In IFLA’s work around the SDGs, our core theme is the importance of meaningful access to information as a key driver for development.
This access, to our understanding, consists of a combination of the practical possibility of access (accessibility), a favourable socioeconomic situation (affordability), the presence of relevant information and the possibility to use it (availability) and the skills to make the most of it (capacity).
This can, however, risk being a difficult sell when working with policy makers who either take information for granted (policy-makers themselves will tend to come from more favoured, educated backgrounds), or are not in the habit of thinking about information in a holistic way (as of course we do in the library field!).
So what other options are available to us when trying to make the case for information as a key area of focus for work on the Sustainable Development Goals?
One option – admittedly a potentially alarmist one – is to look rather at what the costs of inaction in the face of information disorders can be.
The term information disorders, taken from the work of Divina Frau-Meigs (but then very loosely applied), refers to situations where the way in which information is created, shared, internalised and applied somehow goes wrong, leading to negative consequences.
This can be powerful. Given that we tend to be more concerned about what we might lose than what we might gain, it can be a good way of focusing minds.
And by bringing together arguments about what there is to lose by a failure to address information disorders, we can, perhaps get closer to building the case for a comprehensive approach to information (and libraries as essential information institutions) in SDG implementation.
This blog lists five such disorders that we face today, and what they mean for the chances of success in the 2030 Agenda.
1) Illiteracy: the inability of millions around the world still to engage with the written word has to represent one of the ongoing challenges of our time. Next week, the International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA) will meet, with the ongoing need to ensure universal adult literacy likely to be high on the agenda.
Literacy of course is already highlighted in the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as in many other key reference texts, as a pressing goal. It should be. For as long as people cannot read, they will struggle to seize so many other opportunities linked to aspects of the wider development agenda – finding work or launching a business, learning more generally, engaging in democratic life. Continued investment in universal literacy needs to be a priority.
Libraries of course have an established and recognised role, both as a venue for basic literacy training, and a key resource to help those with fundamental skills consolidate and build on them. As highlighted in our review of LitBase last year, libraries can be providers, promoters and partners in this mission.
2) Mis and Disinformation: a serious and growing concern, in the light both of the polarisation of the political debate in many countries, and the fight against the COVID-19 Pandemic, has been the rise of mis- and dis-information as a phenomenon.
Clearly, lying is not a new thing, and people and governments have been doing this forever. However, it does feel that recent years have seen a greater brazenness in dismissing scientific advice, and the internet has created possibilities for mis- and disinformation to spread more quickly than before. This may well be accelerated too by business models that promote the controversial or shocking. As such, and as set out in the UN Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda, there is a need to take stronger action to call out lies, and to combat the means by which they are spread.
Without this, there are risks to policy effectiveness in key areas of the SDGs – not least health – as well as more broadly to the ability of democratic systems to work in a way that best serves people. This is also an area where libraires have an obvious and existing role to play, both in building up the skills to recognise mis- and disinformation, and in parallel, to promote a sense of openness and curiosity about the world that doesn’t just focus on simple and lazy responses.
3) Information Poverty: information and knowledge have an immense role to play in achieving the SDGs. While often taken for granted, they are essential if we want people to be able to take optimal decisions about themselves and those around them, to innovate, to learn, to participate in democracy, and in broader social and cultural life.
Yet for too many people, this isn’t a reality. For some, it will be an economic question – more on this below. But for others, it is simply because the information isn’t there, or at least not in a form that they can access. A lack of materials in relevant languages or accessible formats – both as concerns persons with disabilities, and simply written or presented in a way that can be used – can also mean that people end up suffering from information poverty.
There is of course action on this point already, for example the Marrakesh Treaty (which addresses the book famine), and many initiatives to promote multilingualism. Technology of course offers possibilities here, but in turn needs to be affordable and accessible.
Libraries have always acted as an antidote to information poverty, a way of working around the fact that it is only by pooling resources that it can become feasible to acquire and give access to information and the tools for this. They continue to do this, in ways that suit the needs of the communities they serve.
4) The Privatisation of Information: highlighted above was the risk that economics could get in the way of the access to information needed to enable development. While of course there need to be means of paying correctly for the production of information, these become problematic when they leave the less wealthy empty handed.
However, with the shift to digital, we have seen a deregulation by stealth of the market for information and knowledge. Going from selling books and other materials to licensing access gives rightholders huge powers over who can access works, how, and what they can do with them. Unless there is action to ensure that licenses cannot take away core knowledge rights, protections for core public interest uses risk being undermined.
Linked to this is the way that data and information itself has become a market, with companies realising how powerful control over, and exploitation of, data about users and their behaviour can be. Possibilities to track what people are doing not only raise questions about privacy, but also the potential distortion of behaviours as platforms and others seek to maximise attention.
The risk here is that people are unable to access the information that they need to improve their situation, because of their situation – i.e. they are not of interest to profit-orientated players. Furthermore, they risk being manipulated, or having to trade in their rights to be able to access information, or are pushed in sub-optimal directions, all of which can hold them back from doing what they need to do.
There are clear and welcome calls for a digital commons at the UN level in Our Common Agenda, and for a knowledge commons in UNESCO’s Futures of Education report – these both imply putting the interest of the community above those of individual private actors.
Again, this is an area of library strength traditionally. By pooling resources, libraries help overcome the economic barriers to copyright, although certainly require the protections from the hollowing out of protections for public interest uses mentioned above. They can also bring insights and values to discussions about how information and data should be regulated, in the interests of all.
5) Lack of connectivity: finally, there is the ongoing challenge faced by those who cannot yet access the internet reliably, and quickly. This is of course a point closely related to that about information poverty above, given the increasingly important role of the internet as a means of accessing information. As print-runs of books, journals and newspapers disappear, those without digital access are cut off, and of course cannot take advantage of all the new possibilities created.
An obvious example here is open access – this has been a transformative movement, bypassing cost-barriers to access to knowledge, and so allowing researchers around the world to draw on materials that would previously have been out of reach… If they have an internet connection.
The costs of leaving people unconnected are similar to those of other disorders set out above – the lack of possibility to access information to take decisions, and to participate in social, economic, political and cultural life. It can leave people isolated, unable to realise the potential to build connections with others. It can also of course reduce the effectiveness of government efforts, especially those that rely on eGovernment tools.
Again, libraries are key players here, providing public internet access both as a last recourse for those who cannot access in other ways, and as a complement to home connectivity, or via a mobile device. They can even be hubs for local connectivity as anchor institutions.
Across these areas, there is a risk that inaction, or inadequate action, will leave the world less able to deliver on the SDGs. They underline that there is a need for information to be taken seriously as a policy issue, in order to avoid this. More positively, they also represent a call for a more proactive approach to ensuring that everyone benefits from access to knowledge. Any such effort will need to have libraries at its heart.