A freedom and a right: libraries, information and social justice
21 February 2023
The World Day of Social Justice, celebrated on 20 February, focuses on the need to ensure that everyone has the rights and resources to fulfil their potential. Born out of the work of the International Labour Organisation, it now touches on a wide range of the factors that determine people’s ability to enjoy their rights.
In 2023, the focus is on overcoming barriers and unleashing opportunities for social justice, focusing strongly on Our Common Agenda – the ambition set out by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in 2021 for the future of his organisation.
Already at the time, in our briefing on Our Common Agenda, IFLA highlighted how the Agenda’s emphasis on the need to rebuild the social contract provided a strong justification for the role of libraries in ensuing that societies were fair enough to be sustainable.
This is a point worth exploring in more depth, with particular reference to how we can arguably see libraries as essential if we want to build a socially just world.
The idea of the social contract has been around for a long time, notably championed by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes who saw it as being more a case of giving up some rights so that others could be enjoyed. This underpinned the emergence of states, and saved people from a ‘state of nature’ marked by insecurity.
This is some way from the social justice that we think of today, but certainly does provide some safeguard against societies where the strongest, most aggressive, or least scrupulous dominate.
More recently, an alternative approach has been promoted by philosophers like John Rawls, who argued that social contracts needed to be built on principles of justice. These in turn could be determined by trying to imagine a model of society that would give everyone a fair chance to succeed by removing factors of discrimination. This would be the basis of a social contract that links those who live in it.
In his work, he sets out two key principles – firstly that there should be maximum enjoyment of civil liberties or freedoms (known as ‘first generation rights’, or ‘freedoms of…’), and secondly that there should be access to social and economic goods (linked to ‘second generation rights’, or ‘rights to…’). While he doesn’t exclude inequalities, his argument is that everyone should be better off than they would be without any form of governance, in order to maintain buy-in to any resulting social contract.
Where do libraries fit in? Arguably, the provision of a well-functioning library field is crucial to the fulfilment of both of these principles, and can indeed unblock opportunities for social justice, in line with the theme of the day.
Firstly, looking at the first generation of rights – civic and political freedoms – and in particular the right of access to information, this is clearly not something that can be enjoyed equally without some help.
Too often, such rights are better enjoyed by those with the financial possibilities to buy access to information that is otherwise subject to paywalls. This in turn can limit opportunities for free expression, given that this can depend so strongly on access to source material (for example to express criticism, carry out research, or exercise democratic rights). Similarly, with so much information, and so many of the most important fora now online, a lack of good quality internet access can also have a chilling effect.
There may also be an underlying behavioural angle to this, with full citizenship depending very much on a sense of having the right to speak out, as well as to interrogate information actively and critically.
In all of these cases, libraries can make the difference between the enjoyment and non-enjoyment of the first generation rights Rawls saw as vital for social justice.
The same goes, arguably, for second generation rights as well, such as those to education, research and culture. These are less about enabling people to be free, but rather working towards providing the basic support that people need to be comfortable.
Public services and other forms of support have a clear role to play here, given that individuals, families, or even communities as a whole may not themselves have the resources to offer the basic guarantees necessary.
Libraries are of course just such a public service, and have long been thought of as such, for example seen as part of the delivery infrastructure for policies around (lifelong) learning, cultural rights or rights to participate in and benefit from research. Arguably, they are also taking on a more generalist role, based on the understanding that the unique combination of spaces, services and support they offer can also help deliver on other policy goals (employment and health for example).
There remains, clearly enough, a difference between the potential of libraries to be a guarantor of both of Rawls’ principles that would underpin a socially just society, and delivery. This is why libraries themselves can benefit from thinking about their own work from a social justice perspective.
The work of different IFLA units, including our Sections on Library Services to Multicultural Populations and Libraries Services to People with Special Needs, as well as our Advisory Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression can be particularly helpful for the wider field in this regard. And with three days now left to nominate for our elections, there is still time to come forwards and get involved in helping to integrate social justice into the thinking and action of the field.