Tag Archives: COVID-19

Rights and Restrictions: Are Library Values Being Respected During COVID-19?

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on our lives, societies and economies. Millions have fallen ill, and billions have faced restrictions on their movements, with early evidence indicating serious economic consequences.

The next months will reveal more about how quickly it will be safe to lift the controls in place, and what the ‘new normal’ will look like. Beyond the measures based on scientific evidence, there will be crucial, more political, decisions to be made about the sort of world we want to build.

A key focus will be around the protection – and guarantees – offered for the political, economic, social and cultural rights of individuals and groups.

IFLA’s own statements on library values – the Public Library Manifesto, the Position on Intellectual Freedom, on Privacy in the Library Environment, on Net Neutrality, on Internet Shutdowns, on Public Legal Information in the Digital Age, on Fake News, and on Censorship – highlight not only libraries’ broader commitment to human rights and equality, but also a specific focus on access to information and education, the right to a private life and participation in political, economic, social and cultural life.

As this blog will set out, the COVID-19 pandemic has led governments to implement – or fail to implement – measures which raise serious concerns, in particular in fields where libraries are focused. It has also highlighted areas where certain groups are hit harder than others, violating the principle of equality. Finally, it has thrown light on subjects where it is necessary to find a balance between rights.


Direct Violations

A first category of issues is those where there is a clear violation of rights and library values at play, affecting everyone.

A crucial area where we have seen rights risk being unjustifiably undermined concerns privacy. With many people more reliant on the internet than ever, the need for those providing services need to respect private lives. For libraries, this is particularly true when it comes to providing access to digital services, including remote access to collections, eLearning, as well as more broadly for enforcing academic freedom.

Crucial to this is to give users a real choice over what data they do hand over, and under what conditions. Users need to be able to trust what they are told by companies, and need to have the opportunity to enforce privacy when they want. Where this is not the case, something is wrong.

For young people in particular, who may have fewer chances to choose, it cannot be acceptable to gather data by default during learning – a point also highlighted by UNICEF – while efforts to prevent cheating in exams should not be implemented without proper consideration of ethics. A similar point of course goes for checking up on employees working from home.

In the above cases, violations will primarily be committed by private actors. The role of government is to enforce rules that prevent these. However, there are also instances of direct violations by those in power.

An obvious example is in the steps that some have made to limit the rule of law. Detention without trial, closure of courts (or restriction of access), unjustified surveillance and refusal to allow for any democratic influence over when emergency powers are lifted are clearly all deeply troubling.

Emergency powers too, clearly, should not provide an excuse to take other decisions which are not urgent, or not related to the pandemic, without scrutiny or discussion – a point which can also apply to any organisation.

Similarly, it is unacceptable to fail to keep records of the decisions made during this period, which will be essential for future evaluation and accountability, as set out in the International Council on Archives’ statement. With libraries too having a key role in collecting, preserving and giving access to laws, this is a crucial point.

Finally, and also of high relevance to libraries is the impact of the crisis on the rights of access to education, research and culture. The shift to remote working has exposed the weakness of many copyright laws, which allow rightholders to impose restrictions on how digital works are used, overriding copyright exceptions set out in law.

While there have been many welcome efforts to change practices to allow for distance uses, it should not be the case that key rights – to education, to participate in cultural life, to benefit from scientific progress, and to access to information – should depend on private goodwill. As the Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization has set out, extraordinary times can justify targeted adjustments to copyright laws in order to allow access to continue, a point also highlighted by Communia.

When governments or private actors take steps that affect the rights of whole populations, libraries and their users are inevitably affected. They are particularly hard-hit by failures to ensure that laws allow them to continue to fulfil their missions.


Unequal Treatment

A second category of issues where fundamental rights come into play is round unequal treatment. The pandemic has both triggered new forms of prejudice, and has shone a light on pre-existing inequalities in our societies. Here too, there is a pressing need for action.

A clear example are attacks on foreigners – or people of foreign descent – who risk being seen as somehow responsible for the disease. This form of open discrimination is clearly counter to the values of libraries, which act to serve people everywhere regardless of background or other factors.

While – fortunately – many governments have not sought to encourage such feelings, there is still a pressing need to act to promote tolerance. Clearly where governments are encouraging such sentiments – for example through the expulsion of journalists of certain nationalities – this should stop.

Secondly, plenty has already been written about the evidence that certain groups are more at risk than others of catching or dying from the disease itself. Those who are older, have specific conditions, or are in prison, as well as those for whom it simply isn’t possible to practice hygiene or social distancing, need help.

The impacts of restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic has also been uneven. People in insecure or informal work have often been among the first to lose their livelihoods, as well as those in sectors most badly affected. While some are lucky to live in countries where the government can step in to help, this is not the case for all.

Given libraries’ commitment to equality and equity, any situation where some groups end up worse off than others is troubling. Libraries have of course been working hard, around the world, to continue to support all parts of the communities they serve, even under current circumstances.

However, this has certainly been harder where digital solutions do not provide a response. Globally, nearly half of the world’s population is still not online. Some of these are subject to politically-motivated internet shutdowns. Of those who are, many still lack the speed of connectivity, or hardware, to make full use of the internet, leaving them on the wrong side of the digital divide.

