Tag Archives: inequality

Libraries: Vectors of Solidarity

For the last fifteen years, the United Nations has marked International Human Solidary Day on 20 December. The goal of the day is to celebrate the place of solidary as a fundamental and universal value that should underlie relations between peoples.

As this blog argues, libraries are vectors of solidarity – a way in which those who pay taxes and otherwise invest their energy today, can bring benefits to people, current and future, who would otherwise miss out.


Solidarity with the present

First of all, when a society decides to build and support libraries, it is demonstrating solidarity with those among its members who would otherwise struggle to access information, education, research and culture.

Clearly the most obvious form of redistribution of wealth comes in the form of benefits or other payments to those who are less fortunate. However, high-quality universal public services, supported by taxation, have a similar impact, providing things that people would otherwise need to pay for, or have to forego.

Libraries are no exception here, helping to ensure that everyone enjoys the basic set of rights to which they are entitled, even if they do not have the resources to buy them privately.

Of course, libraries may be equally used by all members of the community (both those paying more tax, and those paying less) – indeed, this universalism helps ensure that there is no stigma to using their services.

However, their relative importance is often greater for those with fewer possibilities to access books, get online, or participate in learning otherwise.

To turn things around, if those who are rich enough to pay larger amounts of taxation withdraw their support, it will be those who are less well-off who suffer most in terms of reduced opportunities to benefit from what libraries can offer.

This is of course also an argument for why it is so important to combat tax evasion and avoidance, in order to allow for the services (including library services) that benefit society as a whole.


Solidarity with the future

Yet libraries are not only about providing a means for the more fortunate in a society to help the less fortunate today. They also help demonstrate solidarity with future generations.

An immediate example is in the contribution libraries make to combatting child poverty.

As highlighted in our blog for World Children’s Day, libraries are strongly engaged in providing skills and services that can help break the vicious circle that can often lead poor children to become poor parents.

The existence of libraries, supported by the taxpayer, also benefits the future by building a culture of reading, bringing forward new researchers and creators, and promoting key digital skills.

There is also solidarity in what libraries do to ensure that future generations can access the knowledge and heritage of today, thanks to preservation and conservation work.

And perhaps most pressingly, there is the work of libraries in promoting action on climate change, and the activities of IFLA’s Environment, Sustainability and Libraries Section, focused on encouraging people to invest time and energy now, for the good of those to come.


As a well-circulated blog from the University of Warwick recently pointed out, closing libraries can be seen as classist – an attack by the better-off on the perceived ‘undeserving’ poor.

As this blog argues, and following on from the University of Warwick piece, It follows that a healthy library system is a sign of a society that cares about equity and solidarity, not only towards those who are less fortunate today, and tomorrow.

Leaving No Child Behind: The Importance of Investing in Library Services

World Children’s Day is the anniversary of signing both the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.

It is an opportunity to focus on ensuring that the rights and interests of children are understood, and incorporated into decision-making at all levels.

This year’s theme is a Better Future for Every Child, concentrating on the impacts of inequalities on children, and the need to combat child poverty. It draws, in particular, from the economic and social divides exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which demonstrated how different factors can interplay to lead to worse outcomes.

This focus also recalls the fact that the experience of poverty in childhood is too often associated with negative outcomes later in life, such as higher unemployment or lower incomes, poorer health, and beyond.

This link begins early, with poverty all too often correlating with lower literacy and other skills leading to less good education performance. This can risk reinforcing poverty over time, with poor children turning into low-income parents, whose own children then face the same challenges.

In the long run, putting an end to child poverty means increasing income levels. A key way of achieving this is by breaking the link between economic poverty and other negatives, such as low literacy and wider educational outcomes.

The strength of this link can come from a variety of factors: there may be fewer resources available at home, parents may be less able to help with homework and language development, families may participate less frequently in cultural events that can develop a taste for reading, and children may not have a space or quiet for learning.


Library interventions combatting educational inequality

Clearly, schools have a key role to play in tackling this situation, with skilled teachers with adequate resources helping ensure that children from poorer backgrounds genuinely do have the same chances as their better-off peers.

