loss of many human lives have made us all much more fragile and aware of how fragile our life is. This is why I see that in many experiences, libraries go well beyond what they have always been: there no longer are dusty collections and cabinets full of books but also souls eager to rediscover the act of reading and the book.

Underneath lies the awareness that knowledge fights injustices and reading comforts and consoles, particularly in difficult times. In the field of librarianship – I am referring precisely to the management of spaces, furnishings and architecture of libraries – there is a need to create new spaces that encourage socialization and stimulate the sharing of thoughts among users. The library will always be that place full of books where you can find novels and manuals but it will also be necessary to encourage the creation of an attractive context that can intrigue the passer-by and attract those who do not know what a library is and what it can offer.

On the part of those in government and teachers, there should be a more positive attitude aimed at favoring access to the library and exploiting its potential! I have noticed a common attitude around the world focused on meeting the needs of their communities. But do we really know what these needs are? Are we able to intercept new interlocutors? Have we thought of soliciting our politicians in order to be able to contribute to support our libraries concretely? This is a preliminary work of utter importance and certainly very tiring, but it can produce exceptional and long-lasting results.

7. How do you see an organization like IFLA contributing to spreading ideas and inspiring emerging leaders?

First of all, I won’t deny that the IFLA world has always fascinated me for its natural international genetics. I love learning about new things and different and new ways of thinking have always stimulated me. I think the Library World Tour project proves this.

IFLA, as far as I have been able to see over the years from the outside, has been supporting new ideas and has tried to help the more fragile ideas of many countries. As proof, we can see the dozens of projects that have been produced in each mandate and with different Presidents. Its mission of supporting and promoting has never changed.

I believe that the beauty of associations like IFLA is the ability to encourage and stimulate national associations. From the experience of this virtual tour I have learned to appreciate the differences between countries all over the world but I have also realized how much commonality there is in the way everybody faces the same challenges or finds common solutions.

In such cases IFLA has a key role in decoding these needs and transforming them into indications or common guidelines aimed at improving one’s own reality. A recent example is the document “IFLA Declaration on Afghanistan”[4] where President Christine Mackenzie “calls on all authorities in Afghanistan to safeguard libraries and their collections, including collections of documentary heritage held by citizens in private collections, as well as all memory institutions, museums, archives, galleries and monuments and sites throughout the country.”

This is a real example of how the association intervenes directly in support of a nation in order to protect its cultural heritage. Another example is the Report on Development and Access to Information (DA2I)[5], an important contribution to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, having the 2030 Agenda in mind. That is precisely what IFLA should do and that is what it is doing.

8. Of all the people you have interviewed, which perspectives have marked you the most?

I can say with the utmost confidence that each interviewee said something (a message or a sentence) that made me reflect and left a deep impact on me. Keeping that feeling in mind, I made a small promo video[6], available on Youtube, which presents a small gallery of the interviewees: for each one I provided the name, the country of origin and the key sentence that aroused my interest.

David R. Lankes was my first interview ever and he was the spark that helped me think about this project. The idea of ​​networking between communities is an idea that I have embraced since the first day I stepped into a library to work as a trainee. I have also understood how to realize these networks thanks to the story of the activities among the people on the streets made for example by Loida Garcia-Febo or Gloria Perèz-Salmeron who contributed in a practical way to the realization of these networks.

But I would say everyone made an impact one me. In South America I found colleagues with a very high level of professionalism combined with an extraordinary availability and friendship. They touched my heart, really! In Italy I “played at home” and having the contributions of Anna Busa or Anna Maria Tammaro was an honor not only for me but for anyone who had the opportunity to read those interviews. In Europe there is currently a positive cultural excitement, especially after the pandemic, and from Northern Europe to Southern Europe up to Russia, the activities do not concern only paper projects but real activities that have helped to oppose the social consequences of the pandemic in an excellent way.

In Asia and Africa I have found some truly extraordinary realities; in the Philippines, in India or in Iran there are experiences of strong humanity and courage; in Egypt, in Nigeria and up to Australia there is an extraordinary effort to support literacy. Traveling is a wonderful experience and I can confirm it: entering these libraries and having the hospitality of all these protagonists was wonderful, incredible!

