Tag Archives: Internet

Copyright: a driver of internet fragmentation?

It can often feel like governments are playing catch-up with the internet.

As digital technologies play an increasingly indispensable role in everything we do, the risks that they also bring are becoming clearer. As a result, there is pressure on decision-makers to ‘do something’, in order to respond to increasingly widespread concerns.

The problem is that the internet is, by its nature, a global infrastructure. Much of its value and potential to support education, research, understanding and more comes from the possibilities it offers to access information across borders.

When decisions are taken nationally, they often differ. This can be for reasons of political priority, legal tradition, or simply the capacity that governments themselves have to design and implement legislation.

This runs counter to the logic of the internet as a unified infrastructure. Where there are different rules, there are barriers and uncertainties, not least for those sharing ideas and content online who understandably do not want to face legal liability.

This is called internet fragmentation, and has been highlighted as a key issue in recent efforts to intensify global work on internet governance, not least in the UN Secretary General’s work on Digital Cooperation, the ongoing Global Digital Compact, and most recently, as the first key priority of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) Leadership Panel for this year’s IGF in Kyoto, Japan.

Typically, concerns about internet fragmentation focus on the way in which rules around data transfer (for example, prohibiting flows outside of borders), or forms of privacy or platform regulation that tend to discourage offering services across borders given the risks faced.

However, one driver of fragmentation not necessarily so often talked about is the way that international copyright works today.

The unseen divider?

In some ways, this is ironic. The original logic behind regulating copyright internationally – through the Berne Convention and the texts that have followed – was that for it to be possible for authors (or more likely, publishers) to be able to sell books into another country, they needed to be sure that they would receive a good measure of protection there.

As such, the argument is made that copyright is essential for markets to work across borders, and indeed the IGF Leadership Panel’s contribution to the Forum this year underlines the value of respecting intellectual property rights.

However, copyright as a whole is made up not just of rights, but also the limitations on them. In addition to the length of time they last, there are exceptions allowing for activities such as quotation, news reporting, education, preservation and research.

These offer a safety valve, helping to ensure that the monopoly rights created by copyright are balanced by public interest concerns. Otherwise, the logic of profit-maximisation risks prevailing, and the benefits of learning, innovation and safeguarding heritage are forgotten or discounted.

However, while international copyright law is prescriptive about what minimum rights should be guaranteed, it leaves far more flexibility when it comes to exceptions, and is silent around cross-border working. As a result, there are as many sets of copyright exceptions as there are countries in the world.

The impact of this is just the same sort of uncertainty and caution about cross-border working as characterises other drivers of internet fragmentation.

Variance in copyright exceptions not only holds back librarians, as well as archivists and museum workers from cooperating across borders, for example in the context of research collaborations or online and distance learning, but can also be a driver of inequality. If researchers are expected to travel to access a unique source or collection, only the wealthiest are likely to be able to do this.

The result is just another example of internet fragmentation, and a particularly serious one in that it most directly affects key wider drivers of sustainability – education, research and cultural participation.

What solutions?

It is not impossible to imagine how work at the international level can combat internet fragmentation when it comes to copyright. We already have an example in the Treaty of Marrakesh, which removes unnecessary barriers to making and sharing accessible format copies of copyrighted books and other materials, including across borders. In essence, this was a response to a form of internet fragmentation that was leaving people with print disabilities in many parts of the world facing a book famine.

This is a strong pointer to what is possible when we take as serious approach to enabling internet-enabled research, education and cultural participation as we do to creating markets.

The two are not in contradiction of course – in many countries, including among the richest and most innovative – rights co-exist with modern and flexible exceptions. Replicating this experience globally is likely also to help give copyright more legitimacy, ensuring that there are legitimate channels for meeting needs, rather than resorting to piracy as many current feel forced to do.

While the home of the Marrakesh Treaty is the World Intellectual Property Organization, a strong impulsion for this was the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is not unreasonable, then, to expect that ongoing work around the need for a unified and unfragmented internet should lead to a new drive for a truly balanced international copyright framework.

