Adapting, activating, enabling: libraries making the difference in times of crisis
31 March 2023
The IFLA side-event at the Regional Forum on Sustainable Development for Europe brought together speakers from very different areas of the field, but a shared message: access to information is essential in responding to crises, and can be best achieved by systemic approaches to supporting libraries.
Crisis response and recovery are key priorities in discussions this year about how to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. Finding solutions will be essential if we are to avoid going backwards, let alone accelerate positive change.
Just as meaningful access to information has a central role in delivering on any area of development policy, it is also a key factor in helping everyone – from individuals to intergovernmental institutions – take the best decisions when faced with disaster.
Sharing experiences of what this looks like in practice was at the heart of the side-event organised by IFLA at the European Regional Forum on Sustainable Development, held in Geneva and online from 28-30 March.
Speakers came from very different library types and experiences – Sigrun Habermann, Head of Library Services at the UN Office in Geneva Library; Emma Farrow, Independent Consultant based in Finland, Magdalena Gomułka, Training Coordinator at Silesian Libraries, Poland, and Greta Kėvelaitienė, Chairperson of the Young Librarians’ Section of the Lithuanian Librarians’ Association.
Despite this diversity of background, the session primarily underlined what the work of libraries of different types, in different parts of Europe, has in common. It also offered welcome messages about how the importance of information is increasingly recognised.
A first key theme was that libraries are focused on information-enabled development. We have long left behind the sense that all we do is provide passive access, and rather work to find ways to help people actively make the most of the information they find in libraries to improve lives.
Indeed, as highlighted by Sigrun Habermann, libraries are as much about knowledge sharing and creation as consumption, and indeed can help drive a culture change, as well as support a dynamic knowledge commons.
A second was that we need to make clear that meaningful information access should not be taken for granted. The experience of the Knowledge Evidence Hubs in England during COVID underlined the amount of work needed to make sense of the abundance of information out there, and support the best possible policy-making in response.
The ability of information professionals to respond to need also came up repeatedly as a topic. For example, Polish librarians had been quick to evaluate what displaced persons from Ukraine needed, from basic information provision to language lessons and activities for children. The experience of the Ukrainians in Poland had provided a powerful example of how, in times of crisis, it was all to easy for people to end up in situations of a lack of access to information. Libraries helped to resolve this.
Next, given the shared nature of many of these experiences, the value of promoting systematic approaches were clear. In Lithuania, this had made it possible to seek resources from across government in order to fund a national platform on media and information literacy, in response to the misinformation crisis. This work has, crucially, also brought together different library types.
Linked to this, the power of partnerships was also clear. Not only do they make it possible to take actions that would otherwise not be possible, but they can also maximise impact. The creation of Knowledge Hubs in UN regional commissions was a powerful contribution to informed policy-making, as was collaboration between teams working on evidence around COVID in the context of the World Health Organisation.
The examples shared of the recognition of libraries’ role in crisis response provides a powerful demonstration of what is possible. IFLA wants to see this happen in all countries, ensuring that the potential of our institutions and profession is fully realised, for the benefit of all.
We are grateful to all of our speakers for their time and contributions.
Watch the side-event again here.