Tag Archives: United Nations

Not Victims but Vectors of Change: Libraries, Climate Action and Peace

Climate change, if left untackled, risks not only being felt in an an ever-more-frequent series of extreme weather events, but also in a growing pressure on our socieites.

These pressures – less land, fewer resources, higher migration – have in the past been the cause of conflict. Without action, there is a justifiable fear that this could happen again.

As the United Nations Secretary-General sets out in his introduction to this year’s International Day of Peace, this is why it is important to address climate change in order to increase the chances of peace.

For libraries, both conflict and climate change can all too easily be seen as externalities – things that happen to our institutions without any possibility to respond. It is certainly true that it is hard to forget images of roofs blown off – by winds or bombs – and collections waterlogged or burnt.

However, libraries are far from powerless. For the reasons set out in this blog, they are not victims, but rather vectors of progress, helping to tackle climate change, and so preserve peace.


Better Prepared: Supporting the Reseach that Saves Lives

Clearly a core role of libraries is to support the production of, and access to, research. It is only thanks to the possibilty for experts to draw on evidence from the past, and to work together, that we have the understanding we have today of climate change and its impacts.

Libraries have of course done this for centuries, making it possible for scientists to take the work of those who have gone before, and go further. This has happened at a giant scale in climate science.

There is also a realisation that a complete understanding of climate change will also rely on bringing research in different disciplines together. Knowing what is going on is not just a question of meteorology, environmental science or any other single field, but will require insights from many different areas.

Libraries are already looking to do this, for example through their support to public health, or in realising the potential of old travel reports and maps in showing how our world is being altered over time. Open access will facilitate this significantly, as highlighted in the UN Global Sustainable Development Report.

Through this work, governments are better able to see what action is needed in order to relieve or reduce the pressures that can lead to conflict.


Behaviour Change, not Climate Change

Of course the fact that governments know they should be doing something does not mean that they will do it. A key means of ensuring that they do – as well as of reducing the factors that can drive unrest within communities – is by acting at the local level also.

Libraries have a key role to play here also. As set out in IFLA’s paper on libraries and sustainability, two key roles of libraries are as examples and educators, building understanding of the issues among citizens, and helping them to learn how to change their own behaviour.

This can be a key trigger, and support, for government action. Meanwhile, the support the libraries provide for the development of new technologies and new ideas will feed into the creation of new businesses and new jobs in future, as well as offering new ways of carrying out more traditional professions – such as farming – in a changed world.

This complements other work that libraries carry out to create a culture of peace, as highlighted in our previous work in this area in 2017 and 2018.


Libraries, therefore, are far from powerless faced with climate change and conflict. Instead, through acting on the one, they have a real contribution to make to efforts to reduce both, and in doing so, to build a more peaceful, more sustainable world.

The 10-Minute Library Advocate #36: Get Your Work Recognised

10 Minute Library Advocate #36 Text: Get your work recognised. Image: hands clappingYour advocacy is stronger when you can show the support of others.

Being able to point to other sites or sources that talk about your work helps build credibility.

It sends the message that it’s normal for people to think that your library is important!

But how to make this happen?

Sometimes it’s a case of getting a newspaper to write about what you’re doing, or getting on TV or radio.

But sometimes, you can do things directly.

So for our 36th 10-Minute Library Exercise, get your work recognised.

Find a site or platform where you can profile your work.

In particular, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Action Week offers the possibility to put your actions on a map.

Go to this page, and add in what you are doing, for example, to raise awareness of or deliver the SDGs.

And then use the profile created in your own daily advocacy work!

Good luck!


See the introduction and previous posts in our 10-Minute Library Advocate series and join the discussion in social media using the #EveryLibrarianAnAdvocate hashtag!

The 10-Minute Library Advocate #28: Celebrate an International Day

The 10-Minute Library Advocate #28: Celebrate an International Day

Advocacy about showing your relevance.

In a number of previous editions, we’ve talked about how do identify relevant subjects, and how to react to them.

But sometimes you don’t need to search.