The 2023 Internet Governance Forum, alongside the ongoing process around the Global Digital Compact and work towards WSIS+20 offer a great opportunity to push for this to happen.

If we’re serious about inclusive digital education, school connectivity initiatives must expand to include library connectivity

Among the key themes on the table at the Transforming Education Summit taking place currently in New York is that of how to make the most of the promise of digital to help achieve education goals.

Of course, this is a multi-dimensional question. Education technology (EdTech) companies will promote digital programmes and products that claim to offer simple solutions to many of the challenges the sector is said to face.

Others will underline that too great a focus on the digital can lead to an undervaluation of the importance of access to a real teacher, in a real space. Digital tools should support the work of educators, not replace them.

Parallel concerns focus on the costs of digital in terms of privacy and choice, as well as how it can undermine freedoms granted by educational exceptions in copyright law. Both are areas which will need resolution if digital is to realise its potential to transform education for the better.

However, these questions are of course irrelevant if there is no connectivity in the first place.

This is the challenge that initiatives such as GIGA look to overcome. This is an exciting project launched by UNICEF and the International Telecommunications Union, with the goal of ensuring that every school around the world is connected.

It works by a combination of mapping the current situation of school connectivity, and then mobilising sources of finance, equipment and expertise in order to get schools online.

For libraries, as institutions with a clear educational mission, anything that contributes to making education more effective and inclusive is of course a good thing.

However, we also owe it to ourselves to point out that if leaders, nationally and internationally, are serious about realising the potential of digital to support education, it would make sense to expand the focus of any school connectivity programme to public and community libraries.

There are a number of key reasons for this.

First of all, there is the role of libraries in supporting the work of schools. Libraries and librarians have a critical role in complementing the work of teachers through provision of materials for teaching, as well as offering students possibilities to expand their horizons and practice literacy.

While such a role is often associated with school libraries, public and community libraries crucially also act here. In some countries, indeed, they formally fulfil the role of school libraries. Elsewhere, they support literacy and discovery, as well as providing a space for homework, without such an official link. This can be particularly important for children who do not benefit from space at home or strong parental support.

Clearly, these are roles that are supported when libraries can provide internet access, expanding both the range of content and services that can be offered, and making them far more interesting as a place to do homework.

Secondly, libraries have a well-established role in supporting school-readiness. The value of exposing children to a range of language in their early years is well recognised, stimulating development.

Of course, much of this work takes place in person, through activities such as story-times and those based on play. However, again, access to wider resources, including recorded story-times online, or ideas and suggestions for other means of supporting learning, has a real value. This can be particularly the case for materials in minority languages for example.

Once again, internet connectivity can play a big role here, broadening the range of support that they can offer to families with younger children, but also allowing them to draw on new ideas to maximise effectiveness.

Finally, although far from the least important, is the role of libraries as portals, partners and providers in lifelong education.

Libraries can both provide a space where people of all ages can access, in a quiet, safe space, library materials, and serve as a location engaging with learning provided by others. They can both organise their own courses and less formal support for visitors, and work with others to expand massively the range of opportunities they offer.

In short, once people have got beyond school age, libraries are often the primary place to look for lifelong learning opportunities. And of course, once again, they are best able to fulfil this role when they are connected to the internet, both as a source of information, and of course as a pre-condition for eLearning.


To conclude, the drive to ensure school connectivity is an important contribution to the goal of transforming education. Nonetheless, it does not resolve every challenge. Some – such as ensuring that we do not undervalue the role of in-person education, or of course the right to a private life – will require further reflection.

However another – how to support pre-schoolers, school-age children without the luxury of a quiet space and internet connection, and of course the adult education community – can be answered, at least in part, by ensuring that libraries are connected alongside schools.

We hope that in rolling out the GIGA initiative, the importance of connected libraries can be reflected and acted on, in support of the transformation of education.

Girls in ICT Day: Towards a more fair and equal digital future

This year, 22 April marks the 10th anniversary of the International Girls in ICT Day. First Introduced by the International Telecommunication Union, on every fourth Thursday in April it draws attention to the need to bring more girls and young women into tech, ICT and STEM sectors.