As a result, due to the slow progress of efforts to ensure universal connectivity, some are less able to enjoy their right to education, research and culture than others. For example, statistics from Los Angeles County in the United States underline that 25% of students are not in a position to benefit from distance learning.

Libraries have of course been active in trying to address this. Efforts to boost connectivity have come through providing long-range WiFi, or lending hotspots and hardware. Programmes for developing digital skills are being rolled out. Physical deliveries of books and other materials – with maximum precautions taken for hygiene – are helping those who cannot come to the library continue to benefit from services.

Libraries are also active in promoting participation in exercises like the census in the United States, which has a key impact on the funding different areas receive in order to carry out pro-equality policies. Delay to these – or incomplete answers – risk making it harder to address challenges like universal internet access in future.

As institutions with a mandate to provide universal service and to promote equity, the inequalities exposed by the pandemic will be a clear sign for libraries of the need for stronger laws and more effective support for solutions.


Finding the Balance

A final category of issues is those where different rights risk coming into conflict. This is foreseen in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose Article 29(2) underlines:

“In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society”.

In the case of COVID-19, it is clear that action to protect health is a priority (the right to health is set out indeed in Article 25), and so may provide a justification to limit rights. However, when this happens, it is crucial to find a balance. Limitations need to be proportionate, going no further than necessary, be implemented in a transparent and accountable way, and be lifted as soon as possible.

In this respect, the privacy implications of contact-tracing apps – effectively surveillance of individuals through their phones – have received particular attention in media discussions. Clearly, the question of how to identify people who may have been exposed to the virus and recommend quarantine was already raising privacy questions before talk of apps.

Stories of the publication of names of people who had caught the disease are worrying. So too is the tracing of specific mobile phones, for example by nationality. These steps are, arguably, disproportionate to the goal pursued, with alternative approaches available.

As for contact-tracing apps themselves, there are ongoing discussions about whether this can be done effectively without the collection of extensive personal data, and challenges to technology companies to prove that their apps are worth the intrusion.

Already, some argue that apps can work without collecting geolocation data – for example – by working only with relative data (i.e. who have you been close to, rather than where have you been). Nonetheless, this can also reveal private lifestyle information. It may be possible, some have claimed, to limit risks by only holding data on phones – rather than centrally – but there are also worries about how quickly this may drain batteries.

Finally, there is concern about making the downloading of apps obligatory, while others worry that insufficient take-up of apps will make them ineffective in the effort to contain the disease.

Another area where there is need for care is in finding the balance between freedom of speech and steps to stop the spread of misinformation that can damage efforts to tackle the pandemic.

This is not a new issue, but the sense of urgency in removing misleading reports and stories has led to the rapid introduction of new measures, not always with full debate. There is clearly a need for action, not least to avoid a desire for clicks and attention incentivising the creation and sharing of false facts.

Nonetheless, this needs to be done while still prioritising the promotion of media freedom and quality journalism. While the blocking of demonstrably false and malicious content may sometimes be justified, banning opinion pieces and preventing access to information, as well as imposing fines or jail terms for supposed offences are likely to have a major chilling effect.

The situation has been made more difficult still by the fact that people employed to moderate content are often forced to stay at home, increasing reliance on filters powered by artificial intelligence which remain deeply flawed.

For libraries, the importance of both privacy, and freedom of expression and access to information needs to be recognised fully in all decisions taken. As set out at the beginning of this section, any restrictions need to be proportionate – i.e. they should not to go any further than necessary, and there should not be any less intrusive alternatives – and need to be carried out transparently, and not apply for any longer than necessary.

In this context, libraries have a logical role in advocating for less intrusive approaches to contact-tracing and efforts to counter ‘fake news’. Instead, they can use their expertise and networks to promote media literacy and a better understanding of the privacy implications of the choices they make.


The COVID-19 Pandemic certainly represents an extraordinary moment, and one which certainly calls for extraordinary measures. Nonetheless, there remain constants, not least the importance of protecting and guaranteeing the fundamental rights of all, which must be at the heart of the societies we build post-COVID-19.

As this blog sets out, there is an immediate need for action to put an end to unjustified violations of rights of all sorts, whether they affect whole populations or only particular groups. There is also a need for close and careful monitoring of any measures that seek to balance different rights.

Thanks to their values and their skills, libraries are well placed to take actions to help ensure that rights are not violated as a result of measures imposed during the pandemic. However, a truly rights-based, equal society in future will need actions from all.

Something Old, Something New: COVID-19’s effect on documentary heritage professionals

The shock of cultural institutions shuttering is beginning to wear off. The world of social distancing might begin feeling like the new normal, even as, depending where in the world you are, there is talk of memory institutions re-opening.

For the past months, we have been living in a world without cultural institutions as public spaces.  We’ve seen museums close their doors, libraries exploring online engagement, and many cultural professionals furloughed or navigating their work from home.

Through this crisis, UNESCO maintains the importance of culture, including a call for greater support to documentary heritage during COVID-19, co-signed by IFLA.

How is the crisis affecting the professionals that are working to preserve and provide access to the world’s cultural heritage? We’ve reached out to documentary heritage practitioners in our international network of Preservation and Conversation (PAC) Centres to reflect on their experience of working through the pandemic.

Q: How have stay-at-home measures affected the preservation work at your institution?