The United Nations and its agencies have identified a number of key days where there is a focus on a specific issue – think International Women’s Day for example.

On these days, many governments and others will be talking about that issue.

Libraries can too!

So for our 28th 10-Minute Library Exercise, celebrate an international day!

Of course, some are more relevant than others.

The International Literacy Day (10 September), International Day for the Universal Access to Information (28 September), or Human Rights Day (10 December) are particularly good ones though!

You can do this by downloading a poster or leaflet, making a post in social media, or even writing a blog or article.

Doing so shows that you and your library are part of a global conversation, and can make people think about libraries in a new way.

Good luck!


See the introduction and previous posts in our 10-Minute Library Advocate series and join the discussion in social media using the #EveryLibrarianAnAdvocate hashtag!



Information for Youth: Celebrating World Youth Skills Day 2019

It is a cliché to say that children are the future. However, what is certain is that the experiences of young people today will stay with them for years.

The skills they learn, and how they apply them, have the potential to shape the rest of their careers and personal lives, and the societies they live in.

This is why the United Nations has chosen to dedicate an international day to youth skills – World Youth Skills Day.

This blog explores the reasons behind this, and makes the case for focusing, in particular, on information skills. This, it concludes, is an area where libraries can make a crucial difference.


Why youth, why skills?

As the United Nations’ own website sets out, youth represent a major part of the world population. One in every six people on the planet is aged between 15 and 24 – that’s 1.2 billion people in total.

Such a huge population implies both major opportunities and major challenges.

Get things right, and there is a huge generation of people who are capable, confidence, and ready to tackle global challenges.

Get things wrong, and there will be a wave of young people who are disaffected, disconnected, and frustrated.

Currently, the risk of a negative scenario is high. Young people are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than adults, and face poorer quality jobs, greater inequalities and more insecurity.

As set out in the introduction, negative experiences in these formative years can have ‘scarring’ effects, leaving many young people permanently disadvantaged and disconnected, socially, economically and democratically.

The goal, then, of World Youth Skills Day is to underline the need to invest in helping youth make the transition from school into the labour market, from childhood to adulthood, and to become active and engaged citizens.


The growing need for information skills

It is perhaps another cliché to talk about the growing importance of the internet and information. Yet this is also a truth, not only when it comes to jobs, but also to broader social, cultural and civic life.

As highlighted in a previous blog, there is a risk of information poverty becoming a factor that reinforces income poverty.

Those who don’t have access to information, and the skills and confidence to use it, are more likely to struggle to find work or benefit from government schemes. They are less likely to be able to take the right decisions, or call for better conditions or laws.

They are also at greater risk of falling victim to some of the negative aspects of online life, such as a loss of privacy, cyber-crime, or the sharing of deliberate misinformation.

In short, if we are thinking about the skills that young people need in order to stay safe and succeed in future, information and digital skill are certainly an important part of the picture.


The contribution of libraries

This is where libraries come in, bringing two key advantages.

First of all, they can offer a valuable complement to the work of schools. In many situations, the education system has not kept up with the digital world. Young people may develop valuable knowledge of academic subjects, but nothing that can be easily operationalised.

In Kenya, for example, the library in Kibera complemented the work of skills by giving young people access to technology and skills training. This paid off in terms of better exam result, and the first ever admissions to prestigious national schools from the town.

For young people who have finished formal schooling, the library can be the only gateway to skills development.

Secondly, libraries have a particular expertise in the way that information is managed, shared and used.

While this has, in the past, primarily been applied to helping researchers choose between resources to use, there is a growing awareness that the ability to find, understand, evaluate and use information – information literacy – can be applied in all areas of life.

While this role is still developing, it is clear, in the US for example, that young people already see libraries as a place to come in order to make better use of information.


The success or not of efforts to support young people to make a successful transition to adulthood will have a major impact on our future economies, societies and democracies.

With an ever-greater role for information in all parts of our lives, the capability and attitudes to make best use of this must play a part in any comprehensive youth skills strategy.

