International policy influences on online access to information in public libraries
With over one million libraries and nearly 700,000 librarians worldwide, the library sector is an established part of many people’s lives. Since large-scale roll-out of internet access began in the 1990s, the way public libraries provide information to their users has been revolutionised. Librarians have changed their day-to-day work, and library users have migrated from print-only materials to a hybrid of print, electronic and online access to information via the internet. Today technologies continue to develop, and new methods of information delivery are constantly being implemented.
Librarians have shown great ability to move with the times, but the perception of libraries has sometimes been hard to change. During the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), policy makers proved difficult to reach. The longstanding role that libraries have played in offering public access to information in both developed and developing countries was not fully recognised during the WSIS process, and the Summit’s outcome documents downplayed established and functioning library networks by placing libraries’ public access credentials on the same level as health institutions, post offices and community centres.
Post-WSIS, libraries are stepping up efforts to stake their rightful place in the information society and become more engaged in the development of policies promoting public access to technology. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), for example, has strengthened existing alliances with international organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and has started to work with new partners in the information and communications technology for development (ICT4D) community. A shared commitment to libraries as core providers of public access to online information has led to more coordinated advocacy and a new focus on libraries as the engines behind access to knowledge.
Investment in internet access has slowly narrowed the digital divide across libraries worldwide since 2003.Significant, hard-to-eradicate inequalities still exist, especially in developing countries; but success stories have emerged like the Biblioredes network in Chile or the Aotearoa People’s Network in New Zealand, which offer free access to the internet in libraries. Coordinated action undertaken by foundations like Global Libraries has seen library public access programmes rolled out across countries such as Mexico, Latvia and Bulgaria, while governments in Brazil and Russia have also begun to systematically equip public libraries with internet terminals. Both the public and private sectors are realising that library networks are existing points of public access, and that telecentres and other access providers can benefit from partnerships with libraries.
Librarians are also using emerging technologies to provide new services. Social networking tools help libraries in Brazil and the United States (US) to connect with users, while African librarians have researched information transfer via mobile phone. New technologies are found in existing library premises, but also in newer, purpose-built libraries from Seattle to Brasilia, where hundreds of computer terminals sit alongside bookshelves. Wi-Fi networks and remote query services extend beyond premises and opening hours and make the library a 24/7 institution. Increasingly these new services are backed up with new skills for library workers – being proficient in online search is not enough. Information literacy skills are now key to optimum user service, and UNESCO and IFLA are providing training in this area. IFLA has also given policy guidance through its Internet Manifesto, and related training workshops have reached over 1,000 library staff worldwide. The Internet Manifesto is grounded in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and reminds librarians of their commitment to provide freedom of access to information to all their users.
However, newer services can bring problems too. In developed countries, balancing user demand with supply is difficult if computer terminals are overbooked and equipment overused. All over the world librarians wrestle with the consequences of increased access to information: the use of the internet by children and the installation of filtering software on library computers is a very contentious issue, and many different approaches to the problem are taken. Increased internet access in libraries demands strong policies to guarantee users’ rights, but unfortunately decisions about general content filtering are often out of librarians’ hands. In this regard, many governments’ suspicion of free and equal internet access does little to benefit library users.
If censorship is an age-old concern for libraries, then copyright is not far behind. Copyright legislation in the digital age is outdated and obstructs libraries from fulfilling core functions like the preservation of material. While the rights of copyright owners have been harmonised at an international level, exceptions and limitations for institutions such as libraries have not. This leads to varying practices regarding digital information provision, with many countries lacking legislation to protect libraries. The rights of marginalised groups, such as the visually impaired, are impeded and the full benefits of digital technologies are unable to be reaped. Libraries have stepped up lobbying and advocacy at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to remedy the imbalance, but face great resistance to change from developed countries.
Through the provision of guidelines and policy, organisations such as IFLA can frame access in a human rights context, but very often the best way to show the value of libraries is to let them innovate. The Google Book Search project in particular is a massive moment in the history of libraries. Google’s mass digitisation of in- and out-of-copyright books has the potential to provide unprecedented access to an online library containing millions of titles, increasing access to information dramatically. However, the fact that Google is likely the only organisation with enough resources to attempt such a feat means many in the library community are worried that an absence of competition in the market could compromise the libraries’ mission to provide equitable access to information, user privacy and intellectual freedom. The end result is not yet in sight, but through involvement in the Google project, and through other innovative projects like the giant online databases of Europeana and the World Digital Library, libraries demonstrate their value as key providers of access to information through technology, existing to serve all members of a community whether they are physically in a library or thousands of miles away on a laptop.
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