Over the past years, libraries in different parts of the world have taken part in the Girls in ICT Day celebrations – for example, in Kenya and Suriname. These activities build on a natural alignment between the goals of the Day, and libraries’ experiences with supporting digital literacy and equitable access to knowledge.

So, what do gender digital divides look like in 2021, and what can libraries do to help?

“Connected Girls, Creating Brighter Futures”

Estimates suggest that less than 35% of positions in the tech industry and related professions are taken by women; including only 24% of leadership positions. More broadly, there are gender inequalities in internet access and device ownership, and social and cultural norms which may still restrict meaningful access and use of ICT for women.

A recent World Wide Web Foundation report offers a more in-depth exploration of these gender digital divides. Drawing on the experiences of women in four countries in the LAC region, Africa and Asia, it highlights that:

–  Data affordability is an important barrier: particularly in rural areas, women were more likely than men to say that costs limited their internet use;

–   Similarly, women in rural areas more frequently cited a lack of digital skills as a reason for not going online;

–   Women were less likely to create content online;

–   And finally, they also expressed more concern about their privacy, and had less trust in how tech companies use their data.

These inequalities can manifest themselves early in life. Focusing on the experiences of girls and young women, another important piece of the puzzle lies in the recently released General Comment on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. One of the key overarching principles it sets out to help realise children’s rights in digital environments is non-discrimination. This includes overcoming digital exclusion, particularly the gender-related digital divide.

Girls can, for example, face more restrictions in accessing online environments, be less likely to own a phone; or face disadvantages in developing digital skills. An accompanying explanatory note points out that, while universal personal and individual access to ICT and the internet is the preferred long-term outcome, in situations where children are unlikely to have it, states should work to expand public access offerings.

Naturally, offering this kind of shared and equitable access had long been one of the key priorities for the global library field. Overcoming gender inequalities in access to digital technologies and the internet is certainly an important step to realising the goals emphasised by the Girls in ICT Day (as reflected in the first part of its motto this year – “connected girls”). The next step, however, is going beyond connectivity and empowering more women to pursue education, learning, and careers in STEM.

How can libraries help realise this?

Overcoming gender inequalities in this field certainly requires a comprehensive response from many stakeholders. This includes, for example, making the internet a safer space for girls, creating more opportunities and incentives for young women’s participation in the private tech sector, encouraging them to follow STEM higher education tracks, and more.

As community and lifelong learning centers, libraries have been gaining experience in this field. Both before and during the pandemic, we see examples of libraries encouraging and supporting girls and women to pursue their interest in tech in many different ways. For example:

– In Singapore, the Jurong Regional Library hosted an exhibition exploring the nexus of art and technology by an all-women arts collective – with the National Library Board’s MakeIT space helping artists pick up new digital skills;

– In India, the Technology Empowering Girls program was launched to offer young women learning opportunities to develop both digital and soft skills, to help boost their career opportunities;

–  In Canada, the Vancouver Island Regional Library ran a coding competition for young women and girls;

–  And in several countries, libraries worked together with civil society and tech sector partners to deliver events (e.g. CoderDojo4Divas in Belgium) and clubs and courses (e.g. GirlsWhoCode in the US, UK, India and Canada), which cater specifically to girls or young women.

Inclusive and reflexive practices

Because of the multiple and structural gender digital divides, it is also important to learn from the initiatives aiming to encourage girls and women pursue their interest in IT. What works, and why? What can help overcome the different barriers girls and women may be facing?

For example, a recent article in Hello World talks about a coding club for adults in a public library in Almere, the Netherlands. The club succeeded in engaging women, who made up more than half of the participants. Mindful of the existing gender stereotypes around coding, the founder asked what they found attractive about this offer. The women pointed out that the club being run by a woman was a draw, since it offered positive social proof. Another draw was the fairly low-pressure nature of the club – prioritising fun and engagement, rather than the pressure to get things just right, helped overcome some participants’ hesitation.

Another example is the work of Libraries Without Borders on their project IdeasBox4Women. When BSF noticed lower attendance among women to their Ideas Box project, which offers access to technology and learning opportunities, they ran a diagnosis and designed an intervention specifically for women and girls.