Libraries are already working to make this a reality.

Happy World Youth Skills Day!

The ‘First International Librarian’[1]: Mary Florence Wilson

Alternative street sign for Mary Florence WIlsonThis blog is the result of a street name. Not an official one, but rather an alternative, proposed for the Route Ferney in Geneva, as part of 100elles, an effort to raise awareness – and recognition – of the contribution of women through history.

The alternative name given in this case is that of Mary Florence Wilson, the first librarian of the League of Nations. 2019 marks both the centenary of her taking on this role (at least in practical terms), one she would hold for eight years, as well as of the library itself.

Reading through her own work – notably her history of the process that led to the League of Nations Covenant[2], as well as her account of her time at the League – she comes across as clear, professional and far-sighted, but not without a sense of humour.

The views of those who worked closely with her are also generally very positive, although she clearly annoyed some of her more misogynistic colleagues. On her death in 1977, the IFLA Annual contained a report from the Association of International Librarians, including from Professor Doris Dale, who noted that ‘contacts with this fascinating personality always enriched everyone who had the privilege to meet her’[3].

Florence Wilson remains a fascinating personality to this day, and very much in the minds of those who continue to serve in the library she set up. IFLA is grateful to them for the support offered in finding the materials for this blog, which will explore just some of the things that make her so interesting a figure.


A Hundred-Year Legacy: Florence Wilson’s Practical Achievements

As the ‘first international librarian’, Florence Wilson was responsible for setting up the library for the world’s first multidisciplinary, multilateral organisation, the League of Nations.

She came from the eastern United States, and held a number of posts at Columbia University, before being recruited by Colonel House, the man US President Woodrow Wilson chose to plan for peace after World War One.

Serving as a member of the American Peace Commission, and liaison officer of the American Library Association and Library of Congress[4], she attended the Versailles Conference, and saw first-hand the efforts of the countries involved to design a new world order.

She clearly impressed those around her, and even before the League of Nations Covenant entered into force, was asked by the Secretary-General to be, Sir Eric Drummond, to organise the library. This was to be the first library serving a global organisation working across a range of policy issues, and with a key role in responding to crises.

This, she reasoned, required a special type of library, bringing together elements of a government or parliamentary library, as well as of a major research library, which could be visited by interested groups[5]. This she did, by all accounts, with energy and vision, as the library moved from small rooms on Piccadilly in London to the Hotel National, on the shore of Lake Geneva.

During her time, the library went from zero to 90 000 volumes[6], establishing itself not just as a key resource and space for the League Secretariat and visiting officials[7], but also as a research library and source for libraries across the continent and the world. Visiting experts underlined that the library as ‘successful and much appreciated’[8]. She did, however, attract the concern of her hierarchy around the expense of the library, but defended this as being essential for it to fulfil its mission[9].

Nonetheless, and strongly focused on ensuring the viability of the library, she invested considerable time in seeking to attract support from external funders, notably the Carnegie Foundation. However, it was only to be under her successor, Tietse Sevensma, that the Rockefeller family would offer the money needed both to start to achieve her vision, and to raise the building that houses the library today[10].


Florence Wilson in 1928An Intellectual Contribution: A Prophet of Access to Information

Florence Wilson stands out both for her reflection on how to carry out librarianship at the international level, and for her words and writings round the role of information in promoting peace and understanding.

She came to her role at the League conscious of her status as an American (an issue that would become more prominent when the United States chose not to join the League)[11]. At that point, the American approach to librarianship, differed strongly from the European, in particular as concerns the resourcing and organisation of the library.

Therefore, when her original plans to organise the Library along the lines of the Library of Congress were rejected, she travelled around Europe, exploring current practices. She ended up with a hybrid system, with the Dewey Decimal system alongside a card catalogue following American principles. The system worked in two languages too – the card catalogue in English, while shelf list headings were in French[12].

This leads to the more philosophical contribution – her conviction that the library should act ‘so that decisions may be based on fact, and […] express the civilization and culture of the various countries that the peoples of the world will better understand each other, and thru understanding, will be at peace’[13].