The journey isn’t over yet. There are currently at least 15 other contacts waiting to be published including Greenland! And when everything is over, perhaps without even realizing it, I will have created another large community of colleagues and friends who every day, like me, do the best job in the world. And for this I will always be grateful to them.

9. You focus strongly on recommendations to new professionals – on the basis of the input you have received so far, what advice would you give?

This has often been the final question to my interviewees: recommendations to anyone who wants to be a librarian. I believe that being a member of this profession is a wonderful experience with a great deal of responsibilities. Being a guarantor of information is a huge responsibility that cannot be faced without specific skills. Furthermore, as mentioned several times, in present times it is necessary to have new skills that allow us to decode the digital world and then be able to use the most appropriate tools if we want to offer the best service to our users. This is a profession that implies a great deal of patience and creativity: you have to know how to adapt and sometimes reinvent yourself in order to deal with every situation.

If we really want to promote 0-99 reading, we need to communicate efficiently with any age group. If we want our library to be innovative, it is necessary to learn both the cataloguing rules and how social networks work. If we want to attract new users – people who have never accessed a library before – we must understand that many of them move in many different aggregation spaces which are no longer the traditional ones. In short, we are responsible for the growth or the failure of our libraries. If we want politicians or administrations to support us we should step forward and fight, instead of taking the recognition of our profession for granted.

We must also create networks with other professions, cooperate with schools, teachers, companies that promote tourism, shops (bars, restaurants, shopping centers) and wherever culture can be promoted.

In a world that travels fast in every direction, we should not remain secluded; everything depends on us, on our will to be able to reach everyone. It will be easier, then, to claim our role.


[1] https://www.facebook.com/libraryworldtourmariocoffa/photos/143780441221475

[2] https: / /www.facebook.com/libraryworldtourmariocoffa/photos/157254236540762

[3] Biblioteca di Altopascio: https://www.facebook.com/biblioteca.dialtopascio/posts/2881507708755914

[4] https://www.ifla.org/news/ifla-statement-on-afghanistan/

[5] https://www.ifla.org/da2i/

[6] Mario Coffa – Library World Tour – spot

COVID has forced us to think again about service provision: can it offer longer term lessons for how we serve persons with disabilities?

Tomorrow, the 14th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities starts, in New York and online.

It will have, as an overarching theme, ‘building back better: COVID-19 response and recovery; meeting the needs, realizing the rights, and addressing the socio-economic impacts on persons with disabilities’.

There’s clearly a lot in there, but there is already more than enough space to see how access to information – as a need, as a right, and as a driver of development – fits in.

At least two of the sub-themes offer an even clearer connection. ‘Living independently, being involved in the community’ ties strongly to the possibility for all to find and use information to take decisions for themselves, as well as to engage in community life, in all of its dimensions.

Similarly, ‘right to education; challenges with inclusive education and accessibility during COVID-19’ is again, to a large extent, about ensuring that everyone has the possibility to access knowledge and skills.

With a mission to serve everyone, there is already a strong community of practice in the library field focused on services to persons with disabilities. Within IFLA, sections on libraries serving persons with print disabilities, and serving persons with special needs, bring this expertise and enthusiasm together.

A key impact of the crisis, however, has been that many more library and information workers have found themselves needing to think about how to reach out to community members who are unable to come to the library in person or for whom ‘traditional’ service offers do not necessarily work.

This is because, thanks to the restrictions and precautions taken to counter the pandemic, almost all library services have had to be offered differently. Every library now, arguably, has to take into account principles of design thinking in order to meet needs.

In response, we have seen an explosion in digital offers, both collections and services. Libraries have shifted budgets towards buying eBook licences, sometimes benefitting from additional government support.

Activities such as storytimes or learning have gone online. New works, games and tools have been devised, websites have been updated, and there are new and easier-to-use consultation services, deliveries to users at home, and proactive contacts from librarians to community members.

There are many examples on our COVID-19 and libraries page, which details experiences from the first months of the pandemic.

This has allowed libraries, at least to some extent, to maintain services to communities, and indeed to reach new users. As the story of the pandemic is told in future, we will of course, hopefully, also see persons with disabilities having benefitted from better access to information.