 Library of Congress, USA

Stay-at-home guidance has had a major, and predictable, impact on our work with the physical collections. We have had to stop conservation treatments and laboratory research, along with our collections maintenance projects like shelf reading and condition surveys. We are fortunate to have dedicated staff who are able to make weekly rounds in our storage areas to ensure collections are safe, which has paid off several times. The weather is not on lockdown and accidents can always happen.

Many of our digital preservation activities are not only active, but have taken on special significance. We are working on COVID web archiving projects along with several international partners, for example. Our digital resources, and the infrastructures for preservation and access that support them, are more in demand than ever. Our digital content management projects continue more or less as before.


National Library and Information System Authority (NALIS), Trinidad and Tobago:

 Trinidad and Tobago has taken emergency measures to curtail the spread of Covid-19. A Stay-at-Home order has been in effect since 27 March with only essential services asked to report to work.

The National Library and Information System Authority (NALIS) has closed its facilities to the public, ramping up its online services and permitting only designated staff access to the National Library Building which houses the Heritage Library and the Preservation Lab.

The hands-on work of conservation and preservation, that is, the direct work with collections – the assessment, diagnostic and treatment phases, as well as cataloguing and digitization – have all been placed on hold.


Library for Foreign Literature, Russia:

The mayor of Moscow announced a regime of self-isolation from 30 March to 1 May.

During this period, only organisations and business that cannot stop their activities due to production and technical conditions, those providing citizens with essential goods, those providing warehousing and logistics services, emergency response, and construction are able to continue working. Therefore, until 1 May, the Center for the Conservation and Restoration of Documents at the Russian Library for Foreign Literature does not work. It is not yet clear whether such instructions will be extended.

The regime of self-isolation was introduced gradually, at first only for a week, and then extended. It was therefore difficult to prepare for it.

It’s important to note that the situation differs between Russian regions. For example, our colleagues from Siberia are making videos instructing readers on how to repair books themselves.


National Library and Documentation Service Board of Sri Lanka:

 The lockdown in Sri Lanka has certainly affected the preservation work at the National Library. The National Library has completely closed for staff and visitors from 23 March.


National Library of Australia:

We are continuing preservation work at the National Library of Australia through a variety of means, namely those staff working from home are working on procedure review updating processes and completing research that often we don’t get time to do as part of our day-to-day business.

Two tasks we are looking into are a complete review of our care and handling training we provide Library staff and researching new approaches to exhibition furniture and material off-gassing needs.


Q: Is your team working remotely, still on location, or a mix of the two?

 National Diet Library, Japan:

In Tokyo, people are asked to stay home but it isn’t as strict as in some other countries for now. Staff in the preservation division of the National Diet Library are split between remote working and on-location.  About one third of staff members work at home or take a day off in rotation.


Library of Congress, USA: 

We are almost entirely remote agency-wide, though the details vary group by group. We do have essential staff on site to ensure the safety of the buildings and collections, but the number is strictly limited and they are scheduled to minimize contact.

About half the Preservation staff have full time telework projects to carry us through the next several months, and others have part-time projects or training they can complete online.

Our digital content management staff have shifted to full telework mode, with some significant adjustments having been made to allow teamwork to continue using a variety of tools to support remote collaboration.


National Library of Australia:

 Our Digital Preservation team is working solely from home which has impact on their technical ability to process collection items. All of this work continues, just a little more slowly. Some work, such as the processing of obsolete carriers, has pretty much ceased.

The rest of the lab team is working on a roster system, part of the week at home, the other at work. This enables our core treatment work to continue and provide support to the Library’s digitisation programme. While the Library building is closed, we have also taken the opportunity to undertake a comprehensive condition report and clean of all objects on permanent display. This task otherwise gets scheduled into the small hours before the building opens to the public or after hours, so it is a good opportunity to do this now.

It also provides the team with good social distancing opportunities as we aim to have a Team A working in the morning, Team B in the afternoon.


Q: What work has been possible to achieve? How have priorities shifted during this time?

National Diet Library Japan:

Naturally, conservation works are slowing down, as conservators cannot take library books home, but haven’t stopped. We will need to cancel or postpone training workshops and other events unless the situation improves dramatically.


Library of Congress, USA: 

First and foremost, in times like these we are very much the Library of Congress, with many of staff fully engaged in providing information to our legislators to support their work in the face of this pandemic. I am sure that many of our colleagues in IFLA national and parliamentary libraries are doing the same and it certainly makes me proud of our profession.

This period has allowed many preservation staff a welcome opportunity to dig into research and to do thoughtful, uninterrupted work to create research guides and educational materials, or to work on complex problems.

This crisis has been valuable in helping us stress-test both our priorities and our procedures. So, while our ultimate goals and major priorities remain, we have learned a great deal about how to achieve them. I see this as a good time to ask which processes were resilient and which need to be refined, retired, or redesigned.


NALIS, Trinidad and Tobago:

Even though direct work with the collections have been paused, staff are focussed on outreach and professional development. Outreach efforts are being ramped up via social media outlets with events such as tutorials on preserving family heirlooms, pictures and documents and other community engagements planned via Facebook and the NALIS website.

Events such as ‘this day in history’ for Trinidad and Tobago are ongoing and online tours of our large catalogue of exhibits and displays are also planned. Programmes that would have been held, such as our First Time Authors, celebrating newly published authors in commemoration of World Book and Copyright Day, will now be featured online.

