Tag Archives: International Day for the Universal Access to Information

Not a Gift, Not a Privilege, but a Right: Access to Information

The COVID-19 Pandemic has both underlined the importance of access to information, and how far we are from achieving this for all.

From the need for rapid access to research to inform policy making, to the development of media and information literacy skills amongst individuals in the face of misinformation, the need for comprehensive policies on information is clear.

Yet at the same time, with so many parts of our societies and economies moving online, the costs of being unable to access and use information easily have been made clear.

This comes as much through the months of schooling lost for those unable to take part in distance learning or work and do business online, as through the and isolation stress felt by those unable to communicate with their friends and families, or access culture online.

These are of course key issues for libraries too, as key pillars of the infrastructure for access to information in any country, and so for the delivery of this right.

While of course the spread of internet has created exciting possibilities to access information directly, libraries contribute in three essential ways: helping to ensure that those without an internet connection can get online, helping to ensure that works which are otherwise protected or restricted (for example by copyright) are still accessible, and helping to ensure that users have the skills and confidence to be successful information users.

The Pandemic has disrupted all of these, and with it the right of access to information. If we are to be better prepared in the future to ensure the continued enjoyment of this right, there are a number of steps we can take.

All represent good risk-management practice, by removing unnecessary uncertainties in the ability of libraries to respond. All work to ensure that access to information should be protected, and enacted, as a right, rather than seen as a gift or a privilege.


Towards Universal Connectivity: the goal of ensuring universal internet access is not a new one, with public access in libraries cited already in the WSIS Agenda of 2003 as a means of doing this. Technologies such as WiFi and models such as community networks offer promising means of bringing library connectivity out to communities – an essential step if libraries are forced to suspend in-person services again.

Achieving this will certainly require investment, and in many cases regulatory change, but would certainly bring returns in terms of higher uptake of services (such as education, eHealth and similar), create new business opportunities, and fulfil what is increasingly being seen as a moral obligation on governments to treat internet access as a basic utility like water or electricity.


Copyright Fit for the Digital Age: the failure of copyright laws to adapt to the digital age in many countries has meant that libraries have been unable to carry out online many of the services they would have offered in person. Physical collections were stuck behind library doors, with little possibility to provide digital access, for example through sharing scanned copies. Storytimes that previously took place in the library could not, in many cases, be done online.

Fortunately, this was not the case everywhere. In many cases, there have been welcome moves by publishers, distributors and others to allow for access – many are detailed on the page hosting the ICOLC Statement on the Global COVID-19 Pandemic and its Impact on Library Services and Resources. Others – including agreements between publishers and library associations to allow for storytimes – are noted on IFLA’s COVID-19 and Libraries page.

However, it is arguable that where libraries have already been given the possibility to offer a service to users in person – through an exception or limitation to copyright – they should be able to count on being able to do the same online, in as similar a way as possible. In other words, having already paid for a work, the possibility to allow users to access it digitally should not be a gift depending on the goodwill of the rightholder, but rather a legal certainty.

This can be guaranteed through using secure networks, and tools to prevent simultaneous uses. Achieving this will require copyright laws to be updated, notably to make it clear that digital uses are permitted, and to ensure that they cannot be taken away by contract terms, as is currently typically the case. Further help would come from deeper understanding of the pricing and availability of electronic resources for libraries.


A Digitally Enabled Population: finally, with it clear that skills and confidence play a major role in whether people make use of the possibilities that exist to access information, there is a need to have a greater focus on promoting digital and information skills, at all ages.

Clearly with the Pandemic, the potential for libraries to offer in-person support has been limited. Yet libraries have sought to be in touch with users by phone and other means, and provide guidance and support, as well as developing tailored tutorials to help people develop digital skills. In the longer term, what seems necessary is a more comprehensive approach to developing digital skills in the population, with libraries as key delivery partners within this, as some are already doing.

While many elements of this may require in-person support – and so will need to wait for the Pandemic to have receded – others can already be scaled-up in order to do the best possible in the months and years to come.


With the recognition of the International Day for the Universal Access to Information by the UN General Assembly as a full UN-level observance, there is a new opportunity to raise awareness of the steps needed to make this right a reality for all, whatever the circumstances.

Meaningful plans to ensure internet connections, digital access to library collections, and the skills needed to make the most of both, can all help ensure that when the next crisis hits – and even before – access to information is a right, rather than just a privilege or a gift.

Access to Information through Libraries: A Public Good

The International Day for the Universal Access to Information is a great opportunity to celebrate and underline values which are at the heart of the work of libraries throughout the year.

As an enabler of better decision-making, the seizing of opportunities, and the transparency of government, this access is a key part of any drive to create societies made up of enabled, emancipated and autonomous individuals, all contributing in their own way to collective development.

Libraries are a key part of the infrastructure for access to information, through their connections, collections, and capacity-building.

Through providing low-or-no-cost internet access, they are a gateway to the internet for many, and even in the most highly connected societies play a valuable complement to home and mobile access.

Through access to curated collections of material, they can ensure people find the information they need, in particular helping to ensure that copyright does not serve to make access to knowledge the preserve of the wealthy.

Through providing training and support, they give people the confidence and skills to be effective and constructive information users.