Complementing these, however, are great library services for children, through both school and public or community libraries, drawing on their unique potential to support learner success.  This role that libraries play is well documented (here and here, to give just two examples).

A first contribution comes through the wider work of libraries in giving access to materials that help develop ideas and expand horizons, something that may be particularly important for young people growing up without access to a wider range of experience.

They can run programmes focused on poorer communities, such as KidsREAD in Singapore, targeted at improving the English language skills of young people who risked falling behind otherwise, and run by the National Library Board. Similarly, Kids on the Tab in Kibera, Kenya, worked through libraries to complement the schooling of children from poor areas, contributing to much improved exam results, which in turn open up new possibilities. Libraries can also be useful venues for promoting programmes aimed at encouraging better educational outcomes, such as the MathsWhizz programme in Kenya.

A particularly important activity can be summer reading clubs, addressing the fact that over the long break, children without opportunities to learn and develop literacy skills at home risk falling behind their peers, leading to lower performance and frustration when they return. Holiday breakfast clubs can serve a similar purpose, while also tackling food insecurity. Homework clubs also help children who may lack a quiet space at home to work.

Libraries also play an important role in supporting school-readiness, ensuring that children are able to engage properly when they start formal education. A number of countries have adopted initiatives based on or similar to Bookstart, for example Boekstart in the Netherlands, Kindertreff in Switzerland, Start Life with a Book in Czechia, and Better Beginnings in Australia. They typically involve the provision of age-appropriate materials from a young age, and then ongoing support, including in cooperation with doctors, in order to keep an eye on language development.

While these are often universal programmes, a key goal is to support those families which may not have other opportunities, or children with difficulties that may hold them back at school (such as disability, anxiety, or attention deficit).

Connected to this, libraries (both school and public) can support family learning, helping to engage parents in the effort to develop children’s literacy skills, and potentially brining direct benefits to them as well. Furthermore, they serve as community convening spaces, and bring in an important experience of supporting personalised learning, as underlined by the Urban Libraries Council.

Even outside of specific service offers, research demonstrates that children from poorer background report relying far more on libraries than their richer peers.

IFLA’s Library Stat of the Week series drew on data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to show how children who don’t have a room of their own, have parents with lower qualifications, or who come from foreign language or immigrant backgrounds tended to have greater levels of dependence.

Further research using the same data just for the US has echoed this point, noting that even if levels of usage are the same, this usage will be more important for children who don’t enjoy access to space, resources and connectivity at home. Work in the UK underlines the same, focusing on the reliance of poorer children on public libraries.

They also help by providing internet access and equipment that families may not be able to afford, or simply extending opening hours (both providing a space for young people, and allowing parents to take on full-time work).

Indeed, in situations where children face insecurity and deprivation at home and outside, libraries can act as places of retreat and safety, both in richer countries, and in others facing serious endemic violence problems, such as Brazil and Colombia. Village and mobile libraries can extend possibilities to access information and technology to rural areas, which often also face higher levels of child poverty, as in India and Burkina Faso, or those which are remote, such as the Galapagos.


From potential to practice

However, the continued existence of education inequality, to the detriment of young people from poorer backgrounds, makes it clear that there is a lot still to do.

To some extent, there is work to do within our field, drawing on existing good practices. For example, as the Literacy Trust in the UK notes, it is important to reach out, given that there may be a reluctance to use libraries in some circumstances. Libraries’ reputation as a quiet place, only for the more highly educated, can represent a barrier to overcome. There is a risk that the people who need library services most simply don’t take the opportunity.

Libraries need to be able to reach out to poorer children where they are, rather than relying on traditional tools such as brochures, with cooperation with schools offering a powerful possibility in the case of public libraries at least, as underlined by the Urban Libraries Council.

There may even be an opportunity, as libraries open up following the pandemic, to do things differently and to engage people who previously never participated in library activities. For example, creating small public libraries in people’s homes in Foshan, China, helped increase outreach to families in deprived areas who would not otherwise come to existing institutions.