This includes concrete measures, like setting aside women-only timeslots and organising gender-mixed activities; as well as making sure that women and girls have access to female facilitators. Another key element are activities which raise awareness about local gender inequalities and dynamics. They help draw attention to existing challenges, while fully giving local communities the space to address and act on this awareness in ways which best suit their customs and culture.

These examples show how reflexivity and mindfulness towards women’s needs can help create more inclusive spaces.

As we continue to learn from such initiatives and interventions, libraries and their partners can help create a more fair and equal digital future!

Cables, Masts, Data Centres… and Libraries: The Components of a Comprehensive Internet Infrastructure

Infrastructure is what enables things to happen. Typically, we think of it as things like bridges, power networks or pipes, that allow people to travel around, and to receive electricity and running water – physical connections going from one place to the next.

Policies for infrastructure are therefore often seen as mainly being about construction, maintenance and rules about use.

Similarly, internet infrastructure tends to be thought of in terms of cables, masts and data centres – the hard structures and buildings that mean that content can be brought to our devices. Policies here focus on the laying of new cables or roll-out of new technologies, or steps to facilitate use of resources such as spectrum.

However, we can also think about infrastructure – and the policies that go with it – from the perspective of whether they are reaching their goal.

In the case of the internet, this goal, as has been recognised by the WSIS process and beyond, is to get everyone online. If this is not the case, infrastructure risks being a driver of inequality, rather than equality, with those left unconnected risking being left even further behind.

If we are to do this, we therefore need to think of infrastructure as including every actor that enables people to get online – in particular, libraries.


The Last Mile

An obvious way in which libraries help deliver the goal of an internet infrastructure that reaches everyone is by giving people opportunities to get online that they may not have otherwise.

At a basic level, this is about providing internet access to people who have no connection or device at home, through library terminals or WiFi.

However, there can be many other reasons why someone with both of these may still need library access to be able to make full use of the internet – slow speeds or data caps, the wrong type of device, or other restrictions.

Libraries can be both a stepping stone to the internet, and an ongoing alternative for others.

In both cases, they help ensure that the rest of the internet infrastructure – the cables, masts and data centres – can be used by the widest possible number of people.


Confidence and Collections

We can, however, look further still. Because the objective of investment in infrastructure is so that it can be used. A road network without any drivers with licences, or a waterpipe without water may require less maintenance, but arguably is not doing its job.

An internet infrastructure, in turn, is not effective if there are neither users with the skills and confidence to use it, or content or services that they can use.

In both cases, clearly, libraries can help.

Regarding skills, while some libraries have dedicated programmes for building digital skills, others simply provide an environment where users can feel comfortable going online, knowing that there is someone around to help if needed.

Regarding content, libraries can both help provide relevant content by digitising collections (something that is particularly important in the case of less widely-used languages), but also by ensuring that users have access to copyrighted content that would be too expensive to buy.


Any Comprehensive Plan for Internet Infrastructure Includes Libraries

With a difficult economic situation likely to last for some time, governments will need to ensure that all spending is effective as possible. Providing services that benefit some, but not others – especially when these risk exacerbating existing divides – is less excusable than ever.

Libraries provide a response to this, not only in covering the ‘last mile’ (be this a physical distance, or linked to other potential barriers), but also in providing the skills and content that turns connectivity into development for all.

With this year’s Internet Governance Forum focused on ‘internet for human resilience and solidarity’, the case is stronger than ever for including libraries in any consideration of comprehensive internet infrastructure policies.


Find out more about IFLA’s participation in the 2020 Internet Governance Forum in our news story. This blog draws on ideas shared by Stephen Abram.

The 10-Minute International Librarian #2: Improve a Library-Related Wikipedia Page

For those with access, the internet has opened up exciting new possibilities to access information and discover the world.

Libraries globally are doing great work to make it easier for as many people as possible to find and use their collections.

In parallel, sites like Wikipedia help bring together knowledge from thousands and thousands of contributors, and give access to this for free.

Indeed, we’re currently celebrating #1Lib1Ref – a biannual effort to work with librarians to improve the quality of articles on Wikipedia.