She had a strong focus on service, believing that if people could not access information easily, then the mission of the library could not be accomplished[14]. As a result, she strongly promoted the library as an open space, giving visitors the opportunity to browse for themselves (a relatively revolutionary idea in research libraries in Europe at the time)[15], and launched innovative services such as regular messages to Secretariat staff, highlighting the latest research and ideas[16]. She also welcomed visiting groups and researchers, who would otherwise have had no access to many of the materials held.

She argued that what people needed was, primarily, information, not the books that held them, and encouraged her staff to offer help along these lines[17]. This placed her on the frontier of thinking about how international relations work, contributing to the idea that the development of a body of international knowledge could be the basis for successful international cooperation[18].

This is the same logic she took into her work after the League of Nations, promoting libraries in European and the Middle East as instruments of international understanding[19]. Working at a time when the potential of information to support government was only just starting to be recognised, this was a powerful contribution[20].


A Personal Effort: Challenges (Mainly) Overcome

A key feature of many of the pieces about Florence Wilson is the discrimination she suffered, alongside almost all other women. Having taken on the task of organising the library in 1919, it was not until a year later (and the failure to appoint a male Polish candidate for her job) that she was confirmed in her function. She also became the only female library director (aged just 35) in Europe[21].

For the following years, she never rose beyond the rank of Section Head, despite her budget and responsibilities, and even then barely earned a third of her male counterparts[22]. The fact that her staff was predominantly female also led to criticism (not an issue that affected purely male departments), although were partially (although clearly not excusably) saved by the fact that they cost less to employ[23].

While she does not mention this in her own official writings, she clearly was conscious of her sex, and indeed acted as the League of Nations delegate to the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in 1920, for example[24].

Her departure from the library was, it seems, not by choice. She was dismissed in 1927, apparently on the basis that it was necessary to find a role for the Germans, who had just been admitted to the League – they never provided someone. It could be argued that is it indeed only this departure that prevented her from being a candidate to be the first permanent IFLA Secretary General – it was her successor, Tietse Sevensma, who would take on this role in 1929.

What is clear enough is that even if she had been a man, her achievements would have been notable. They are all the more so for the challenges that she faced, and the fact that as the first to do so many things, she was finding her own way. This work has lasted, and is still continuing in Geneva today.


So as we wish happy birthday to the UN Library in Geneva, it’s also a good time to celebrate the work of the ‘first international librarian’, and hope that that street sign may be made permanent.



[1] International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (1977), IFLA Annual, Verlag Dokumentation Saur KG, Munich, p146

[2] Wilson, Florence (1928), The Origin of the League Covenant, The Hogarth Press, London

[3] International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, ibid, p147

[4] Dale, Doris Cruger (1972), An American in Geneva: Florence Wilson and the League of Nations Library, The Journal of Library History, Vol. 7, No. 2, p110

[5] Idem, p112

[6] Idem, p124

[7] Florence Wilson talks of Lord Robert Cecil having tea at a library field, and Arthur Balfour and Léon Bourgeois using library meeting rooms to chat. Wilson, Mary Florence (1922), The Library of the League of Nations, The Library Journal, 15 December 1922, p1060

[8] Idem, p119

[9] Dale, p119

[10] Blazek, Ron and Wilson, Mary Florence (1972), Vignettes of Library History: No. 11, The Library of the League of Nations, The Journal of Library History, Vol. 7, No. 4, p371

[11] Wilson (1922), p1060

[12] Blazek and Wilson, p369

[13] Idem, p1057

[14] Dale, ibid, p113

[15] Dale, ibid, p114

[16] Blazek and Wilson, ibid, p369

[17] Valeska Huber, Tamson Pietsch & Katharina Rietzler (2019), Women’s International Thought and the New Professions, 1900-1940, Modern Intellectual History (2019), https://doi.org/10.1017/S1479244319000131 (pre-print available), p16

[18] Idem, p12

[19] Idem, p15

[20] Idem, p16

[21] IFLA, ibid, p147

[22] Dale, Ibid, p111

[23] Idem, p116

[24] Idem, p122

Development Accelerators: How Libraries and Access to Information Unblock Development

Libraries: Development Accelerators

The objectives set out by the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda are as ambitious as they are necessary in order to ensure the sustainability of our economies and societies.