Of course, this is not to forget the costs of decisions – however necessary – to curtail services which benefit people with disabilities and others, or the additional challenges that they have faced, over and above those facing the wider population.


Clearly, the transition to a new way of doing things has not been without challenges – such services often require additional resources and training to work effectively. In providing them, reducing health risks for staff and users is vital. Similarly, acquiring and giving access to digital works – often providing greater possibilities for access for persons with disabilities – often runs up against issues of cost and restrictive terms and conditions.

Yet with sustained support, and a focus on improved regulations (not least the implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty and its extension to cover people with other disabilities), we can hope that there will be the possibility to sustain elements of pandemic-time services which will benefit persons with disabilities into the future.

Cut, maintain or invest: three choices for library funders

While public libraries are often organised as a specific service within local or regional government, or at least linked to it, in reality they support delivery of priorities across the board.

There are countless stories of library staff receiving questions related to other policy areas, such as health or access to justice.  Similarly, many of the people coming to use library computers have been sent by other agencies – for example those working to provide employment support or benefits.

In responding to this demand – to the best of their ability – libraries provide an important complement to these other services, contributing to their effectiveness, in particular in reaching those most in need.

Yet, of course, the people working in libraries are information professionals, not health, legal or social care professionals. It can be daunting for library staff to face requests for information on questions which are hugely important for users, and over which they have little training.

This situation translates into three broad choices for those taking decisions for funding about public spending in general, and libraries in particular.

Option 1: Cut

The first option is to cut budgets. By reducing opening hours, cutting staff, and no longer investing in new equipment, library funders could claim to be saving money.

However, it is highly questionable that this will be the case. For a start, the communities for the benefit of which decision-makers are supposed to be acting lose a key public space and driver of the enjoyment of key rights. As set out in our interview with Christian Lauersen, these impacts can be as important as they are varied.

But, crucially, it no longer becomes feasible for other government offices and services to tell people to go to the library if they need help to get online, or to get support.

Employment agencies can no longer count on jobseekers being able to search for work online. Health services cannot rely on people being able to use telehealth, rather than needing to come to hospitals or general practitioners. Benefits agencies cannot expect that the people who they are supposed to serve will reach them. Individuals cannot access the information they need to understand – and so enforce – their rights.

This is a recipe for reducing the effectiveness of public services, and so their ability to promote growth and inclusion.

Option 2: Do nothing

The second option is to maintain budgets at similar levels to currently. This would allow libraries to continue to provide services as now, with library staff providing information within their means, and internet access within their resources.

Clearly, this can already have a positive impact, as testified to whenever a library professional is able to connect a user to the information they need.  However, there is arguably still unrealised potential when library staff do not have the support needed to maximise their effectiveness in helping users in different areas, and indeed face anxiety about whether they are even able to do so.

Moreover, as the consequences of the pandemic continue to be felt, the demand for the sort of public services highlighted in this piece seems likely to grow. With the shift to digital-only public services only likely to continue also, even sticking with the status quo could mean a less scope for libraries to deal with individual requests.

As such, doing nothing, while better than cuts, cannot be seen as particularly desirable.

Option 3: Invest

The final option then is to think about how additional support could help libraries achieve all that they should be able to, given their unique characteristics as a public, non-commercial space staffed by dedicated professionals.

For example, making resources available to support training or the hiring of professionals can be transformational in terms of helping libraries provide accurate and effective support to users.

Enhancing capacity to provide meaningful internet access – both through modern hardware and skilled staff support – can also make libraries far more powerful as an enabler of the success of any number of eGovernment and other digital services.

For example, the Australian Library and Information Association secured support to offer training to librarians in order to be able better to support users in engaging with a new digital health records service.

Also in Australia, and a little earlier, the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales recognised the value of upgrading libraries’ abilities to respond to legal questions, and so paid for the development of new training and materials.

Beyond projects supported by partners from other sectors, there are also of course projects driven by more dedicated library funders which can provide useful pilots to demonstrate what can be done also. Naturally, any such efforts do require libraries themselves to organise themselves in order to maximise their own impact.


Clearly, the coming years are likely to be times of difficult decisions around budgets. However, it will also be a period of intense need for effective public services in order to support recovery.

Faced with this need, there is a strong case for investing the relatively small amounts necessary to realise the potential of libraries to ensure that these services have the greatest impact and reach possible.