Yet the coming months and years are likely to be difficult for libraries. Reduced economic activity, combined with a need to pay off debts incurred, may well see cuts to public and other spending that risk falling on our institutions.

Even in good times, there can be questions about where libraries ‘sit’ in government, or in other words, whose budget should be used to support them? Are they more about culture? Education? Research? Well-being? Through their support in providing access to information, libraries deliver in all of these areas and more, but usually, only one will need to pay.

With an economic crisis on the way, this blog therefore looks to explore to what extent economic concepts – public and common goods problems – can be used to understand this situation, and trace a way forwards, in order to make a reality of access to information for all.


Defining Terms

We talk about a public good when something is ‘non-excludable’ and ‘non-rivalrous’. ‘Non-excludable means that it is not possible to limit access in order to ensure that only those who pay for it can benefit from it.  Meanwhile, ‘non-rivalrous’ means that even when one person uses the good, this does not reduce what is available to others.

Examples include, arguably, knowledge itself as well as services such as street-lighting or public infrastructure. There is always the risk of the ‘free rider’ problem, with people able to use a good or service without paying for it, leading to a risk of under-investment. In the case of knowledge, for example, tools such as intellectual property are used to ‘exclude’ artificially, and so allow for the creation of a market.

Meanwhile, a common good one that is is non-excludable, but is rivalrous. People can access them without needing to pay, and moreover in doing so, deprive others of the possibility to do so. Examples here could be fish-stocks or forests. There is always the risk that people will try to exploit this to the maximum, bringing the risk of leaving none for anyone else, and indeed, causing long-term damage – the ‘tragedy of the commons’.

Managing common goods can either require central controls, or norms and behaviours within communities which set limits on use for any individual.


Where does library funding fit into this?

For the purposes of this blog, we can consider that the users of libraries are not just individuals, but different parts of government. This is because, in providing services to users, libraries are helping  different parts of government to achieve their policy goals .

For example, beyond culture and education, libraries have a proven record of supporting public health, helping people to access key information and online services. This is a positive result for health ministries and agencies, who then see lower levels of disease, and reduced pressure on hospitals and general practitioners.

There is also evidence of libraries playing a role in helping people who are looking for work. From providing the internet access necessary to find jobs and the computers needed to write CVs, to more hands-on support in developing skills and confidence, libraries are effectively making the work of employment ministries or agencies easier. Indeed, there are stories in many places of jobcentres explicitly telling people to go to the library to get help.

A final example: libraries have a particularly important role in helping people who are at greatest risk of marginalisation to get online, find programmes, or even deliver support directly within the institution. People facing homelessness, isolation, or inequality can, in this way, find opportunities to improve their lives. This is a positive outcome for social affairs ministries or departments, whose success is measured in terms of people helped off the streets and back into jobs and communities.

In each of these cases, by ‘using’ libraries, other departments and ministries benefit. And of course, given that libraries work to be open and available for all, there is no question of ‘excluding’ people using the library for any particular purpose.

There is perhaps a more open question about whether library services are rivalrous or non-rivalrous. Clearly, staff time, computers, or books for lending for example, are not finite. If they are being used by one person, they cannot necessarily be used by another. Other aspects of library services are less rivalrous, for example WiFi, as long as the connection is good enough, or access to displays or information within the library.

This places libraries and the access to information they provide – vis-à-vis their ‘customers’ across government – somewhere between a public and a common good.


The Risks and the Possibilities

As highlighted earlier, public good or common good status bring challenges that can require intervention.

Certainly, there is the chance of a free-rider problem, with policy-makers across government benefitting from services that are only paid by one department (or which depend on local funding).

Of course, when someone is able to access a health resource or find a job through a library, it seems harsh to talk about ‘free riding’. Nonetheless, it is  important to ensure that there is recognition by other agencies, departments or ministries of what they gain from libraries.

Even if they are not willing or able to support libraries for the services they offer, they should be made to understand their interest in defending libraries at what is likely to be a difficult time in the coming months and years. There are already great examples of this, for example the work done in the UK to show how much money libraries are saving the health service.

As for the tragedy of the commons, this can also strike. For example, if every government agency sends people onto the library to use the internet or printers, there is a risk of saturation of library resources very quickly, with fewer terminals or lower levels of staff support available than are needed. If levels of service need to be cut in response, this can even make it harder for libraries to justify support, given perceptions of reduced value for any individual user.

The answer here must be to try and ensure that libraries are integrated into wider policy planning, in order to identify where there is a risk of demand being greater than what libraries can manage. Ideally, an explicit recognition of libraries’ role could lead to increased funding and support in order to deliver.

Linked to this is the value of libraires building up a wider range of partnerships with actors across government. Again, we do see such connections in some situations, with libraries fulfilling their potential as partners and platforms for other services. Formalising relations can help reinforce these links, and further strengthen the range of people and institutions who are likely to speak up in favour of libraries in future, as well, of course, as avoiding the saturation of library services.


In conclusion, building an understanding of the risk that funding for libraries (and the access to information they provide) can be subject to the public and common goods problems can be a useful advocacy goal.

We need to avoid situations where parts of government which benefit so strongly from the work of libraries in providing access only realise how important our institutions are too late. Making use of the International Day for the Universal Access to Information on 28 September to build understanding of the importance of access, and moving towards more formalised relations with partners, offer just two possibilities for doing so.