Some consultative work is still being done, but these pertain to collaborative projects in train before the shut down and these are via the usual communication media and a limited reference service is in effect using NALIS’ online heritage resources and askNalis facility.

One of NALIS’ priorities has always been the financial sustainability of the PAC Lab and the preservation projects and efforts. It is even more so now in the straightened economic circumstances that would exist in a world battling with the pandemic.


Library for Foreign Literature, Russia:

At the moment, there is a process of editing the translation of IFLA guidelines and working on the National Program for the Preservation of Library Collections. Due to the fact that restorers cannot work remotely, the focus was shifted towards methodological activities.


National Library and Documentation Service Board of Sri Lanka:

 The National Library has strengthened digital services during lock down period. This includes assistance offered to our communities via the telephone, and on social media like the National Library Facebook page.


National Library of Australia:

We are maintaining some focus on our main treatment programmes but these will experience delays because of the reduced time at the bench to undertake treatments.

We have been able to address a lot of tasks we just never got to previously and as discussed above – procedure review, some professional reading. Digital preservation work continues – just at a slower than normal rate due to the technological issues of working off site.  

Q: What comes next? Has there been discussion in your region over what will come next for preservation, or over lasting changes to the field after COVID-19?


National Diet Library Japan:

We haven’t yet discussed possible changes to our work after COVID-19, but I am not expecting any significant changes for preservation.


Library of Congress, USA: 

The initial deliberations about how to reopen are starting and preservation experts have been important contributors to the working groups on this topic. The Institute for Museum and Library Services has convened several Federal agencies, including the Library of Congress, to work with medical and public health experts to develop guidance for the field.

In preservation, there is always a long future to look forward to. The Library of Congress is celebrating its 220th anniversary this month and we look forward to sharing our beautiful spaces and great collections for another 220 years and beyond.


NALIS, Trinidad and Tobago:

The NALIS PAC Lab – as an IFLA PAC Centre – has reached out to its regional partners in the form of a simple survey to discuss preservation in the time of COVID-19. We are awaiting feedback.


Library for Foreign Literature, Russia:

At the moment, this is unknown. However, I think that work will continue ahead in the usual manner.

We collect information about the processing of books after the pandemic, but for ourselves we have so far revealed the main idea – two-week quarantine is universal, safe for books and does not cost a lot of money.


National Library and Documentation Service Board of Sri Lanka:

The National Library has issued guidelines regarding the exit strategy from COVID-19 for libraries in Sri Lanka.


National Library of Australia:

I don’t believe there has been any discussion about what next, as the Australian community is still in the ‘what to do now’ phase. The latest from the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM) is available here.  At this stage, I have not heard anything in relation to changes regarding digital preservation.


In conclusion

Documentary heritage professionals are facing varying degrees of stay-at-home measures around the world. Despite setbacks and the limited access to materials, work has been able to continue.

Providing support to government, reflecting on processes, diving into research and methodological work, and shifting the focus to digital communications are examples of how professionals keep preservation and access to documentary heritage moving ahead through the pandemic.

As the focus shifts from “what to do now” to “what comes next”, it is vital that this work is allowed to continue forward and develop in a positive direction thanks to the lessons we have learned during this time.

In the words of the PAC Centre at the Library of Congress, USA, “In preservation, there is always a long future to look forward to”.

We look forward to navigating the post-COVID-19 world with access and preservation of cultural heritage continuing to be upheld as a priority.


Advoc8: Now and Next Part 2 – What Might a Library Advocacy Agenda for the Post-Pandemic World Look Like?

In our first ‘Now and Next’ blog, we explored a number of potential trends that are likely to shape the library field as it – and the communities it serves – emerge from the restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just as in the first blog, it is clear that we are still in the midst of the crisis. Even as some countries are able to relax controls on people’s lives and activities, others are prolonging them. In some cases, we have seen decisions to re-impose them, as the disease has returned. It will likely be a long time until we can talk about a post-pandemic world.

Nonetheless, as calls grow for clarity about how governments plan to go about returning to normal, it will make sense to engage with governments. Indeed, this is likely to be particularly necessary in the light of the serious economic impact COVID-19 is already having.

As institutions which do depend on the financial health of the governments, institutions or other organisations that support them, it will be as important as ever to ensure libraries – and their values – are understood as having an essential role in the recovery, or even in creating better societies and economies in future.

We can only do this by reaching out and making the case. This blog therefore looks to explore potential advocacy agendas in the immediate, medium and longer-term. In this, the short-term is defined as now – with libraries in many countries physically closed. The medium-term is the situation as libraries start to re-open and restrictions are lifted. The long-term refers to the time when the pandemic can be declared over, and only minimal if any rules are in place to address the spread of the disease.

For each, the blog suggests eight key possible messages. Do you agree? Have we missed anything? We welcome your comments!