The way in which services are provided also matters. It is important not to create stigma around using services targeted towards children on low incomes, as underlined by the Child Poverty Action Group.

Skills also matter, a point also underlined by the Urban Libraries Council, and which lies at the heart of the Library at School programme in the Netherlands. So too does the ability to evaluate the impact of the work of libraries on educational outcomes among children facing poverty.

However, for our institutions to be able to fulfil their potential, they also depend on adequate resourcing and support. Yet all too often, it is poorer schools that aren’t offering school library services, a point made by the UK Children’s Laureate recently, but which has been known for over a decade.

As she set out: Millions of children, particularly those from the poorest communities worst hit by the pandemic, are missing out on opportunities to discover the life-changing magic of reading – one that OECD research suggests is a key indicator in a child’s future success. How can a child become a reader for pleasure if their parents or carers cannot afford books, and their primary school has no library, or that library is woefully insufficient?

Some have worried that cuts to library services happen quicker in less well-off areas, with impacts both on collections, and on spaces and staffing. In both cases, under-investment risks leading to unrealised potential to support investment in combatting inequality in education and literacy.


In conclusion, this year’s World Children’s Day provides an important reminder of the need to act on education and literacy as part of wider efforts to combat inequality and poverty among children. Libraries – both school and public – have a strong and proven role in doing this, drawing on their unique strengths.


Yet with significant challenges remaining, often exacerbated by the pandemic, these good practices need to be taken as a call to action, both within our field, but also – and perhaps more importantly – to the governments and others that determine what resources libraries have, and how they can work.

Partners in Building a Healthier, Fairer World: Recognition of Libraries in the World of Public Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has further underlined an issue that was already painfully clear around the world – that health is too often an equalities issue.

Yet it has also made clear that without action to improve the health and wellbeing of all, we cannot overcome challenges. This is the case both in the shorter term in the form of the pandemic, and longer term in the shape of non-communicable diseases and other causes of suffering.

To respond, and so build a healthier, fairer world – the theme of World Health Day 2021 – action is needed to ensure that everyone can live healthier lives, reducing the risk of falling ill – public health.

Libraries themselves are aware, through their own experience, of how much they are used to access health information. As noted, for example, in a survey of Philadelphia librarians, each member of staff was receiving on average ten health-related queries a week, underlining that regardless of whether they are formally involved in planning, libraries are part of the health infrastructure. There are plenty of articles and presentations from the field, setting out ideas and experiences – see our own article from 2019.

This blog, however, looks at what public health professionals themselves are saying about libraries. This matters, because for our institutions to be part of plans to promote better health and wellbeing, libraries need to be recognised by the people preparing them. Therefore, all the links in this piece point to research or actions taken by actors outside of the library field.

We hope that they can help you in your advocacy.


Priorities for Public Health

In working to understand health inequalities, a key area of focus are the social determinants of health. A piece in the Journal of Community Health in 2019 set out ten of these, based on a previous study – transport, addiction, stress, food, early life, the social gradient (education), social exclusion, work, unemployment and social support.

Each of these has an impact on the likelihood of people getting ill, and then of getting treated (including preventative measures). Action can rely on efforts outside of traditional health policy – almost all of the issues  set out above are not usually immediately associated with health – but their impact is significant.

A second concern is around how to reach out into communities, the focus of a whole book. Many people will go out of their way to avoid formal health institutions such as hospitals, but even health professional themselves may struggle to reach people.

As we have seen in the pandemic, a particular tragedy has been where people with COVID have not wanted to admit that they are ill or seek medical attention for fear of losing their jobs. In other situations, cultural factors may play a role, there may be distrust of officials, or simply language barriers.

Finally, there is the importance of health literacy – the ability to understand and use information concerning health (for example, from the Urban and Community Studies Institute at the University of New Brunswick). As opposed to the other two issues, which are more about the context determining health, this focuses more on the skills of individuals and communities. It represents a key goal of course, with a health literate population more able to look after themselves and cope with new threats.


Where do Libraries Fit In?

Even from a relatively superficial look at the literature, the potential of libraries is recognised through experience.