But Wikipedia articles don’t just need to be by librarians – they can also be about them and their work.

So for our 2nd 10-Minute International Librarian exercise, find and improve a library-related Wikipedia page!

Ensuring your library appears on Wikipedia can be a great way of helping both your users, and other librarians around the world find out about your building and your services.

Or you could ensure that the pages about key institutions or concepts related to libraries are up-to-date, helping colleagues elsewhere.

Find out more about how to edit Wikipedia on the #1Lib1Ref page and on our blog!

This idea relates to the IFLA Strategy! Strategic Direction 2, Key Initiative 2: Deliver high quality campaigns, information and other communications products on a regular basis to engage and energise libraries


As we publish more ideas, you will be able to view these using the #10MinuteInternationalLibrarian tag on this blog, and of course on IFLA’s Ideas Store! Do also share your ideas in the comments box.

Awareness, Planning, Resilience: Thoughts on Libraries’ Cyber Defense in 2020

Digital vulnerabilities pose serious challenges for organisations, governments, companies and the wider public – libraries included. Cyberattacks and data breaches made headlines many times throughout 2019, from social media and popular software to public agencies. As a landmark 2019 report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation pointed out, both the scope of threats and the range of targets for such attacks is rapidly growing.

For libraries, the importance of protecting the data and information they work with every day is readily apparent. Less than a week into 2020, the Contra Costa County Library in the US experienced a ransomware attack, impacting a number of library services.

From email scams to hacks into a library user database, library systems can become targets – and as the COVID-19 outbreak puts more pressure on online library resources, securing their digital assets and services, not least in order to protect staff and users, is a high priority. What is at stake, and what suggestions and tips for boosting libraries’ security can we draw from broader literature and available toolkits?

The Broader Context

Broadly in the field of security, you can think of three types of threats towards data:  it can be lost, exposed, or made inaccessible (known as the CIA triad – confidentiality, integrity and accessibility). A poll among cybersecurity professionals, for example, shows that the three biggest expected threats in 2020 are “weaponized email attachments and links (74%), ransomware (71%), banking trojans and other browser-based password hijackers (67%)”.

An alternative top-level taxonomy of threats (borrowing from ENISA guidelines for a different sector) identifies: malicious actions (as described above), supply chain failure (e.g. cloud service provider failure), systems failure (e.g. software of device failure), as well as threats stemming from human errors or other phenomena. All, clearly, can have negative impacts.

On the positive side, however, public awareness on digital security and privacy matters has fundamentally shifted in the recent years, and more and more organisations and companies put a high priority on addressing these issues. In the UK alone, for example, about three-quarters of charities and businesses in 2019 reported that cybersecurity is a “high or very high priority”.

It is not just public attitudes that are changing. As the 2019 Internet and Jurisdiction report points out, security regulations are increasingly often linked to other fields of government regulation – especially data privacy. This can impact libraries: for instance, a 2019 publication by the Colorado  State  Library discussed how the recently introduced state regulation on personal information creates obligations for libraries to, inter alia, ‘implement reasonable security procedures and practices’. Similarly, under the EU GDPR libraries as data controllers have a responsibility to, inter alia, prevent, detect and report attacks and security breaches.

These regulations point to the fact that security concerns for libraries will always be particularly pressing when dealing with personally identifiable information (as well as, arguably, information on the habits and preferences of their users). So how to respond?

Assess and plan: key questions to ask

Map the assets, know the threats

A first key step to boosting a library’s cyber defence, as suggested in a number of recommendations and broader literature, is to take stock of your assets and digital systems. Map your entire system to see what needs to be protected: the Integrated Library System, the data you store, staff and patron computers, tablets and other devices, the library website, the network… Whenever applicable, this can also include apps and cloud services, since those can also contain vulnerabilities.

Once you know your assets, consider the vulnerabilities, priorities and risks. A toolkit published by Scottish PEN adapts an Electronic Frontier Foundation guide to highlight the key questions to consider:

  1. “What do you want to protect?”
  2. “Who do you want to protect it from?”
  3. “How likely is it that you will need to protect it?”
  4. “How bad are the consequences if you fail?”
  5. “How much trouble are you willing to go through in order to try to prevent those?”