The Short-Term: Provide Relief, Support Research

  • Copyright should not become a barrier: it should not be the case that just because a library has closed its doors, its users cannot draw on its resources. Governments should make it clear that at a time that physical access is often impossible – for everything from research to storytimes – digital alternatives can take its place.
  • Licensing terms should not override the public interest: where the terms of licences under which libraries access content prevent their use, rightholders should be ready to introduce necessary flexibilities to allow libraries to carry out their missions. Where this does not happen, libraries should be able to bypass licensing terms in the course of their work where this does not cause unreasonable harm to rightholders.
  • Libraries need to be enabled to support their communities: faced with increasing demand for digital content, some governments have already been ready to increase acquisitions budgets. More broadly, other restrictions – such as on offering public access to WiFi, or on lending library equipment or materials to vulnerable groups – should be relaxed if these create problems.
  • COVID-19 must not become an excuse for bad government: many countries have adopted a state of emergency in order to allow steps to be taken against COVID-19. However, the application of these powers should not lead to decisions in other areas being taken without proper scrutiny, and all decision-making needs to be properly documented for future accountability.
  • Restrictions on free expression and access to information must be kept to a minimum: some governments have moved to limit free expression as part of their response, while social media companies are also increasing their efforts to close sites disseminating deliberately false information. Such restrictions should be avoided if other means of achieving the same goals are available, and otherwise applied carefully and proportionately. It is better to promote positive interventions such as media and information literacy.
  • The cultural sector needs support to avoid disaster: while some in the cultural field are benefitting strongly from increased demand for their work (especially digital content), others – especially those who rely on performances or physical visitors – are suffering. Faced with ongoing costs, these require support if they are to avoid having to give up and close their doors for good.
  • Greater dependence on online tools cannot come at the expense of rights: there has been an explosive rise in use of digital tools to work and communicate. However, we need to be vigilant to ensure that this does not increase the risk of cybersecurity breaches or other losses of personal data.
  • Open science should be the default: there have been welcome moves to adopt open science practices in research specifically around COVID-19, with the National Library of Medicine in the United States creating the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD). These should be expanded and supported by governments, and reach out to related disciplines in order to help ensure better informed responses to the pandemic.


The Medium-Term: Returning to Not-Quite-Normal, Safely

  • Official approaches to re-opening need to take safety into account: the news of libraries being able to reopen will be both a source of encouragement and worry for many. Often small, not necessarily set out to allow people to maintain social distance, and offering a lot of direct personal support, it should be clear that libraries are high social-interaction spaces. Where reopening does happen, it should be based on a sound understanding of how libraries really work.
  • Exceptional measures on access to content should not be lifted until the need for them is over: many of the special measures put in place, for example, by publishers to offer remote access to books and articles, or online story-times, are time-limited. While some have noted that their application can be extended, it will be important to keep up the pressure to maintain them until all library users are able to make use of library services again as before.
  • There needs to be meaningful investment in helping learners to catch up: the internet has allowed far more teaching and learning to take place during the pandemic than could have been imagined even a few years ago. However, many have underlined that it is still not the same as being in class, and it will be necessary to help learners catch up, especially those in more vulnerable situations. Governments need to have a plan for this.
  • Insofar as they affect access to government information, states of emergency should be lifted as soon as possible: states of emergency should never be indefinite, given the threat they pose to fundamental rights. In particular, it is important for information about government responses to the virus to be made open, in order to inform researchers as well as journalists.
  • Ensure that efforts continue to help those who will need to be subject to restrictions for longer: the loosening of restrictions is likely to move at a different pace for different groups, with already marginalised populations – older persons, those with disabilities, or prison populations to name just a few – likely to need to wait longer. As the rest of society moves back as close to normality as possible, we cannot forget those for whom this isn’t the case.
  • Ensure that libraries are supported to take on the upcoming rise in demand: it seems likely that not only will libraries welcome back people who have missed their resources, services and spaces, but also those needing to use them to get their lives back on track after losing jobs and even homes. Libraries have a proven track record here, but scaling this up will require continued support.
  • Ensuring that lifting restrictions on movement doesn’t mean new restrictions on privacy: the potential use of tracking apps to contribute to the safe lifting of limitations has received a lot of limitations. If these are introduced, it will be important to protect privacy, ensure that users consciously opt in, and to ensure that no more information is collected and retained than strictly necessary.
  • Continue to promote open science, and invest in discoverability and interoperability: managing the lifting of restrictions is going to require extensive use of research, drawing on a variety of disciplines. We will need to strengthen the infrastructures and resources for open science, allowing researchers to work globally, and across different areas of study, with meaningful tools for discovery and analysis.