Concerning the social determinants of health, as a University of Pennsylvania study underlined, libraries’ work to build basic literacy and support lifelong learning is already a key contribution to supporting better health outcomes. Beyond this, wider programming to support employability and inclusion should also make a positive difference. There is also of course the role of libraries, alongside other institutions, in using their hiring and purchasing power to support local economies and create jobs, where this is possible.

There are also more specific interventions, such as those promoted in libraries in Norfolk, in the UK, in partnership with local public health authorities in order to encourage health eating and promoting wellbeing. Indeed, such initiatives showed the power of libraries to mobilise other local stakeholders, such as supermarkets to get involved. Similarly in Redbridge, London, UK, collaboration with sports and physical activities teams led to efforts to promote healthy cooking and eating, especially in school holidays.


Libraries also have reach into communities, often disproportionately serving more vulnerable populations. From simply being an effective place to display relevant information to the wider community (as noted by Public Heath England), they can also actively contribute insights about what people in situations of marginalisation may need, based on their experience and the questions they receive.

For example, people in rural areas or the unconnected may have few ways other than libraries of gaining access to key health information. For others, they will feel far more comfortable coming to the library than going to the doctors or a formal health centre. The nature of libraries as a public space, open to all, can be powerful. Libraries can also train (or host training for) people who can then take key information out into the community, or be a base for health professionals to work with people in a more comfortable environment.

The unique role of libraries around literacies can also make them useful partners in building health literacy. At a fundamental level, there is provision of relevant information and collections, potentially in collaboration with national public health authorities (for example in the United States or United Kingdom).

Combined with their ability to reach out to vulnerable groups, it is recognised that libraries can help overcome stigma, and even build comfort around more difficult questions such as clinical trials and preventative interventions.

Through this work, libraries can play a key role in delivering on the promise of eHealth in general, as illustrated by the Australian Digital Health Agency’s partnership with the Australian Library and Information Association.


In short, as noted in a Journal of Community Health article, libraries can be a key ‘meso’ level actor in promoting population health, working between national or regional health agencies and individuals.


What More is Needed?

As set out in the previous section, libraries are well placed to support action in key areas of focus for public health professionals – the social determinants of health, meaningful outreach, and building health literacy. As highlighted at the beginning – and indeed recognised by the Robert Wood Johnston Foundation – they are already part of the ‘community’s health enhancing environment’.

Nonetheless, more can be done. While the links in this article do lead to evidence of public health professionals and other non-LIS experts recognising the value of working with libraries, it is clear that more can be done to convince public health planners.

To a large extent, this will be down to libraries themselves being able to show how their unique characteristics can help them contribute meaningfully. This work can be helped, however, through more systematic evaluation of interventions, as well as bringing public health researchers into libraries in order to see for themselves the work that libraries do, as well as to plan activities collaboratively.

A further area of focus could be on building knowledge and skills among library professionals (also underlined in CDC work on preventing chronic disease), in order to help them better to fulfil the role that they often already have in providing advice and information to users. Clearly, access to resources also matters here.


As we look beyond the pandemic, and make plans for the healthier, fairer world highlighted for World Health Day, the potential of libraries to contribute is clear.

With wider recognition of this role in the health field, building on existing evidence, and work to improve libraries’ own ability to provide information and services, there is scope for libraries to play a much more central role in public health policy planning and delivery around the world.

Library Stat of the Week #42: Students from foreign language backgrounds rely more on libraries than their native-language peers

Over the past few weeks, our Library Stat of the Week posts have been looking at the degree to which students from different groups rely more or less on libraries.

We can gain insights into this from the results of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s  (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which in 2009 included a strong focus on libraries.

Today’s post looks at a further variable – whether students mainly speak a foreign language or the national language at home. In practical terms, in a country like the United Kingdom, we are looking at the difference in library use between children in English-speaking households, and, for example, Polish-speaking households.

This can have an impact on scores in reading and literacy, with young people with less exposure to national languages potentially struggling. Added to this is the fact that children of parents who do not speak the national language fluently cannot necessarily call on them for help with homework.