Libraries in the Post-Pandemic Future of Cities

Cities and Pandemics: towards a more just, green and healthy future - front cover of reportUN HABITAT, the United Nations Programme for Human Settlements, recently released Cities and Pandemics: Towards a More Just, Green and Healthy Future.

Drawing both on the organisations’ long experience of supporting sustainable urban development – most notably through delivering on the New Urban Agenda – and lessons learned during the COVID-19 Pandemic so far, the report aims to  provide recommendations for the future of cities.

This blog highlights some of the key points made by the report, and their relevance for libraries.


A critical issue

From the start, and the foreword provided by UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, the report is clear that the way that humans live has had a major impact on the spread of COVID.

From broader questions about the impacts of putting pressure on natural ecosystems (leading to risks of animal diseases getting into humans), to the more rapid spread of the virus among people living in cramped conditions, the need to reflect on how we organise our cities, towns and villages is clear.

Yet the report is also hopeful – cities can play a key role in the recovery from COVID, drawing on the knowledge and policy tools at their disposal. Indeed, in the past, it has been cities that have led the way in key public health advances, for example around sanitation or the promotion of open spaces.

In short, the Pandemic provides a basis both for reflection, but also optimism.


Key themes for a recovery

In setting an agenda for the future, the report sets out four key priorities:

  • Rethinking the form and function of the city, including reform to planning in order to support inclusion and productivity
  • Addressing systemic poverty and inequality, including both targeted support now, and work on longer-term solutions
  • Rebuilding a new normal, including efforts to promote wider changes seen as desirable (innovation, climate action, delivery of other public goods)
  • Clarifying urban legislation and governance, including greater freedoms for cities to respond to crises.

Across this, the report calls for a new social contract, addressing discrimination, ensuring participation, expanding capabilities, promoting redistribution, and adopting a rights-based approach in line with the UN 2030 Agenda.

This builds on the ability, already highlighted, of city governments to get closer to citizens than national authorities can, by developing place-based policies.

This opens up new possibilities to provide more targeted interventions which reflect local circumstances, cultures and needs, as well as to encourage behavioural changes. Clearly, as at any level of decision-making, this potential is only realised through effective and responsible governance.

Library and information workers reading this will already see a huge potential for libraries to engage in this work, both through their work to give individuals the information and skills they need to thrive, and as social and democratic spaces.

Libraries are, arguably, a microcosm of the wider work of local government, looking to find the most effective way of improving the lives of the communities they serve. They are well placed to support behavioural change in particular, through the provision of information, something that will be essential for climate action and improved health and wellbeing.

Beyond these broad points, there are two particular elements of the report which are valuable for our institutions, both in our own reflection, and in our advocacy.


Rediscovering the local

The report underlines the degree to which the Pandemic has obliged people to become more familiar with their local areas.

Both through restrictions on movement beyond a certain distance, and with many more people working from home, city centres have become emptier, while the suburbs, and suburban centres, have become livelier.

Beyond this, the report suggests that we may even see a resurgence in smaller cities, with people just as able to work from there as from anywhere else.

In practical terms, the lesson has been that more needs to be done to ensure that people can access key services and meet their daily needs locally, for example within a 15 minute walk.

For libraries, this can be a case for denser networks and/or (as the report also suggests) a greater emphasis on working outside of the walls, while also working to build comfort in a post-COVID world.

Of course, this is not a new issue. Many libraries already had active programmes of outreach to those unable to come to them, due to distance or personal circumstances. Many more have developed such services as a result of the pandemic.

However, as we move beyond the pandemic, the value of ensuring balanced and well-distributed urban services is a useful argument for our institutions, with an emphasis on flexible design that allows both for adaptation to future events, and the provision of a wider variety of services.


Digital inclusion as a priority

Another major area of focus in the report is digital inclusion, given how starkly the pandemic has underlined the costs of not being connected.

UN HABITAT strongly underlines the value of public WiFi provision, noting its installation in transport locations in India as a means of allowing more people to get online. It also calls for wider efforts to promote broadband connectivity, especially in marginalised areas such as informal settlements.