The Long-Term: Build Back Better

  • Ensure copyright and competition laws are truly fit for the digital age: the crisis has brought into very stark relief the difference between what copyright laws permit as concerns digital and non-digital uses, and the degree to which libraries have had to rely on rightholder goodwill – rather than the law – in order to continue to fulfil their missions. This should not continue. Moreover, the fact that access to and use of digital content tends to be shaped by the choices of rightholders, rather than the law, has also helped underline the need to look at these markets from a competition angle.
  • Mobilise libraries in the wider effort to rebuild lives, societies and economies: over recent years, libraries globally have worked to realise their potential as a key part of the social infrastructure of their communities. In addition to all they do to promote wellbeing as cultural spaces and centres, they can also act as platforms and partners for efforts to support employment, entrepreneurship and education. As such, they need to be part of relevant government strategies at all levels.
  • Ensure proper scrutiny of decision-making during the crisis: governments at the moment are taking crucial decisions about societies and economies, which may have significant and long-lasting effects. In order to be able to hold them to account, we will need to ensure that researchers, the press, and the public have the access they need to information to allow them to participate fully in a healthy democratic life.
  • Learn from the experience to promote inclusion and well-being for all: the pandemic has helped underline the vulnerability of many groups, whose living conditions, livelihoods or other characteristics have made them more susceptible to the pandemic and/or harder hit by its consequences. These should lead us to design policies and programmes in general that are truly inclusive and pro-equity in future.
  • Achieve universal meaningful connectivity: having access to the internet made it possible to continue with more aspects of life during the crisis that previously could not have been imagined. However, this has only been the case for the half of the world which enjoy connectivity. Even those who are online do not necessarily have the skills and confidence necessary to make the most if it. We need to invest in helping everyone become active and capable internet users.
  • Invest in effective public (health) information systems: one key lesson from the crisis has been the importance of developing a meaningful infrastructure for providing access to information to people. This is not just a case of transmitting information, but rather being able to listen and adapt messages to ensure they have most impact, as well as to build literacy skills for all. Libraries can be part of this.
  • Move to a new level in open science and collaborative research: the potential of open science to inform better policymaking has been clear in the current crisis. It should become the norm, with meaningful investment in platforms, reforms to assessment and recognition frameworks, and careful efforts to ensure that researchers and readers do not risk being locked into any individual providers’ products. Cross-border research should be enabled by appropriate international action on copyright reform.
  • Don’t forget other challenges!: clearly COVID-19 is the focus of attention at the moment. Nonetheless, there are other challenges facing the world at the moment, not least climate change, and the rest of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. Clearly, the way we address these may change, but the underlying priorities remain if we are to ensure that we don’t just return to normal, but to better.


How can the library community serve people in institutions, such as prisons and homes for the elderly, in times of Covid-19?

We are grateful to Lisa Krolak, Chair of the IFLA Working Group on Prison Libraries, and member of the Standing Committee of the Section on Library Services to People with Special Needs for this blog. You can also see our interview with Lisa about her publication: Books Beyond Bars.

Libraries in many places, all over the world are physically closed, and instead promoting their digital services. This is great for those of us who have access to the internet, a device, and the relevant skills. But it is of no help to those people, who for various reasons, do not have this access. This includes prisoners, who are denied access for security reasons, as well as members of our communities who simply do not have the relevant hardware and digital skills.

Locked-Up and Locked-Down: Services to Prisoners

Recently I conducted a global survey on the current situation of prison libraries. It showed that prisons all over the world are in lockdown to prevent the virus to enter this closed space. As a result, visitors and services provided from the outside often have stopped.

This means, for example, that prisoners will not be allowed to see their families for the coming weeks and months, a situation that has already led to riots in some prisons. It also means that services provided by outside staff or community volunteers often have been paused, such as worship and church services, legal advice or vocational training opportunities.

In addition, prison libraries are closed unless they are run by inmates and/or core prison staff. When still open, they often provide restricted services, such as allowing only few prisoners to enter to ensure social distancing, limited opening hours, or denying free access to the library space and rather providing access to materials via catalogue or book carts directly to the cells.

Meanwhile, prison library services implemented or supported by prison librarians or volunteers from the outside, and prison outreach services, such as book clubs, creative writing, reading events or art workshops have been suspended until further notice.

The survey shows the need for creative solutions, such as enabling use of internet telephony services such as Skype to speak with family members, providing more newspapers and news magazines to keep prisoners informed, and sharing donated books or other materials, such as DVDs, CDs, puzzles or games.

Sheltered but not Isolated? The Case of Older Persons

Of course, it is not only prisoners who are limited in their movements. Older persons living in care homes are in a similar situation, with strict restrictions on contact with the outside world.

While such measures are vital in order to reduce the chances of the virus reaching a particularly vulnerable group, they also mean that usual activities which contribute to the wellbeing of residents have been paused.

In these circumstances, there is again a pressing need to find alternative ways to help residents pass the time comfortably, with as many possibilities as possible to learn or simply to enjoy books and other materials.

The same goes for others in restricted situations – patients in hospitals, people living in refugee camps, and those living with vulnerable family members who need to limit their own activities. All would benefit strongly from better access to books and library services.

A Possible Solution?

At a time that there is such a pressing need for access to reading material, (public) libraries are physically closed all over the world, with so many books and materials sitting on shelves unused.  These are materials that would be appreciated by all those who have lost access to services – prison community members, older persons in isolation, patients in hospitals or people living in refugee camps.

In great examples in my home country Germany, a public library has reached out to homes for the elderly by loaning boxes with library books and materials for the coming weeks. Publishers donate books and with the help of a local branch library they are packed into bags and delivered to the doorsteps of people in need. Clearly, in such initiatives, every step needs to be taken to ensure that any such programme does not become a vector of infection – national advice should be followed at all times.

An alternative approach, which avoids physical visits comes from Hamburg. For several years, Hamburg Public Libraries have run an outreach project called “Medienboten”, where volunteer book messengers visit seniors and homebound citizens at their homes and institutions to read and talk with them and to provide them with library materials.

As this is not possible at the moment they offer that their volunteers read and talk with them over the phone. Many use this opportunity to get explained, step by step, how to use their digital devices to be able to Skype, use social media or download electronic library materials.

It would be great to hear about similar initiatives elsewhere, using creative ways to provide access to books and materials for education, information or simply recreation when they are needed most, and to share lessons and ideas on how such practices could be shared further.