You can also consider who has access to the assets you want to protect, and how you would know and respond if something goes wrong.

These questions can help you decide what measures to take to safeguard both privacy and security.

Setting up a plan

Having mapped the assets and considered the risks, you can develop a plan of security measures and risk mitigation strategies. Just like the assessment step, this is something to do together with your IT team – if your library has access to one! A 2019 Library Freedom Institute lecture on cybersecurity, for example, mentioned that some libraries might get IT support through their consortia or similar organisations, at a local City Hall, or elsewhere.

Your security plan and risk mitigation strategy would be built with your assets and situation in mind. Some key elements to consider when developing your security regime and policies are as follows – as set out in the Cyber Security Toolkit for Boards developed by the UK National Cyber Security Center:

  • Network security
  • User awareness and education
  • Malware defense and prevention
  • Access to removable media
  • Maintaining the secure configuration of all systems
  • Managing and limiting user privileges
  • Incident management
  • Monitoring
  • Home and mobile working policy and security

Remembering the basics

Among these fundamental elements of the security regime, there are of course a few key concrete and tangible steps that can boost the security of your data, devices and processes. These are often mentioned when discussing the basics of cybersecurity, and you will likely have heard then often before:

  • Creating backups of your systems is crucial! A library that experiences a ransomware attack, for example, could be able to restore their systems faster with the help of existing backups. Have a backup plan and system that fits your needs and capacities.
  • Keeping your software updated, installing all patches and updates is a key security measure.
  • Setting up a password policy. See, for instance, the Tactical Tech Data Detox Kit chapter on passwords to see what makes a good password (or better yet, a passphrase!)
  • Website owners are encouraged to encrypt their website(s) and make use of HTTPS protocols instead of HTTP. HTTPS is a secure and encrypted protocol for communication between web browsers and websites – and the EFF offers some advice and resources for website owners on how to implement HTTPS by default. A 2018 case study of one public library’s HTTPS implementation points out that it is important to make use of HTPPS and related security measures consistently and pervasively, across all web-based library applications and their elements.

Staff training: protecting the library together

A key part of a library’s cyber defense – drawing on both broader literature and some library-focused overviews  – is making sure that all your staff is caught up on the basics of online security. This can help make sure that the whole team is more alert and aware, reducing the likelihood of some of the most common threats like phishing or malware distributed through emails.

There are different resources available to start such training – such as those developed by the EFF. A 2019 pilot study published in Information Technology and Libraries, for example, provides initial evidence of how librarians taking part in online cybersecurity courses can utilise their knowledge to strengthen cybersecurity practices in their libraries.

Create learning opportunities for your communities

And finally, libraries can be well-positioned to help their community members learn essential skills to be safe online. There are different examples of how libraries have approached this task – from ad-hoc assistance or linking users to relevant educational materials, to dedicated workshops (see, for instance, a listing from the Tompkins County Public Library) or offering full courses on cyber-security (e.g. in the Hague Public Library).

Libraries can partner with cybersecurity specialists and agencies to deliver such training – as well as host dedicated awareness-raising campaigns. Depending on capacity, a library can adopt some of the approaches listed above- or find their own ways to help their communities with learn essential cybersecurity skills.

These are of course just a few broad elements highlighted in the broader literature to consider when creating a library’s security strategy. With more demand for online library resources and services – and so more risk – it is worthwhile to go over your library’s security plans and practices to be sure that your data, information and processes are safe and well!

Essential, Meaningful, Equal? The World Wide Web at 31

The need for resilience in the face of a crisis lay behind the creation of one of the key forerunners of the World Wide Web – ARPAnet. Through facilitating more direct communication between people, the goal was to be able to cope with the consequences of a nuclear attack destroying parts of the network.

Today, on the 31st birthday of the creation of the World Wide Web, the crisis faced is not a military one, but a global pandemic which is seeing millions of people obliged to reduce their movements and change their habits in order to slow or stop its spread.

