Tag Archives: privacy

The 10-Minute Digital Librarian #9: Think about how to respect privacy

The second set of posts in our 10-Minute Digital Librarian series has focused on helping users to stay safe online, through adopting good digital hygiene, as well as good cybersecurity in libraries themselves.

At the heart of cybersecurity in particular is the effort to avoid unauthorised access to – or use of – important information, including of course personal information.

In turn, a good way of reducing risk is by reducing the amount of such personal information that is gathered and stored in the first place – in short, the less you have, the less you can lose!

You may of course face calls to gather data in order to demonstrate, or improve performance. However, given the risk of a lack of privacy chilling people’s willingness to search for the information they need, or to express themselves, it is important to remember that privacy itself can be a driver of better results.

IFLA itself issued a statement on the subject in 2015, and there has been a lot of very good work done in institutions and associations around the world in order to promote good practices here.

These include, for example, guides produced by the Carnegie Trust in the United Kingdom, ALA’s guidelines on privacy and the Choose Privacy Every Day site. Please do share other great resources in the comments at bottom!

Key principles set out, which can already be a basis for reflection as part of this 10-Minute Digital Librarian exercise include:

  • Think about which activities you carry out that involve the collection of data about people. This includes both information about them (names, addresses etc) and/or about their behaviour
  • Think about whether you really need to collect and use this data (and of course if you have permission to)?
  • Think about how you are storing data – is it in a safe place (certainly not a GoogleDoc)? How soon can you delete it?
  • Think about where services are provided by a third party and could involve the collection of data – such as databases, other services, or even simply internet access. Do the terms under which you access these services maximise privacy? Are you ensuring that the most private settings are used by default, for example on browsers?
  • If you need to gather data to monitor and improve performance, think about how you can do this in a way that maximises anonymity, that gives users a meaningful choice about taking part, and that ensures that data is not retained for longer than needed.

Take a look at the examples given above, and as underlined, share your own in the comments box below.

Good luck!


If you are interested in issues around digital safety and privacy more broadly, you should take a look at the work of IFLA’s Libraries for Children and Young Adults Section, as well as our Advisory Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression.

Discover our series of 10-Minute Digital Librarian posts as it grows.

The 10-Minute Digital Librarian #8: Check your cybersecurity

The pandemic has led both to growing reliance on the internet and other digital tools to go about our lives, but also growing awareness of the risks that come with them.

Cybersecurity is all about keeping information and services safe from unauthorised access and use. It helps ensure not only that library systems are working as they should and that information is available when people need it, but it is also a question of protection of privacy.

There are various tools that exist to promote security, for example through encrypting information sent online, or defending against viruses or malware (malicious software). There is also an important role for individuals in adopting practices that reduce risks.

In the case of libraries, it will not always be the case that it is possible to control all aspects of cybersecurity. For example, key decisions may be in the hands of a host institution or local/national government.

However, as part of libraries’ mission to promote online safety and privacy, it is good to be aware of what the risks are, and to act – either yourself or by calling on others – where there are risks that can be easily avoided.

So for our 8th 10-Minute Digital Librarian, check on your cybersecurity!

There are various useful and simple steps you can take to do this.

For example, making sure that your computers have received the relevant updates and patches is important – this can help ensure that you are protected against the most recent threats.

Another is to make back-up copies of key information – this can help mean that a ransomware attack does not end up preventing you from accessing key data.

A further idea is to enforce a strong password policy, in order to ensure that yours and colleagues’ devices do not become entry points.

If you have more time, you can carry out more of a review of the assets you have, and the risks you might face. For example, you may want to think about whether to encrypt your website (using https rather than http) if you have not already.

You can also consider which third party vendors, such as databases or other services, have access to your users’ data. Do they have proper policies in place to promote cybersecurity?

A step further, as highlighted in our last two posts, is to become more proactive, and integrate cybersecurity into your wider work to promote digital literacy.

You can find further ideas in our blog on cybersecurity from last year.