I hope, of course, that more (public) libraries will also consider reaching out to their local prisons, elderly homes, refugee camps and others to explore options to assist those who are currently cut off, particularly as they might be locked up in their cells or rooms for the next weeks or months, while many of us slowly are allowed to move around again.

I would be interested to hear your ideas and experiences.

Stay safe!

Lisa Krolak ([email protected])

Chair, IFLA Working Group on Prison Libraries

Standing Committee, Library Services to People with Special Needs Section

Now and Next: What a Post-COVID World May Bring for Libraries 

Around the world, library and information workers are doing their best, both personally and professionally, to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as some libraries are – cautiously – beginning to loosen restrictions, others are seeing them come into place.

Naturally, the focus is on the short term – how to keep staff, patrons safe, how to keep offering services as best possible, how to manage uncertainty. For many, it will seem difficult to think even beyond the coming days.

At the same time, it is already clear that this is a historic moment, with unprecedented steps being taken by governments, businesses and individuals. These are having a huge impact on the present, but what about the future? To what extent will what we are experiencing today not just ‘be’ history, but rather ‘make’ it?

This blog aims to identify ten developments we’re seeing today, and explore what they may mean in terms of trends shaping the future of libraries. It is not – and cannot be – exhaustive, and certainly can be improved. We welcome your ideas.


1) Restrictions on movement have dramatically changed our lives – will we get back to normal?

Limits on where we can go, how and with whom are affecting a huge share of the global population. On a personal level, people have been kept from family and friends, including at difficult moments. Many are not able to work, and face a loss of livelihood that, depending on whether they can receive support from elsewhere, could prove critical.

While many will be able to pick themselves up once the pandemic is over and go back to work, many will not be so lucky. We do face the risk of increased unemployment, homelessness and poverty into the future. Many will need training, support, or simply a place to get away from it all as they look to rebuild their lives and careers.

Faced with this, the need for free and welcoming public services like libraries, able both to help people find new opportunities for work or business, and to offer a moment of respite, should be as high as ever. Initiatives such as business incubators, support in job-searching or broader training programmes are likely to be important.


2) Many of our activities have ‘pivoted’ to online – will they stay there? 

Just as many libraries have restricted or stopped circulating physical materials, they have in parallel seen much greater demand for digital content. They are working hard to identify ways to support online learning for students of all ages, often overcoming barriers (see below). In their own work, even those who were previously most resistant to new tools and technologies are having to get used to remote working and communication.

The restrictions will not last forever however, and many are looking forward to the possibility to work face-to-face with users and colleagues, as well as to handling new books and materials again. Nonetheless, the possibilities of digital – for learning, researching and accessing all forms of culture – will be clearer for all, and convenience may well replace necessity as a reason for using online tools.  These of course bring with them ongoing concerns about how to protect privacy in the process.

The role of libraries as digital – as well as physical – providers of information and services seems likely to be confirmed. It remains to be seen whether the more favourable conditions set out by right-holders for access to electronic works will continue (or to what extent they will continue to print physical works at all), and whether library budgets themselves will swing back to physical spending.


3) Governments are investing billions into economies – how will they take it back?

As highlighted above, the restrictions needed to limit the spread of the pandemic are having a major impact on the ability of many to earn a living. Individuals and businesses in the culture sector, for example, are hit hard by the lack of physical audiences or visitors. In many countries, governments have sought to act by offering loans or subsidies to cover costs and pay salaries.

While these steps are welcome in the short term, this leaves open the question of how these same governments will deal with the debt incurred in the long term. With tax revenues also likely to be low, it seems inevitable that many will look to cut public spending, posing a direct threat to libraries.

Libraries will need to be able to make the case that they – alongside other key services – have the potential to be part of the recovery, and so to receive the support necessary to do this.  The experience of the years after the 2008 financial crisis has been very negative for many, although at least the well-documented harm caused may help ensure that politicians think twice.


4) Education has been disrupted and delayed – can we limit the scarring effects?

Thanks to the fast footwork of many educational institutions – including their libraries – a lot of teaching has moved online. Lessons and lectures are provided through videoconference, homework and assignments set and received by e-mail or dedicated platforms, and some are even proposing online exams.

Nonetheless, it is clear that for those coming to the end of school years in May or June, it is not a normal year, leading to worries about how to ensure children do not fall behind, or miss opportunities.

As time goes on, there is likely to be major need for support to students looking to catch up or take new decisions about their futures. Online and/or lifelong learning opportunities will play a key role in this – libraries have the reputation and materials to support in both, either as provider or platform for others. In this way, they can help ensure that temporary disruption does not turn into permanent damage.


5) Testing, tracking and emergency powers are helping to fight the pandemic – but will governments be able to let go?

Governments globally have highlighted the value of testing and contact tracing as means of slowing – and in some cases containing – the spread of the pandemic. Through collecting information about people’s health and lives, they hope to be able better to isolate those at risk, and treat those infected. Limits on freedom of movement and action are aimed at stopping infection.

Such moves have often come as part of packages of emergency powers allowing governments to take all steps they think necessary in the context. Sometimes – regrettably – they have been accompanied with nationalist rhetoric.

Yet it does not always seem clear what guarantees there are that these special measures will be lifted at the earliest safe opportunity. This matters. The possibility to collect information about citizens and to by-pass ordinary procedures may be helpful in the fight against COVID-19, but it can also serve less positive ends.

