Libraries for internet universality: References to libraries in implementations of the UNESCO ROAM-X Principles
07 April 2023
With five reports from national implementations of UNESCO’s Internet Universality Indicators now published, it’s a good time to see what library roles in supporting internet inclusion are recognised. This article explores these, and calls for closer engagement in libraries in future implementation efforts.
UNESCO’s Internet Universality Indicators aim to allow for a comprehensive and meaningful assessment of how far people are able to realise the potential of the internet to drive development.
They are built around the ROAM principles, which recognise that success relies on guarantees of rights, openness of content, accessibility, and multistakeholder participation in governance decisions.
In each of these areas, there are a range of indicators covering both policy frameworks and real-world outcomes, alongside a number of cross-cutting and contextual indicators that help deepen understanding.
Crucially, the indicators are not intended to allow for ranking – something that would likely distort the way they are applied – but as a basis for discussion between stakeholders around what the priorities should be in any effort to ensure more people can make full use of the internet, more effectively. See our briefing on the Indicators for more.
Given libraries’ focus not just on internet universality, but information universality, and understanding of what it takes to deliver this, IFLA welcomed the opportunity to comment on the design of the indicators during the process of their drafting.
Since then, UNESCO has been active in working with governments across different continents in applying the indicators at national level, with five assessments already published (Senegal, Benin, Brazil, Kenya, and Germany). This article looks across these reports, exploring the different roles of libraries recognised in them.
Libraries enabling access for those without home connectivity: the idea that libraries offer a connection of last resort for people without the possibility to get online at home is a long-standing one, and is recognised in its own indicator. Benin’s report cites the ‘numerous’ libraries that are doing just this, but notes that numbers of libraries remain small compared to the total population still offline, identifying an issue for the future there.
A valid point is that as the way people connect evolves, the type of contribution public access makes changes with it. Smartphones offer the possibility for more people to use the web, but places like libraries are still essential, for example, for access to tools such as printers.
Meanwhile, while Senegal focuses on telecentres rather than libraries, the story is much the same – use is higher in areas where libraries are more densely present, for example urban areas. The importance of combining access with content is recognised in the drive to create Community Multimedia Centres though from 2018.
In a response to another indicator addressing broader affordable access policies, Kenya’s purposeful effort to engage the Kenya National Library Service in its wider strategy is highlighted. In particular, libraries have hosted Huduma centres as focal points for eGovernment services, and have benefitted from Universal Service Fund spending in order to spread connectivity into communities.
Libraries enabling open access to knowledge and content: the UNESCO indicators are clear that to ensure the value and relevance of the internet to users, they need to find content that is useful to them once they get online. Libraries are seen as key providers here, with the development of digital libraries – and the provision of information about libraries – part of national efforts to achieve goals here in Benin. Similarly, remote access to libraries and their collections is at the heart of the country’s drive to make distance learning meaningful.
Libraries enabling online cultural participation: closely linked to the above are the assessments of indicators linked to whether citizens can access the internet to participate in cultural activities. Brazil’s report highlights the work of the National Library to develop a national digital library, marking a major contribution to its mission to disseminate the country’s intellectual production to its people.
In Kenya, libraries are cited as being key players in delivering on the constitutional obligation to promote all forms of national and cultural expression. There has been particular attend to promoting work in local languages, preservation of the culture of diverse communities, and encouraging the development and management of information and knowledge resources as a national heritage.
Finally, Germany’s report too highlights the creation of a national digital library as a means of delivering on this goal. Its efforts to bring together the work of around 30 000 heritage institutions, breaking down the barriers of geography by realising the potential of the internet is highlighted, as is work to build skills in institutions to engage users and support their own creativity digitally.
Libraries providing access to local and indigenous languages: echoing the example of Kenya above, Benin’s report highlights how supporting libraries of different sorts to get online can make a contribution to broadening work to build up the presence of Beninois materials on the internet. In turn, this supports teaching and learning across communities.
Libraries making school connectivity meaningful: teachers and students in schools, like any other internet user, rely on the possibility to access and use relevant content, in addition to physical connectivity. In Benin, therefore, money from the national Universal Service Fund was used to support the development of a digital library for schools.
The examples provided here, from just five reports (all of which do mention libraries) are of course just a start, but can provide a resource for libraries elsewhere in advocating for their own involvement in internet inclusion policies. Further assessments are taking place, and we can certainly hope to see libraries not just referenced, but actively included in recommendations around how we can move further in the direction of internet universality.
An additional step will be to ensure that in future national implementations, libraries are part of the teams carrying out the assessments, bringing in their deep and detailed understanding of the information needs and habits of their communities. We look forward to working with UNESCO to achieve this.