Even as the world continues to fight the COVID-19 Pandemic, there is already talk – in particular at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum – of how we can ‘build back better’.
This term – previously mainly used in the context of recovery from disasters – provides a reminder that shocks of different sorts do provide an opportunity to reassess and revise the way we do things.
Of course, this is not to take attention away from the vital immediate responses to the crisis, and in particular the work done by health and other essential workers to keep societies moving. Librarians have also played their part, working to ensure that communities continue to benefit as far as possible from connectivity, access to resources, and advice.
What it should mean, however, is that when we take decisions about the recovery from COVID-19, we do not feel compelled simply to re-create what happened before. Those who take decisions should feel freer to change things, making for a stronger, fairer and more sustainable society.
In this, the experience of the Pandemic already suggests that five key values of libraries could and should play a bigger role:
Information matters: following years of growing concerns about the spread and influence of misinformation online, and the readiness of politicians to dismiss expert perspectives, the pandemic has seen governments in many countries give a much higher recognition of, and profile to, scientists and researchers.
This is a welcome step – the importance of the access to information that libraries provide is only as great as the importance of the information itself, in the eyes of a decision maker.
Now is a good time to ensure a focus on creating strong and sustainable information infrastructures, not least in the shape of libraries, in order to ensure the preservation, organisation and availability of information into the future.
Connectivity matters: libraries’ mission to provide access to information has meant that they were early adopters, and even innovators, in the development of the internet. Almost 2/3 of public libraries in countries for which we have data offer internet access to users, giving opportunities to get online, use computers, and receive training and support.
The pandemic has made clear the costs of being on the wrong side of the digital divide, with almost half of the world population not able to use digital tools to continue their work, education or social interaction.
Faced, in particular, with many students who will have risked dropping further behind their richer peers, there is a strong case for a serious investment in moving towards universal connectivity. Libraries and other public access solutions (including through libraries as nodes in networks) should be a key part of any action plan.
Universality matters: the pandemic has had far reaching consequences for almost everyone. This is not to say that the impact has been the same for everyone. Clearly those in precarious jobs, with less favourable housing situations, or who otherwise face marginalisation or discrimination, have too often suffered far more than others.
Nonetheless, we may be at a moment where decision-makers – and citizens – are more favourable to universal services. In other words, having seen that there are phenomena that affect everyone for the worse, it is also appropriate to take actions that affect everyone for the better.
Public libraries are a great example of this, with a clear mission to provide universal service, in line with the IFLA-UNESCO Public Library Manifesto. Clearly libraries themselves always need to be aware of how their work may be more or less accessible or welcoming to different individuals and groups.
Culture matters: culture is all too often seen as being at the periphery of policy-making, a secondary concern compared to issues such as finance, security or foreign affairs. Yet the right to participate in cultural life is a fundamental right, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Pandemic has seen many turn to culture as a source of comfort in difficult times, as well as making clear the role of cultural concerns (the norms, values, and behaviours of individuals and groups) in the effectiveness of the response. Cultural institutions, not least libraries, have also been valuable sources of information and stories to inform responses and put things into context.
If we are now to build policies that are more responsive, better adapted, and so more effective, as well as promoting wellbeing as a goal, culture and cultural institutions need to be part of the picture.
Rights matter: a common theme in the four previous sections has been the idea that people have rights – to information, education, public services and culture. There are others to take into account – private life, free expression, and freedom from discrimination to name a few.
The pandemic has brought home to many the value of these rights, often of course when they are compromised. It has also forced greater awareness and reflection on the tension that can exist between rights – freedom of assembly and the right to health, freedom of speech and the right not to be subject to discrimination. The latter has been particularly clear in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
While this may risk being perhaps the most optimistic of the suggestions in this article, we can hope that when we build back after COVID-19, we can be in a world which recognises the value of careful decision-making about how best to enforce rights for everyone. These are the choices librarians themselves make in the services they provide.