Let us know what steps you have taken to improve cybersecurity in your library in the comments box below.

Good luck!


If you are interested in issues around digital safety and privacy more broadly, you should take a look at the work of IFLA’s Libraries for Children and Young Adults Section, as well as our Advisory Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression.

Discover our series of 10-Minute Digital Librarian posts as it grows.

The 10-Minute Digital Librarian #6: Check up on your own digital hygiene

Following a first set of ideas focusing on using digital tools to communicate your work, our next set looks more at keeping yourself – and your users – safe online.

Already an issue before the pandemic, this is even more so now, with – at least for those with the chance to be connected – more and more of our lives taking place online.

Across this sub-series of five posts, we’ll look both at how libraries can help users stay safe when using third party services, as well as underlining the responsibility of libraries themselves in working with users’ digital data.

But for this first post, we’re looking at the importance of starting with yourself, and improving your own digital hygiene!

Because just as you try to avoid getting ill – especially during pandemic – by taking steps that reduce risks and promote physical hygiene, you can do the same online.

This isn’t just a case of setting a good example to others, but also of keeping yourself safe of course.

It is also empowering to know that you can be active in reducing risks online – while you should avoid being overly trusting of the online world, we should try also not to be scared of it. By developing our own confidence, we are better placed to help others also.

There are lots of small steps you can take, for example to use more secure passwords (and storing them somewhere safe, but easy for you to get to), using two-factor authentication, to turn off settings that gather data about you, your preferences and your activities, or to choose products and services that are more respectful of privacy.

There are fortunately lots of tools available for you to do this, for example:

  • The Data Detox Kit produced by Tactical Tech along with Mozilla – this has, for example, been adapted by libraries, such as Friesland Libraries in the Netherlands.
  • The Privacy Toolkit produced by the Library Freedom Project can also be a good start – we’ll talk more about these in future posts as they can also be powerful in helping educate about privacy.
  • The Australian government, which is very active around Safer Internet Day, has interesting resources which could help

If you know of a good resource, especially in other languages, do share it in the comments box below!

Good luck!


If you are interested in issues around digital safety and privacy more broadly, you should take a look at the work of IFLA’s Libraries for Children and Young Adults Section, as well as our Advisory Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression.

Discover our series of 10-Minute Digital Librarian posts as it grows.

The 10-Minute Digital Librarian #5: Use social media analytics to understand your reach

Our last post explored some of the first steps you can take in deciding how you want to use social media of different types in order to communicate about your work most effectively.

It mentioned, briefly, the value of playing around with the analytical tools available on different platforms. This post looks a little further at this point, given how useful it can be in helping you work out how you are doing, and get insights into what works or not.

Most social media platforms, if you look, provide an option to look at performance or analytics. This can be obvious from the front page, or be available as an option under your profile.

These will provide data – by post, by time-period, or both – on the following:

  • Number of followers (i.e. the number of people who have indicated their interest in you, and so who are more likely to see your content in their own feeds)
  • Number of people reached (i.e. the number of different people who have seen your post) – this can depend of the timing of your post, as well as on what social media algorithms choose to prioritise.
  • Number of impressions (i.e. the total number of times your post has been seen – this can include people seeing it more than once). Again, timing and social media algorithms can play a role here.
  • Number of engagements (clicks, shares, likes etc). This depends very much on how engaging your content is – does it make people want to look further?

This data can be used to create further indicators, such as the share of views of a post that led to an engagement.

Think about your objectives when you look at how you can use these. If you are simply trying to raise awareness of your collections as part of a wider communications drive, reach and impressions are powerful.

If you want people to come to your site (which of course is good – you don’t social media to be a substitute for your own content!), then clicks matter most, including as a share of views.

And of course, in the long run, a higher number of followers will tend to lead to higher scores on all indicators.

You can also use this data in the short run in order to assess the performance of individual posts. What topics interest people? What do people like to share? Perhaps most importantly, what brings people to your site?