Significantly, the report does not stop at pure connectivity, but highlights that this should be accompanied by efforts to build skills and offer wider support. It calls for accessible digital inclusion and training programmes, with an emphasis on disproportionately excluded groups (women, persons with disabilities, the elderly and others), in order to help them use new applications and tools.

These are, of course, also areas of obvious library strength. Even in the best connected countries, public internet access in libraries plays an essential role in allowing people to get online, either as the only option, or as a complement to other means (such as a shared home connection, or a mobile device).

During the pandemic, there have been many positive stories of libraries turning their WiFi towards the outside, allowing people to access the internet from car parks, while others have lent WiFi hotspots.

Just as important, however, is the work in many libraries to build digital skills, from basic know-how (turning a device on, using e-mail etc) to media and information literacy. This can come through anything from informal support to formal classes, and of course be targeted, for example towards building health literacy.

Even when other options exist, libraries have unique characteristics – their reputation, their space, their staff (if trained themselves), their focus on providing a universal service. Crucially, they also allow people to get online together, promoting a more social experience of the internet.


As highlighted earlier in this piece, there is a lot in UN HABITAT’s work that will resonate strongly with libraries – a strong shared focus on inclusion, excellent service provision, and on finding solutions at the local level.

The emphasis on providing services close to people, and on the urgency of digital inclusion (both in terms of connectivity and skills) provide a useful support for efforts to promote strong library networks, with well-supported staff and effective outreach to communities.

As city governments look to take on board the recommendations made by UN HABITAT, they can gain a lot by including libraries in their reflection. In doing so, they will be better able to harness a powerful resource in achieving the goal of a more just, green and healthier future.

Caught in the Backwash? Six things worth retaining from the time of the pandemic

When IFLA’s Trend Report was released in 2013, the strapline was ‘Riding the Waves or Caught in the Tide’.

The Report focused on long-term trends affecting the way we live, work, interact and learn.

Today, libraries are of course faced with the very immediate question of how to provide services during a pandemic, and manage a recovery that is likely to be uneven and slow.

In particular, there will be key questions about when special measures taken in the context of the pandemic should be withdrawn.

This applies, of course, to restrictions on travel, on the opening of libraries, schools and businesses, and to the huge focus of resources into boosting medical capacity.

Finding the right time to return to ‘normal’ (insofar as this is possible) is a hard question, and decisions will need to take account of many factors, not least risks to health.

However, there are arguably some measures and practices which shouldn’t be withdrawn at all. In effect, as the wave recedes, how can we avoid these good things being caught in the backwash?

This blog offers a few suggestions of things we might want to keep from the time of COVID-19, building on our own experience and ideas shared by others.

Better deals for digital content: 2019 was marked, in particular, by tensions around the decision by some publishers to enforce embargoes on eBooks before making them available to libraries.

With the beginning of the crisis, not only was this position lifted, but there were welcome steps by a number of publishers to offer discounts on electronic content, helping to meet major increases in demand. As Publishers Weekly noted, increases in library use have gone hand-in-hand with increases in sales, and sales and profits have increased for many individual companies.

Of course, we are far from a perfect situation. Some special deals have lapsed, and eBooks remain expensive for libraries in comparison with the prices paid by consumers. In the academic field, there have been particular concerns about high and rising prices.

As positive sales figures for publishers are reported and analysed, we can at least hope that there will be a greater readiness to accept that library lending of digital content is not a harm, but rather a support to digital reading in general.

Awareness of the Need for Open Access and Copyright Reforms: a further impact of the crisis, at least in some countries, has been awareness of the need to ensure that copyright laws keep up with technology, in particular by ensuring that libraries can pursue their missions just as well through digital means as through analogue ones.

Linked to this is the drive to increase the share of research published open access, by-passing the need to rely on copyright exceptions in order to access and use work. Millions of educators, learners and researchers will now have their own experience of  whether materials are available to them online or not.

Bringing together this experience in order to sustain the momentum could see important progress, replicating the progress we are seeing in the proposals for reform made in Australia and Japan. At the international level, reiterating and underlining that existing global rules allow such steps will also be helpful.

Improved Services to People with Mobility Issues: during the pandemic, whole populations have discovered what it is like having to live life without having access to the physical premises of libraries. However, this was already the case for many – those living in remote areas, with limited mobility, in care homes or in prisons.