A clear implication is that business as usual is not a possibility. Instead, there need to be both new resources and new policy approaches in order to accelerate progress and bridge divides. This in turn requires reflection on how best to invest time, effort and money for results.


The Role of Accelerators

This is what lies behind the concept of Development Accelerators, as promoted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as part of the Mainstreaming, Acceleration and Policy Support (MAPS) initiative. This was conceived as a means of planning the work of United Nations country teams, as well as supporting national and local action.

Within this framework, development accelerators ‘encompass key interventions, provisions, services, or programmatic areas (such as social protection or tobacco control) that simultaneously make positive impact across multiple SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) or targets in a given context’.

Accelerators respond to ‘bottlenecks’ – situations or factors which slow down progress across a number of fronts.

The above quote comes from a study published recently in The Lancet, looking at examples of development accelerators in South Africa, with a specific focus on young people suffering from HIV.

The study highlights the contribution of policies such as promoting safety at school and direct cash transfers, which appear to lead not only to better mental health and freedom from abuse, staying in school, and sticking to treatment routines.


Access to Information as an Accelerator

The concept of development accelerators appears to describe well the contribution of access to information and libraries to social, economic and cultural progress.

Access is key to enabling better decision making – about education, employment, agriculture – at the level of individuals. It is also essential for the effectiveness of government initiatives targeted at the public – without it, programmes are unlikely to reach those who need them most.

Access at the governmental level enables better policy-making through the possibility to use evidence, and of course supports transparency and accountability to parliaments and people.

It also allows for the sort of international research collaboration that is needed to understand and respond to climate change.

It follows that a lack of access creates a bottleneck, with individuals unable to fulfil their potential and seize opportunities, governments taking poor decisions, and researchers producing incomplete or duplicative work.


Unblocking the Bottleneck: Libraries

Libraries a key means of delivering this accelerator, as places where everyone is welcome to come, read and learn.

One building, with the right resources and staff, can help one user find health information, another a job opportunity, and another fill in forms to access eGovernment services.

Others may come to read to their children, to improve their literacy skills, others may come simply to enjoy the company of other people, strengthening the inclusiveness of the community.

All of these outcomes correspond to SDG targets, underlining this potential.

Clearly strong libraries deliver even more in conjunction with other policies such as those in support of good internet infrastructure, equitable and effective education, equal societies and protection for fundamental freedoms. Indeed, together, these policies can reinforce the effectiveness of each other.


The second Development and Access to Information Report, due out in just over two weeks, will provide further examples of what access – and libraries – can do to contribute to success across the board.

We encourage UNDP and all others engaged in sustainable development policy planning to work with libraries to deliver the access that can help accelerate progress.

New Opportunities: Libraries and the United Nations in 2019

Libraries and the United Nations in 2019

As those who were able to attend the relevant sessions at the World Library and Information Congress in Kuala Lumpur heard, 2019 will be a big year at the United Nations for libraries. There will be a focus on Sustainable Development Goals that are particularly relevant for our institutions, and key steps will be taken towards a review both of the overall 2030 agenda, and the indicators used to measure progress.

But it’s also an important year for the UN itself, with new structures now in place. These also have implications for the way libraries engage with the SDGs at the national level. This blog sets out some of the key moments and opportunities in the coming year.


A High Level Political Forum Focused on Core Library Business

Each year, the UN selects a number of SDGs as a focus for the High Level Political Forum. These also shape the preparations for the event, and even voluntary national reviews.

This year, the focus is on education (SDG4), employment and growth (SDG8), equality (SDG10), climate change (SDG13) and strong institutions, including access to information (SDG16). These are all areas where it does not take too much effort to build understanding of how libraries make a difference to individual’s lives and societal progress.