An obvious comparison is between your own posts – do images matter, subjects, style, length? Some platforms do allow you to compare with other accounts – for example library accounts. If you see some which are performing particularly well, take a look at see what you can learn.

Beyond pure social media analytics, you can use other tools to assess the impact of your social media work. Website analytics (which we of course recommend using in a way that respects privacy) can give insights into how many people came to your site from different social media.

And of course, you can also ask participants in events and similar about how they found out about them, and include social media as one of the options.

This is a rich area, and fortunately, there are some great resources already out there. The materials from the webinar organised by WebJunction and TechSoup are very helpful, as is the page put together by ALA, and the recording of this Tech-Talk webinar.

Outside of library-focused resources, there are plenty of others, for example about Facebook Insights, Twitter Analytics, LinkedIn Analytics, or Instagram Insights.

Let us know the most useful things you have learned from using social media analytics to support your communication!

Good luck!


If you are interested in library marketing more broadly, you should take a look at the work of IFLA’s Management and Marketing Section, which provides a platform to share expertise and experience.

Discover our series of 10-Minute Digital Librarian posts as it grows.

What do we talk about when we talk about access? 10 Suggestions to support library advocacy

We talk a lot about the importance of access to information in advocacy around libraries.

This access is at the heart of what libraries themselves do of course, helping users to find the information that they need to take better decisions, and participate in the life of the community.

Our institutions have been doing this for thousands of years, helping leaders, researchers, creators and other citizens to achieve their missions.

In advocating, we focus on why this matters so much, underlining how, in different policy areas – healthcare, innovation, democracy itself – access to information helps deliver goals, and in turn, how libraries deliver this access in an equitable way.

However, in doing this, it’s worth keeping in mind the different issues that access encompasses, and the different struggles this can imply, if only to be clear for ourselves.

This blogs therefore looks at just ten different aspects of access, and how this can play out in work on library advocacy.

1) Access as the possibility to find a work in the library: libraries have a key role in ensuring that ability to pay does not become a determinant of whether people can enjoy their right to information. This applies as much to those who would not be able to buy textbooks or children’s books, as to those who may only need certain parts of a book, and are not ready to pay for the whole book just to access extracts.

This is why it is so important that libraries can acquire all types of material, without barriers. Unfortunately, refusals to sell to libraries (or only to do so under very restrictive terms) make this difficult, and arguably require further investigation.

2) Access as preservation: access is an ongoing priority, and one that is threatened by the loss of materials due to decay, destruction or other reasons. It is particularly important – for researchers, for citizens – to know that todays information will be available into the future, in order to make it possible to support re-evaluation and accountability.

For example, government records need to be saved to allow for future study into decisions taken, while science itself is based heavily on the idea that research results should be reproducible – i.e. future researchers can access the same materials and reproduce the results of experiments.

3) Access as (reliable) connectivity: with so much information available online, including many materials that may previously have been produced in physical formats, internet access has become almost unavoidable as a form of wider access to information.

IFLA focuses strongly on this, underlining the need for libraries and users to benefit from high quality connections that are reliable – it is unlikely that people and businesses will be ready to invest in internet-enabled activities and approaches if they cannot be sure that it will stay on.

4) Access as a lack of barriers: access is not just about whether the library itself can add – and maintain – works in their collections, or whether they can connect meaningfully to the internet. Access is about whether library users can take advantage of this possibility. To do this, we need to work towards the absence of practical barriers to use, such as those felt by people who live far from a library, or who face challenges linked to physical mobility or other disabilities.

A number of tools can help in this regard – the internet is an important one of course – as can the sort of reforms promoted by the Marrakesh Treaty, that helps ensure that copyright does not pose an unreasonable barrier to creating and sharing accessible format works. With over 100 countries now signed up to the Treaty, we can aim for universal coverage in the coming years.

5) Access as literacies: access is also, crucially, about the skills of the person receiving information to understand and make sense of it. The skills involved can go from basic literacy to much more advanced forms, including critical thinking. Especially for those trying to work through the wealth of information online, being able to find the right knowledge is vital.