In response to lockdowns, there has been a wave of innovation in the provision of content and services, both to wider user groups and targeted on individuals most in need.

When safe re-opening is possible, there will clearly be a limit on resources – providing services offline and online can require much more effort and investment than providing just one of the two. However, we can hope that lessons from the crisis are learned and those without the possibility to access a library physically will benefit from lasting improvements in provision.

More regular, shorter meetings: pre-COVID, the possibility of physical meetings – conferences, seminars and other events – tended to a large extent to structure the rhythm of cooperation and communication between professionals. Where there were electronic meetings, these tended to be smaller, serving mainly to keep things moving.

However, without the possibility to meet in person during the pandemic, we have seen mush more exploration of the scope of digital platforms to bring people together. For example, in Ireland, regular town hall meetings have brought together all librarians in the country on a regular basis – something that would previously only have been thought of as something for conferences.

Similarly, many of IFLA’s own sections have moved from coming together twice a year for longer periods to more frequent, shorter sessions. These have allowed greater responsiveness to events, and new possibilities for participation. This feels, certainly, like a good practice to maintain.

Bringing in new voices: linked to the above point, with physical meetings not possible, we have hopefully seen a lasting weakening of the idea that it is necessary to travel in order to be able to participate. While it is clear that poor connectivity remains a major challenge, it is certainly easier to address than that of finding the money, time and visas to attend meetings in other countries or continents.

Again drawing on IFLA experiences, there have been exciting new possibilities to attend meetings organised by colleagues around the world, learning from a wider and richer range of experiences. This has opened a door to a greater diversity in the voices heard within the library field.

While of course meeting again in person will be important, both personally and as a means of reenergising the wider community, there will be value in maintaining these wider possibilities for engagement which have brought so much to the debate within the field.

Seeing libraries as an investment: finally, it has been welcome, in the context of the pandemic, to see some governments at least see supporting libraries as a way of stimulating economies. Such investments, crucially, are designed not only to create jobs now, but also to create the foundations for stronger growth in future, and so repay themselves over time.

Examples have included support for stronger connectivity, enlarged collections, and building works, all of which make it easier for libraries to fulfil their mission of providing equitable access to information.

While stimulus packages will have an end date, the evidence of the recognition that investing in libraries is a way of building a stronger economy is one that will be worth working to maintain. Gathering data about the positive impact of this work, as far as possible, will help with library advocacy for years to come.

How HathiTrust Emergency Temporary Access Service (ETAS) supports Libraries in pandemic times

By Sara R. Benson, Copyright Librarian, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Check out Sara’s podcast titled Copyright Chat at https://go.illinois.edu/copyrightchat

It’s Fair Use/Fair Dealing week and that means it is once again time to let folks know about exciting developments with the HathiTrust Digital Library. Last year on Fair Use Week I highlighted the ability of researchers to engage with copyright protected materials for text and data mining through the HathiTrust Research Data Capsule. This year, I would like to make readers aware of the HathiTrust Emergency Temporary Access Service or ETAS.

What is the ETAS? It is a portal allowing affiliated libraries to permit their patrons to access in copyright works remotely. Why is the ETAS available? COVID 19 has caused many libraries, such as my own (the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Library) to temporarily limit physical access to library materials. Almost half of our collection, however, has been digitized and is available in the HathiTrust corpus. Normally, users can only perform searches for how many times a given term appears in copyright protected works in the HathiTrust corpus. However, due to COVID 19, the ETAS allows users to view (but not download) entire copyright protected works remotely. Libraries participating must have the physical book in their collection and agree not to lend out the physical book. Thus, the book is being lent remotely on a one-to-one ratio to the Library’s physical collection on the basis of fair use. This type of lending is made possible because it is non-commercial, educational in purpose and justified due to the emergency nature of the pandemic virus. As noted by April Hathcock in a public statement created by copyright specialists and available at https://tinyurl.com/tvnty3a, “fair use is made for just these kinds of contingencies.”

So, as you celebrate Fair Use/Fair Dealing week this year, note that the pandemic has brought with it many challenges, but Fair Use has enabled libraries to keep lending their works digitally so that researchers and the public can continue to create, thrive, and produce . . . even during a crisis.

(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!