Graphs 1a and 1b therefore look at the difference in levels of library usage between these groups, expressed as the average score for students who come from households which mainly use a foreign language minus the average scores for students from households using the national language.

Graph 1a: Difference in Reading Index Scores Between Students who Speak a Foreign vs the National Language at HomeGraph 1b: Difference in Reading Index Scores Between Students who Speak a Foreign vs the National Language at Home

These demonstrate that on average, there is a gap of 0.24 points within the OECD, and 0.19 globally in favour of students from households using a foreign language, on an average that runs from -1 (no library use) to +1 (very intense library use).

The biggest gaps are seen in Hungary and the United Kingdom, although in total, 44 of the 55 for which data is available see students from foreign-language-speaking households making more use of libraries than those from national-language-speaking households.

Meanwhile, in only 10 countries do children from national-language households use libraries more than those from foreign-language households.


The data here appears to make a similar point to that made in previous posts in this mini-series – that young people who have characteristics often associated with disadvantage tend to use libraries more intensively than their peers.

Again, as before, the implication is that any moves that make access to libraries more difficult are likely to have a disproportionate impact on those who are already more at risk.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.

Library Stat of the Week #39: Globally, 1st and 2nd generation immigrant students make more intensive use of libraries than their native peers

One of the most worrying aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences has been the deepening of the educational divide.

As highlighted in the Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers report, there is a significant risk that the closure of school buildings will increase inequalities. In effect, groups that previously faced risks of worse educational outcomes face an even higher risk now.

While it is difficult to gather statistics on what is happening already, we can at least look back at available data to understand what factors might contribute to combatting this inequality. This can provide a basis for planning for the recovery afterwards.

Fortunately, the dataset from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (OECD PISA) 2009 offers insights here.

We have already been able, in previous posts, to note the connection between access to a library and enjoyment of reading, and library availability and literacy skills.

This post looks to understand the connections between library use and just one potential vector of inequality – immigrant status.

As part of its data collection, as well as measuring levels of literacy and asking questions about library use, PISA 2009 also asked if the 15-year olds involved were first or second generation immigrants, or ‘native’ (i.e. all others). This allows us then to look at how far immigrant children, and the children of immigrants, depend on libraries.

Graph 1a: Difference in Library Usage (1st Generation Immigrants minus Native)

Graph 1a looks at the situation for 1st generation immigrants, providing for each country a figure for the difference between immigrant and ‘native’ 15 year olds in terms of scores on the index of library use compiled by the OECD. This index is made up of figures related to how often students borrow books – for work or pleasure – or use the library in other ways, and runs from -1 to 1.

In the graph, a longer bar to the right indicates that 1st generation immigrant students use the library more intensively than natives. A bar to the left indicates that they use it less.

Overall, the conclusion is clear – in all but two countries, 15-year olds with a 1st generation immigrant background make much stronger use of libraries than native peers.

Graph 1b: Difference in Library Usage (1st Generation Immigrants minus Native)

Graph 1b replicates this analysis, but comparing 2nd generation immigrant students to ‘native’ students. While the effect is less strong, only 9 of the 43 countries for which data is available see 2nd generation immigrant students use libraries less than native students.

In both graphs, the United Kingdom and Norway share the top spots in terms of how much more immigrant students use libraries than natives.

These graphs also send a clear signal – libraries tend to be better used by students who can risk otherwise being left behind. It follows that any reduction in the possibility to use libraries is more likely to hurt students from immigrant backgrounds.


Graphs 1a and 1b allow us to look at individual countries. What about overall trends, for example when we compare these figures with how students perform in general on literacy, or how much native students use libraries?

Graph 2: Difference in Levels of Library Use (1st/2nd Generation Immigrants vs Native) Compared with Overall Reading Scores

Graph 2 looks at the first of these questions, comparing the difference in library usage between 1st/2nd generation immigrant students and native peers (horizontal axis) and average scores for literacy for the whole population (vertical axis). Each dot represents a country.

Overall, there appears to be a positive correlation, with higher gaps in levels of library usage between immigrants and natives leading to higher overall reading scores.