Basic literacy has long been an area of library expertise and experience, with increasing efforts to take information literacy training out of academic libraries and into public ones, to the benefit of the whole population. A priority here is to ensure that such support continues to be available to all, throughout life .

6) Access as use: access can imply a relatively narrow way of using information – for example being able to take, open and read a book. However, while for some library users this may be enough – simply taking pleasure or interest from the words on the page – for others it is not. They need to be able to quote, analyse or otherwise use works. For them, access without the possibility to use is pointless.

This is a core point around much work on copyright, with libraries arguing that once they have legally acquired a work, a core set of uses should be possible without restrictions or additional payment needed. These uses should be seen as part of the original price paid. Clearly this would not count uses that could cause unreasonable harm to rightholders, but trying to licence every single type of use is a recipe for market failure.

7) Access as the counterpart of expression: as set out in the previous point, a key ingredient of access is the possibility to use the information found in future work. As well as copyright issues, this can also implicate wider ones about freedom of speech. This is because the possibility to access and use information is less powerful if there are then limits on what can be done with it due to censorship or other controls.

It goes without saying, as well, that the fact that there is a variety of information to access in the first place depends heavily on the possibility for creators to express themselves and produce works in the first place. This is why libraries are encouraged to do what they can to champion intellectual freedom.

8) Access as relevant content: closely linked to the first point is the importance that people can find information that is relevant to them. This can be a question of finding books and other materials in the right language, and that tackle the issues that matter for the reader.

Clearly, the internet has created exciting possibilities for people without access to publishing houses, distribution networks or radio stations to share their ideas. However, it can also encourage a narrowing of horizons onto a single global set of materials. A key challenge then for libraries is to understand what materials users need, and to identify and provide access to this, including by promoting further creativity,

9) Access as feeling welcome: closely linked to the previous point, as well as those on skills and disability, the possibility to engage meaningfully with information can depend in large part on the possibility to relax and focus. This raises the question of how to ensure that people feel welcome and comfortable in libraries – and other places where information is accessed.

This can make a big difference for people who may feel otherwise excluded, For example, those with low literacy may feel intimidated by libraries, or those looking for information about very personal issues may feel awkward otherwise. It is therefore important, as part of all policies focused on access, to help people feel at ease, and avoid steps that could discourage information seekers.

10) Access as privacy: while linked to the previous point about feeling comfortable, the value of privacy in information access cannot be underestimated. Feeling that you have someone looking over your shoulder (literally or virtually, thanks to cookies or other digital tools) can have a chilling effect, limiting what a user is ready to look for.

This is why protecting privacy in the library environment, and doing what is possible to help users of third-party services to keep themselves safe, is such an important part of ensuring that access is meaningful for all.


We hope that these ideas are useful for you in thinking about the ways in which we talk about access, and welcome further ideas in the comments below!


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

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

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

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

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

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


Direct Violations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Unequal Treatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Finding the Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Core Public Service, Corporate Social Responsibility? Supporting Libraries, Now and in the Future

Libraries and their users around the world are facing complexity and uncertainty, both in maintaining operations today, and in their future planning.

Clearly a main area of concern is how to reopen and resume services safely for users and staff, given that our understanding of COVID-19 is still developing. Library associations and authorities are working hard to collect and present the latest evidence in order to inform their members.

Two further areas of doubt are around funding, and legal guarantees for library activities and values. With some libraries already having to furlough or lose staff, and a strong likelihood of cuts in future, there will almost certainly be the need to engage in discussions about how – and how much – library services are paid for.

Meanwhile, with the pandemic forcing libraries alongside many others to switch to digital service provision, the legal basis on which libraries can provide access to information, education, research and culture online has become a major topic.

In both cases, there is an underlying question – to what extent is it advisable for libraries to rely on choices made by private actors – companies, philanthropists, others – in order to carry out their work?

This blog looks at the issues.


