2021 has not just ben a record year for libraries in Voluntary National Reviews – it has also seen the highest share yet of Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) recognise the contribution of libraries to delivering the SDGs.

VLRs, like VNRs, look at progress towards delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals, but focus on a town, city, or region. They build on the strong commitment shown by organisations like United Cities and Local Government, as well as the unique insights and ability of such authorities, to drive forwards coordinated policies in favour of stronger, fairer, greener development.

As suggested in research published by IFLA earlier this year, the fact that VLRs emphasise actions taken at the level of cities and regions means that they are often more likely to include reference to libraries.

This can be because of libraries’ status as part of local government, the fact that they are more present in the minds of policy-makers at the city level than they are, necessarily, at the national, or simply that at a more local level, the role of factors like culture in development is clearer.

Following IFLA’s earlier research, showing that 59% of Reviews of SDG implementation at the city level refer to libraries (53% when regional reviews are also taken into account), we’ve looked at the reports published in 2021, as collected by United Cities and Local Governments’ Global Observatory on Local Democracy and Decentralisation.

These show that almost 62% of city and regional reviews – 8 out of 13 – published so far this year highlight the importance of libraries in achieving local development.

Examples this year come from three world regions – North America, Europe, and Asia-Oceania, with a strong contingent from Scandinavia.

A broad-based contribution to SDG success

The reviews highlight a range of themes, many going beyond the most traditional library roles of supporting literacy and reading, as well as research, although of course these remain traditional areas of strength (as in Scotland for example).

Inclusion is a key one, with Bergen (Norway) in particular celebrating the fact that its libraries are the most inclusive facilities the city has. Yet this openness to all is not taken for granted. The review of Helsingborg (Sweden) highlights the efforts of the library to reflect constantly on how to be welcoming for all, and so give everyone the possibility to benefit from public services.

Scotland’s review notes the particular potential of libraries to help groups at risk of marginalisation, for example women living on low incomes by providing access to sanitary products. Also benefitting women is the work of the National Library of Scotland to celebrate their role in history.

Uppsala (Sweden) focuses on the risk of inequality between cities and countryside, noting that library buses, the development of rural school library services, and training provide a powerful way of ensuring that people living in rural areas are not starved of information and culture.

Libraries in the city have worked to support both people at the youngest ages (through cloakroom libraries in daycare facilities) and the oldest (through deliveries and contacts) continue to learn and benefit from being part of the community. They also focus strongly on newcomers to the city and region, helping them learn the language and acclimatise.

The civic role of libraries is also clear. Guangzhou (China) stresses the importance of libraries and museums in building pride in the city, while Helsingborg notes their role as shared public spaces. Our institutions are understood as sites for promoting wellbeing, especially among children, by Gladsaxe (Denmark).

A particularly interesting example comes from Malmö (Sweden), which has made the library the focus of a participatory urban development effort, bringing together young people to design a new space there which can attract all members of the community. In parallel, there is a drive to engage citizens in understanding and engaging in the wider work of the library as a public service.

Finally, there are innovative efforts to work through libraries to support wider policy goals, for example in Kelowna (Canada), which lends heat-seeking cameras to users to help them understand where they should improve insulation in their houses, and so become more energy efficient.

Beyond city and regional reviews, some countries have undertaken subnational reviews, looking at the roles of regional and city governments nationally, and how they are helping.

For example, Sweden’s review sets out how libraries contribute to digital participation, while Norway considers them more broadly as a public service, and presents scores for citizen satisfaction as a wider indication of how happy people are with local services.

These approaches – in particular Sweden’s – are interesting, in that they raise the idea of governments working systematically through libraries, via local governments, in order to achieve national policy goals.

Making the case for localising the SDGs

It is also worth taking a look at the broader report by the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, highlighting contributions to delivering on the SDGs in 2021.

This underlines in particular the importance of culture and digital inclusion – both of which are clearly areas of strength for libraries – as well as making the case for localising the SDGs in general. With libraries’ emphasis on promoting bottom-up development models, built around targeted and responsible efforts to help individuals become informed and literate, this agenda is closely aligned with our own.

As with the results of our analysis of Voluntary National Reviews, the references to libraries in Voluntary Local Reviews are potentially useful tools for advocacy in favour of the recognition of our institutions as partners for development.

By being able to point to what others have done, we can normalise the integration of libraries not just into reports, but also into key strategic planning to achieve the SDGs.

See our article about libraries in Voluntary National Reviews in 2021.