Public libraries, an ideal place for cultural rights experimentation?

In recent years, many study days and seminars on cultural rights have been organized in France. Though this concept is several decades old, it remains relevant to rethinking cultural policies and its popularity is also a sign that a shift towards greater democratization of culture is no longer sufficient today to give all citizens the place they deserve in cultural life.

If you ask people working in the cultural field how they implement cultural rights in their institution, most will look at you with perplexity. Librarians are no exception. And yet, like Monsieur Jourdain in Molière’s play, they practice cultural rights without knowing it. So why is it important to know about it ? Because it is a framework which can help us give a coherence to our practices, promote our activities to the local authorities and the public, shift the way we look at the public, and even make profound changes in the inner workings of our institutions.

What is this all about ?

When we speak of cultural rights, we generally refer to a text dating back to 2007, the Fribourg Declaration. However, we find earlier mention of them in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which essentially says : everyone must be free to express himself, inclunding in an artistic form, to choose his cultural practices, to choose his cultural identifications freely and the meaning he gives to his way of life. These rights are also duties : each person should make sure to share humanity with others.

Various subsequent UNESCO texts are based on this notion, such as the 2005 convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions. To understand how these principles can be implemented in our institutions, it is important to question what we mean by culture. UNESCO’s conception of culture generally refers to the anthropological definition of culture : ways of life, value systems, ways of living together, traditions and beliefs… that each person is gifted with. However, in 2007, the Fribourg Declaration, a founding text that brings together, clarifies and highlights this notion present in various international texts, also includes knowledge and the arts in cultural identity. Thus, cultural rights not only imply the freedom to choose one’s cultural identity but also the freedom to create, to disseminate artistic works and to participate in cultural life and even, beyond, in the elaboration and evaluation of cultural policies.

Whether we speak of culture in the anthropological sense or of cultural life as a field of creation and sharing of artistic productions, the stakes of cultural rights are identical : it is a matter of recognizing the right of each person to know and to have his or her own culture respected and to participate in cultural life, it is a matter of promoting diversity and legitimizing all identities and forms of cultural expression, of making people active citizens, of sharing works, knowledge and experiences, of weaving links and creating community, of facilitating cooperation.

We cannot but make the connection with the UNESCO Manifesto for Public Libraries, whose updated version in 2022 by the IFLA Public Libraries Section and UNESCO was presented at WLIC 2022. The Manifesto is driven by the same concern to promote the multiplicity of cultural expressions and the participation of citizens in the life of libraries. Present in all urban and rural areas, welcoming all publics without discrimination and the most diverse groups free of charge, providing resources, tools and mediation workshops to accompany each person on his or her personal path, articulating the collective and personal dimensions, libraries are undoubtedly among the institutions in the best position to make these principles a daily reality. What remains to be done is to make cultural rights a backbone, a structuring axis that will help libraries build a strategy, make the social and political benefits of their action visible, and constantly evaluate it in order to make further progress.

And what can libraries do with it ?

Participatory places: integrating the public in the life of libraries and in the public reading policy

  • Participation in acquisitions is developing in public libraries with very positive effects. The updating of the documentary charter can be co-constructed with the users (and non users!). It can be the opportunity to question the representation of minorities, women, linguistic diversity in the collections. It is also the right time to rehabilitate less legitimate forms of cultural expression.
  • Cultural programming is a vast playground for involving users. As with documentary policy, it is a question of breaking with a top-down logic of supply that is supposed to respond to needs, in order to start from what people know and wish to share.
  • Virtuous organizations : rethinking the internal functioning of the library according to this logic

Staff training and development:

  • Staff members have professional skills and lived experience that can be valuable
  • Colleagues should commit to tracking down possible forms of discrimination in managerial practices
  • In French libraries, “workshops on detoxification of stereotyped language” have been organized.

Access to cultural life and the quality of hospitality:

  • Make hospitality the first motto of the library
  • Extend the opening hours and make the library free of charge whenever possible
  • Ensure that the principle of non-discrimination is respected in cultural programming
  • Networking the territory: develop the network according to the demographic, urbanistic and socio-economic evolution of the territory and improve the service in the areas with little coverage

Contributing to cultural life: ensuring that users have a place as informed creators and spectators

  • Promote amateur creative activities
  • Open up spaces for exchange in the cultural program
  • Encourage inter-learning based on people’s knowledge and know-how
  • Develop artistic and cultural education in order to give young people the possibility to build their cultural path in complete autonomy, to develop their critical spirit and to become creators

The library as a place for intercultural dialogue:

  • Through the cultural and linguistic diversity of the collections, through cultural programming
  • Introduce diversity in the library team through recruitment

Evaluation as an ongoing process:

  • Cultural rights provide a framework for analyzing our practices; at the very least, libraries can use them as a basis for introducing new indicators.
  • Francophones can refer to Paideia’s self-evaluation guide, an action research group that analyzes public policies through the lens of cultural rights
  • Of course, implementing cultural rights also means not forgetting to involve the public in the evaluation of our actions

Cultural rights, more than a source of innovation, are first and foremost a reference framework that can guide the actions of libraries through a strategic plan and an evaluation process.

It is also a call to take the time to reflect and to take some distance, to get rid of preconceived ideas and to cultivate change.

Annie Brigant, Public Libraries Section