Complement, don’t Compete: Funding

The most obvious area where the balance between the public and private comes up is in funding. The Public Library Manifesto makes it clear that this should come from local and national governments.

This reflects the point made in the Manifesto that public libraries are there to deliver on a range of public interest goals. Yet the same goes for other types of library – national libraries which safeguard the historical record, academic libraries that enable research, school libraries that support literacy and education and as well as many special libraries.

Part of this is down to the sense that public funding should – ordinarily – be more stable. It is rare – although not unknown – for governments to ‘fail’. It is also the case that when there is a proposal to amend library funding, this should be subject to due process, with opportunities for review and influence.

The focus on public funding is also, arguably, linked to the mandate of many libraries to serve all members of the community without discrimination, just as other public services are expected to do.

In contrast, private actors can face situations that would force them to stop providing support, or simply can change their minds without such strong obligations to explain themselves. Especially when services are offered on a market basis, they can also often be little direct incentive to serve the poorest and most vulnerable.

This is clearly not to exclude the possibility of private funding. Libraries globally have benefitted from engagement with the private sector in order to invest in capital – both buildings and equipment, where local laws allow for this.

Partnerships can enable the provision of new services, either through corporate social responsibility, or an understanding that investing now – for example by offering internet connectivity or coding classes – can build demand later on. Sometimes, even, private funding allows for pilot projects which are then taken over and scaled up with public funding when they show their worth.

This is welcome, and we can be grateful to library benefactors for all they do. What is clear, however, is that this support should be additional. It should complement existing public (or institutional, in the case of academic libraries for example) funding, rather than replacing it, in order to ensure that libraries retain their universal, public service focus.


Guarantees, not just Goodwill: Laws

The second area where the relationship between the public and private comes up is in law, and in particular, how much legal certainty libraries and their users have in what they do.

A key function of the law is to step in when there is a risk that, otherwise, people’s rights may not be respected. This can happen when one actor is stronger than another – because they are bigger, richer, have more information, or indeed have been granted monopoly powers by other laws.

Key laws for libraries include copyright and privacy. In the case of copyright, most countries – and indeed international law – recognise that there is a need to guarantee the possibility to carry out certain activities – such as quotation, preservation or education – as exceptions to the monopoly rights offered to rightholders.

Yet due to the concept of freedom of contract – i.e. that the terms of contracts override what may exist elsewhere in the law – these exceptions frequently do not apply in the case of digital content (usually acquired or accessed under a contract (or licence)). While some countries – including those in the European Union – have moved to limit the possibility for contracts to override exceptions, his is far from universal.

The impact of this has been clear during the COVID-19 Pandemic, with contract terms limiting the possibility for libraries to give remote access to works that could have been accessed on-site.

While there have been welcome initiatives from many publishers and rightholders to provide access, it seems contrary to the objective of exceptions in the first place to need to rely on goodwill, rather than legal guarantees in order to be able to support, education, research and access to culture. At least ensuring that the law offers a back-stop, where voluntary action is not taken, seems necessary.

Privacy too is a major concern. With many services collecting data from users – either in place of, or in addition to, fees – there is a particular need for effective laws that protect against unauthorised and/or unethical retention and use.

With a much greater share of teaching, research and simple communication needing to take place online currently – in particular outside of campus networks – the risks of tracking usage and behaviours, as well as vulnerability to cybercrime, grow.

There is therefore a pressing need for companies to be held to high standards, with the law providing a guarantee for privacy. It should not be the case that users need to rely on the goodwill of private actors not to gather private data without full and meaningful consent.


Attitudes towards reliance on private funding and goodwill to support libraries will vary from culture to culture, and depend very much on the prevalent political philosophy.

Nonetheless, as highlighted at least the Public Library Manifesto, there should not be any question of excluding public funding. As a result, it is more a case of finding the right balance.

The COVID-19 pandemic – and its aftermath – is likely to force reflection on this balance. It will be important to ensure that we can make the case a situation where libraries can offer a stable, public-focused universal service, and can rely on the law in order to fulfil their missions.