In reality though, it perhaps makes more sense to see the countries presenting as falling into two groups – one of higher performers (usually richer countries) in the top right, and a group of less developed ones in the cluster in the middle-left.

In each of these groups, there is in fact little correlation between differences in library use and overall reading scores.

The lesson from this is then that the value of libraries to immigrant students does not depend on how well a country is performing in general – libraries seem to matter in both cases.

Graph 3: Difference in Levels of Library Use (1st/2nd Generation Immigrants vs Native) Compared with Native Library Use

Graph 3 repeats this, but this time, the vertical axis looks at levels of library use among native students. Here, there is a more obvious correlation, with differences in library usage higher in situations where native students are using them less.

To some extent, this is logical – if natives use libraries less, and immigrants use them to the same extent, of course the gap will be higher.

In policy terms, however, the implication is that even where there is less use of libraries by native students, they continue to be important to immigrant students.


As highlighted last week, there appears to be a strong link in almost all countries surveyed between library use and scores in the literacy component of PISA.

This week’s statistics indicate that, in turn, 1st and 2nd generation immigrant students tend to be more intensive library users than their native peers. This connection tends to hold, regardless of the overall level of literacy in the population, and even when native students use libraries less.

While of course correlation cannot be taken for causality, the data here supports the argument that ensuring access to libraries will be an important part of any effort to close the education divide.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.

Library Stat of the Week #21: Where there are more public and community librarians, the gender skills gap among adults is lower

Two weeks ago, we looked at data on adult literacy levels from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC), in order to explore the potential relationship with the coverage of public and community libraries in countries.

In that post, we explored the numbers of adults scoring at or below a basic level of skills, as well as the gap between the most and least literate in a population.

However, PIAAC, data also allows us to break things down further, including by gender. This has been a particularly interesting area of study, given that while girls tend to score better on literacy at school (as demonstrated by the results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)), they too often face disadvantage on the job market.

One argument noted by the OECD itself is that the jobs that women tend to be encouraged to take up make fewer demands of their skills, and so there is less opportunity to develop these. This is clearly not an ideal situation, given the implication both that women have fewer chances to learn throughout life, but also the loss this represents to societies and economies as a whole.

As has been highlighted in each Library Stat of the Week post focused on skills issues, public and community libraries do have an important role both in helping to maintain literacy skills (through access to materials and activities), but also in providing a second chance for those who have done less well in school.

This week’s post therefore looks to compare OECD data about adult gender literacy gaps (calculated by subtracting the mean literacy score of women from that of men – a negative result means that the average women has higher skills than the average man) and numbers of public and community libraries and librarians per 100 000 people from the IFLA Library Map of the World.

It is worth noting that the data here comes primarily from OECD Member States, with each of the dots in the graphs below representing a country.

Graph 1 - Public/Community Libraries and Librarians and the Adult Gender Literacy Gap

In Graph 1, we look at data for adults of all ages surveyed (15-65). When looking both at numbers of public and community libraries and librarians, there is correlation, with more libraries/librarians tending to mean that women on average have higher literacy skills than men.

The correlation is stronger when looking at librarians as opposed to libraries – an observation that has also appeared in previous blogs.

As ever, correlation does not always mean causality. In particular, the size of gender gaps above may be influenced by investment in high-quality and inclusive schools (something which is also likely to correlate with investment in libraries).

A next step then is to look at differences over time, given that the advantage that may come from high-quality education will diminish over time, and other factors – such as the presence of public and community libraries – will count for more.

Graph 1 - Public/Community Libraries and Librarians and Evolutions over time in the Adult Gender Literacy Gap

Graph 2 does this by looking at the evolution of the adult gender literacy gap between 15-24 year olds and 45-65 year olds.

On the vertical axis, a score above zero indicates that the gap between men and women is more favourable to women among 45-65 year olds than among 15-24 year olds, whereas a score below zero implies a wider gap among older than among younger adults.

The graph suggests that there is a positive correlation between numbers of public and community library workers per 100 000 people and stability or improvement in the adult gender literacy gap over time.