Thanks to the invention of the Web, and its subsequent development, many people are now facing disruption rather than a complete stop to their activities. Clearly this is not the case for everyone, and there are many working in the health, security, food and other sectors who have to continue to work as hard, if not harder than before.

Nonetheless, for everyone else, the possibility to move so much of their professional and social lives online, at least temporarily, is both unprecedented and welcome. For libraries in particular, it means that there is the possibility to continue to provide core services in support of their communities.

This blog explores this situation further, as well as underlining the need for continued effort to ensure that everyone has the possibility to benefit from this possibility.


An Essential Service

As highlighted in the introduction, one of the core features of the World Wide Web is its ability to ‘route around’ challenges and issues, meaning that the loss of any one connection or hub does not mean that all communication is lost.

Clearly the global pandemic faced today is not a threat to the physical integrity of the Web (although there are plenty of other risks here), but to societies and economies. Yet just as the Web and its forerunners were designed to allow life to continue as best possible in the face of a crisis, it now allows a much greater share of our jobs, communication, entertainment and beyond to go on.

This is not least the case when it comes to access to knowledge and culture – the core of the work of libraries.

Clearly the requirement to close public spaces – as already seen in a number of countries – is not something anyone wants to see continue longer than necessary. The virtual cannot replace the physical so easily, and indeed, it is the combination of the two that makes libraries so unique.

However, in those countries which have been most affected so far, we have seen growing use of digital libraries and possibilities to borrow books electronically. It is quite possible that many will be discovering what is available for the first time. Increasingly, libraries are also producing specific pages with reliable information sources about the virus, helping to counteract the far more dubious information that spreads on social media – a great example of libraries drawing on their reputation as places to seek quality information to make a real difference.

Without the Web, it would be almost impossible to continue to help researchers, readers and citizens in general to continue to enjoy their rights of access to information and culture, and to help achieve broader social goals.


Meaningful, Equal?

When, two years ago, the world passed the mark of 50% of the population being internet users, this was a moment for celebration. Progress has – thankfully – continued since then, but it remains the case that millions of people are still cut off. For them, the possibilities that the World Wide Web offers to continue with communication, research, and culture are not available.

Furthermore, among many of those who are counted as internet users, a lot will still face limitations, either in terms of what they can access – slow speeds, low data caps, restrictions on content – or on what they can do with it, notably due to low literacy and in particular digital literacy. The share of people enjoying such meaningful access – fast, unrestricted and empowered – is likely to be far lower than 50% still.

In effect, the potential of the World Wide Web to strengthen social, economic and cultural resilience in the face of a crisis like the COVID-19 outbreak may be concentrated in only some areas, even as the virus itself spreads around the world.

For libraries, this is both a challenge and a call to action. Clearly as institutions with a mission to provide access to information for all, it is uncomfortable when it is only the most digitally empowered who are able to do this. Others – older or more vulnerable people who come to use library computers, young parents who rely on story times, students who need to borrow textbooks from the library because they are too expensive to buy – risk facing more disruption.

Looking into the longer term, however, it is clear that once the current crisis is over, and we look back at how to become even more resilient, the type of work that libraries do will be essential.

For a start, the need for media and information literacy in the face of ‘infodemics’ cannot be underestimated. Libraries are already active in promoting the development of the necessary skills to find, evaluate and apply information critically. These can only become more important into the future.

Secondly, broader efforts to build digital literacy, giving more people the confidence and ability to get the most out of the internet – either at the library or at home – will also pay off if a similar pandemic happens again.

Third, the role of libraries as potential hubs or nodes in networks is also clear, making it easier to bring WiFi or other connections into people’s homes, for example via community networks.

Finally, enabling libraries to build up their digital presence – either through their own or through shared platforms – will also mean that they can offer more to people at distance. While this may have specific benefits for entire populations under lock-down, there are many – people in remote areas, those with disabilities – who may find it difficult to access libraries physically at any moment, and so who will also see advantages all of the time from this sort of work.


Together, these efforts will mean not only that the World Wide Web can make an even more effective contribution to resilience, but also that access to it will become more meaningful, for all. As the Web advances towards middle age, this is certainly a good life goal to be setting.