Libraries can already help citizens and parliamentarians to keep track of what governments are doing – a vital first step towards accountability – and will need to continue to do this in the recovery. Governments themselves may look to hold onto extraordinary powers longer than they should. Libraries will need to be ready to remind them – and citizens – of the need to return to high levels of data protection, privacy, personal and academic freedom, and openness to the world as soon as possible.


6) It has become clear that laws and practices were not ready – will we learn the lessons?

A major concern for many in the library field has been how to deal with the fact that copyright laws – and in particular the exceptions and limitations on which libraries rely – are often firmly stuck in the analogue age. With on-site (and on-campus) activities now impossible, libraries have too often found themselves unable to provide services they have already paid for, or which would be completely uncontroversial in person (such as storytimes).

There are welcome steps – through soft-law agreements and unilateral action by some rightholders – to improve matters here, but it is clearly far from ideal that the ability of libraries to provide services in times of crisis should rely on goodwill and good relationships.

The challenge in future will be to ensure that the lessons of the crisis are learnt, and that libraries and their users should not face more difficulty in working through digital tools as through analogue ones. Adapting copyright laws properly for the digital age will be a key part of this, although we can certainly expect efforts to resist this in order to leave decisions in the hands of rightholders.


7) Weaknesses and incompleteness in our digital infrastructure have become clear – will we fix them?

Undoubtedly, more people are able to continue with more elements of their personal and professional lives now from their homes than ever before. However, this is clearly not the case for all. This is not just because their livelihoods depend on activities which have been forced to close., but also because they do not enough good quality access to the internet and the skills to use it.

At a time where connectivity can make the difference between being able to talk with family and friends, continue working, and keep supplied and healthy, the impact of the digital divide is as clear as ever. The people coming to library car parks to download homework – or films – are simply one illustration of the failings of our current infrastructure.

We can hope that this crisis will lead to greater investment in connecting communities – itself a powerful economic stimulus. With this, it will be necessary to call for support for skills development, with libraries an obvious potential provider. We will need to avoid those getting online for the first time failing to realise potential or falling victim to scams and other dangers.


8) The need for global information sharing is obvious – will we make it permanent?

Many of us have been regular visitors to websites sharing latest information about the spread of the pandemic. Of course, in addition to maps and overall statistics, there is also a huge amount of data and research being shared between authorities globally in an effort both to understand what is going on, and to advance work towards effective treatments and even a vaccine.

This work has been supported by widespread efforts to lift paywalls and other restrictions on access to articles and other work related to COVID-19. With time, it has also been made easier to re-use works, for example in the course of text and data mining.

The question remains whether these restrictions will re-appear once the crisis is over, or will we see a lasting shift to a more open information-sharing environment? Partially this will rely on laws, for example making it clear that activities such as text and data mining should not require new payments or authorisation. Partly it will need changes in practices and business models. Libraries will need to keep up the pressure in favour of openness.


9) Pollution is down and air quality up – will we learn to live greener lives?

One of the rare positives from the pandemic has been the fall in emissions from transport and industry, leading to improved quality of air and water in many places. Without the possibility to go to work, visit friends or family, or go on holiday, people are effectively consuming less carbon and producing fewer other polluting chemicals. Conferences and meetings have moved online, and people are discovering local attractions, at least where they can.

Clearly, once the restrictions are lifted, many will want to take the first opportunity to go and visit loved ones again, and return to normal life. But with people getting used to having to limit driving and flying by necessity, can we hope that the pattern of increasing emissions globally will be stopped or at least slowed?

As they re-open, libraries will have the opportunity to redouble their efforts to promote green lifestyles, as well as bring together evidence that supports ongoing efforts to understand and deal with climate change. Some may be able to continue the support they have started to offer to users in terms of tools and advice so that they can continue to work remotely, so reducing travel. We can hope, also, that people may come to appreciate more than before their local areas and what there is to do there, again limiting polluting travel.


10) The value of culture in well-being is clear – will we continue to invest in making it a reality? 

As highlighted above, libraries (and publishers) are seeing major increases in demand for their digital offers. At a time of stress – often linked with forced inactivity – people want to be distracted, informed, or inspired by creative works, both contemporary and historic. Virtual exhibitions are taking place, some even looking back at how societies have dealt with pandemics in the past.

Librarians and archivists are also already working hard to collect news and other materials which will help future researchers understand the events and experiences of today. These may even help us improve our responses the next time we face such a challenge.

But will this awareness of the importance of culture last into the future? This is certainly to be hoped, although the ability of creators and libraries to supply this will depend a lot on whether they continue to receive the necessary support. Laws and practices will need to change to facilitate this, but at least as the crisis has showed, there is no shortage of energy and inventiveness here.


As set out in the introduction, we are still very much in the middle of the crisis. With the focus almost exclusively on the coming weeks, it is certainly too early to say with confidence what will come next.

However, what happens now will shape the future. The ideas above set out some potential trends, which are likely to interact with each other as we go into the future.

Do libraries risk seeing growing demand while having to fight hard for existing resources? Will they be able to keep up with – and support – an ever more digitalised economy and society without changes in laws? What will be necessary to uphold – or restore – core library values once the crisis is over?

We look forward to your views and ideas.


See Part 2 of this blog, which looks at what library advocacy agendas in the short, medium and longer term could look like.