With the December edition of IFLA’s newsletter focusing on rights, this month’s interview brings together IFLA Secretary General with Ellen Tise, IFLA President 2009-2011, and currently chair of IFLA’s Advisory Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression. He asked her about her perspective on how libraries fit in with wider work on human rights.

Gerald Leitner (GL): How do you see a focus on human rights as supporting the work of libraries at all levels?

Ellen Tise (ET): A focus on human rights is inextricably linked to the work of libraries at all levels. Libraries directly advance the cause of human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19. The library profession has a rich history of alignment with human rights issues, movements, and declarations. Traditionally, the role of libraries have been recognised in the promotion of human rights, through their efforts in making information accessible to anyone, regardless of age, education, ethnicity, language, income, etc. This role of libraries in the promotion of human rights comes out from their very core mission, namely to ensure access to information for all.

At practical levels, a focus on human rights is critical in supporting the work of libraries since they ensure equal access to both physical and digital library material, enabling access to information to all,  act as equalizers in the society, opening their doors to all , etc.  In addition, libraries have proven to be vehicles through which many exercise their fundamental human rights, collect and provide unbiased access to unbiased materials, support of rights of  cultural minorities, poor people, the homeless and unemployed, people with disabilities, children and young adults, the LGBT community, older adults, those who are illiterate, and the imprisoned.

Further, libraries protect and promote human rights on a societal level, serving as a cornerstone of democracy by helping people find quality information and develop the information literacy skills needed to be informed citizens and full participants in society. They also protect democracy by promoting transparency in government, informing people about their rights and benefits, providing programs on civic issues, and offering free meeting spaces for community organizations, as well as providing a gateway to the internet for those who do not have access otherwise

GL: The Global Vision summary report noted that libraries are already strong in promoting access to information, but that we need to do more to become champions of intellectual freedom. What does this mean in practice for you?

ET: It means to me that libraries should integrate and embed human rights practices in their policies and it should be included in our strategies, workplans and activities at all levels. Libraries should speak out more where intellectual freedom is suppressed. They should promote and advocate more for equal access to information and open access. Further libraries should form strategic partnerships with Governments, Development Agencies, Human rights organisations to ensure social inclusion, promote education, encourage freedom of opinion and expression, affirm intellectual freedom and the protection of human rights.

GL: What unique contribution do you think that libraries bring to wider discussions about human rights?

ET: The human capabilities approach of libraries, which helps people to function in a variety of areas, provides a unique contribution that libraries bring to wider human rights discussions.  Libraries are well-positioned to develop partnerships that support the fundamental right of free expression and social, economic rights, including continuing to work towards a sustainable future.

Another unique contribution is that libraries are located in cities and rural areas and are part of long-established culture and heritage that promotes wellbeing, sustains us, stimulates our creativity, and boosts our resilience including in times of a pandemic. Libraries are underpinned by civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights, which are embedded in the declarations of the universality of human rights.

By leading the effort to make all sources of information accessible and understandable, libraries lead the freedom of information and as such make a unique contribution to the promotion and advancement of human rights for all.