Clearly, as ever, there can be other explanations – countries which have seen improvements in the gender gap (in favour of women) may also have a range of policies in place that support life-long learning, and a more equitable employment situation for women.

Nonetheless, the correlation is a welcome support for efforts to ensure that libraries are a part of any government strategy to promote gender equality.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.

Inclusion is an Action: the Relevance of the IFLA Multicultural Libraries Manifesto

After months where the need for immediate action to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic had been dominating news schedules, the ongoing events in the United States have sharply refocussed attention onto other, more long-term challenges societies face.

For many, especially those in groups subject to marginalisation or discrimination, the death of George Floyd is just the latest incident in a long series, and the protests that have followed are the natural result of years of unequal treatment. For others, it has forced a confrontation with issues that they were aware of, but perhaps felt hard-placed to act on, or even believed were someone else’s problem.

An emerging point is the understanding of the need for action – of the unacceptability of simply leaving things as they are. The fact of things having been done in a certain way in the past cannot provide a justification when the result of this is exclusion and inequality.

This applies to individuals and societies as a whole, including of course libraries. There needs to be a readiness to seek out, hear, reflect and include all experiences, rather than just proceed on the basis of a single point of view, however well-meaning.

This also applies globally – it is clearly not the case that the United States has a monopoly on discrimination and inequality. Indeed any situation where particular groups have faced persistent inequalities in so many areas of life – education, employment, housing, or treatment by courts – libraries can, and must, be ready to show the way in terms of how a key service can be provided.

Indeed, the specific role of libraries in providing access to information – a foundational condition for so much else – as well as in offering a place for the safeguarding and remembering of heritage, and for building social cohesion, makes them particularly important.

This is a key message of the IFLA-UNESCO Multicultural Libraries Manifesto, approved by the IFLA Governing Board in 2006, and by the UNESCO General Conference in 2009.

Building on the instruction to provide services to all, regardless of characteristics (including race) in the Public Library Manifesto, as well as IFLA’s Statement on Intellectual Freedom, and own Core Values, the Multicultural Library Manifesto goes further in underlining both the reality, and the value of diversity of all forms in our societies and cultures. In doing so, it rejects racism and other forms of discrimination, however they are manifested.

In terms of principles to be applied in the day-to-day work of libraries, the Manifesto stresses the need in particular providing information in appropriate languages and scripts, giving access to collections that reflect all communities and needs, and ensuring that staffing reflects the diversity of communities served with proper training to respond to the information need of all.

This clearly already requires work in many cases, with historical acquisitions policies and cataloguing practices often reflecting outdated views of the world, making it more difficult for marginalised groups to find themselves in the library.

Crucially, the Manifesto also sets out a proactive role for libraries. First of all, it makes it clear that it is not enough to offer the same services to all and expect everyone to benefit in the same ways – such an approach can risk deepening existing inequalities.

Instead, there needs to be a concerted effort to understand what may be needed (indeed, the Manifesto Toolkit offers steps for doing this), in particular through ensuring that library and information workers who are also members of groups subject to discrimination are fully part of decision-making.

It also gives libraries a mission – to promote awareness of the value of diversity in communities, and to provide tools and services that support this, online and offline (including through decisions about what to collect and preserve).

Furthermore, through skills provision – in particular information literacy and digital skills – libraries can also not only help give everyone the chance to make the most of the internet, but also help everyone identify prejudice in what they read, and combat it.

Finally, such efforts – the Manifesto underlines – need to be central to the work of libraries, integrated into core planning rather than included as an optional extra.


With societies around the world forced to confront the reality of inequality and discrimination in order to build something better, libraries have the rare power of being able to help societies level-up, providing opportunities for progress and spaces for building cohesion.

This is not to say that this will happen automatically. As highlighted in the title, inclusion is an action, and action takes effort and commitment. The Multicultural Library Manifesto offers a great starting point for this.


See how the American Library Association is responding here. Find out more about the work of our Section on Library Services for  Multicultural Populations, and read our blog for the International Day of Cultural Diversity.