These themes will each be the subject of a ‘thematic’ meeting. While education has already taken, place, SDG 8 will be the subject of a meeting on 4-5 April in Geneva, Switzerland, SDG10 of one in Accra, Ghana on 27-28 March, SDG13 will be addressed on 1-3 April in Copenhagen, and SDG16 is provisionally on the agenda on 3-5 April in Rome, Italy.

These will discuss key challenges and progress made, and set out recommendations for how the world can do better and acheive the goals set out in the 2030 Agenda.

There will also be five regional meetings: for Europe and North America (21-22 March, Geneva), Asia-Pacific (27-29 March, Bangkok), Arab Countries (16-18 April, Beirut), Latin America and the Caribbean (22-26 April, Santiago), and Africa (16-18 April, Morocco, tbc).

These give the chance to take a regional perspective, looking at the specific issues in different parts of the world, as well as facilitating peer learning. They are also great opportunities to meet with national officials leading on coordinating SDG implementation.

IFLA will be looking to take the chance to be heard at the High Level Political Forum – and the thematic and regional meetings. We hope that local libraries will also be involved! But all libraries can also contribute by reminding national SDG teams of the contributions they make in these areas.

We’ll be in touch with ideas for how to do this!


A Review of the 2030 Agenda and Indicator Framework

Four years on from the agreement of the SDGs, the original text agreed by member states provided for a review of the agenda as a whole. We are now at that stage, offering an opportunity to think again about how work around the SDGs is organised and implemented.

In parallel, an expert group made up of governments and representatives of various UN agencies will hold a consultation about updates to the set of indicators used to measure progress against the SDGs.

In both of these processes, it will be important both to defend what is good about the SDGs – not least the reference to access to information – but also work to improve things. Civil society organisations – not least IFLA and library associations – could have more voice, and voluntary national reviews could be more inclusive. We also need better indicators of access to information across the board.

A key point will be the SDG Summit, held in September as part of the UN General Assembly, which will set out a political declaration, present a number of voluntary commitments and reaffirm the 2030 Agenda as a whole.

We’ll be in touch at key moments in the year to explain how you can help convince your governments of the need to promote the changes libraries need to make the 2030 Agenda better still.


New Contacts, New Possibilities

The UN is a huge organisation. In addition to its core elements (including the Sustainable Development Division within the Department of Economic and Social Affairs), there are many agencies and other bodies linked to it, not least the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

Many of these do work in different countries, operating offices, supporting projects, and raising awareness.

In order to promote greater consistency in this work, the UN agreed to give more power to the ‘resident coordinators’ – the top member of staff in each country, to help them coordinate better. This is part of a broader reform strategy,  covering internal organisation, responsibilities and funding.

The resident coordinators will have a particular role in focusing support efforts linked to the SDGs (taking this over from local UN Development Programme representatives), and will also have more formal powers and funding, making them an even stronger potential contact for library associations.

Especially in countries where there are a number of UN projects in place, the new resident coordinators are potentially very useful contacts for libraries and library associations. They will be happy to know that local institutions are promoting the SDGs, and could help ensure that libraries benefit from projects aimed at implementing them.

You can find details of the coordinator in your country – and other relevant contacts, by clicking on the map at the bottom of the UN country activities page.


2019 will be a year of opportunities to underline the value of libraries. We will only need to make sure we are ready to seize them. IFLA will work with its members to ensure that this is the case.


You can find further information on libraries and the SDGs on the IFLA website. See in particular our briefs about Voluntary National Reviews, and Data and the SDGs,  our timeline, and our webinar from September 2018 (in English, French and Spanish).

In order to get involved yourself, take a look also at our toolkit, our poster ‘This Library Supports the SDGs’, and our infographic setting out all of the SDG targets where access to information is implicitly or explicitly mentioned. You can find some great ideas for advocacy around the SDGs in the slidepack from our session at WLIC 2019, and look out for our ‘10-Minute Library Advocate‘ guide coming very soon!