The upcoming commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an invitation to reflect on the General Assembly resolution 75/1, our commitment to “shaping a shared vision on digital cooperation by providing an inclusive global framework” and the vital role that libraries can play in this process.

Since the United Nations identified internet access as a basic human right, the concept of digital inclusion has evolved and expanded while we have become increasingly aware of how this inclusion goes well beyond the availability of physical infrastructure and basic access. Within this context, libraries have proven to be useful allies to deliver on this right and to reduce the digital divide as they have not only helped bring more people online, but also succeeded at serving the most vulnerable populations and providing them with the tools and knowledge to ensure that their access to information is meaningful.

An often unexplored side of this conversation is how libraries contribute to delivering on human rights and digital inclusion from an economic standpoint. Throughout the past decades, libraries as many other entities have faced a transformation of their overall structure due to the use of the internet. The expansion of internet access has forced people in the library field to think of new ways of facilitating access to information and resources for their communities which has led (amongst many other things) to boosting local economies by enabling the use of digital technologies and the development of digital skills for local users. Modern libraries and in particular public libraries have become hubs of economic community growth that offer services and resources that help people access education, the workforce and create or sustain small businesses. This becomes increasingly relevant as we approach a peak moment in the global transition towards a more digital economy. 

According to a survey and research project conducted in 2020 by the Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund, most of the library users that participated in the survey reported using the library as a space not only to access information but also to achieve specific goals such as seeking for employment, improving their language skills, accessing education and many other activities that have a direct impact on the economy. A fifth of the participants reported experiencing a lack of abilities to engage in their daily lives which was often observed in people who were already disadvantaged by living in remote areas, having a disability, low income or were already experiencing other vulnerabilities. 

This exposes the current reality where many people have the motivation to engage in economic activities but they simply do not have the means to do so. Digital inclusion should be about enabling people to develop the skills that they need to live their lives fully in the new digital economy. The fast pace at which emerging technologies move forward puts us at an overall risk of further harming these already affected people and communities. In this sense libraries are at an advantaged position where they may be able to mobilize their large global infrastructure and help lessen those inequalities and narrow the digital divides.

While libraries have succeeded at keeping up with the technological pace, they deserve additional support from governments and international stakeholders to make this possible. Governments must recognize the symbiotic relationship that exists between libraries, digital inclusion and economic growth and therefore engage in the drafting of specific legislation accompanied by financial support. The promotion of digital inclusion needs to be a multi-stakeholder process that remains bottom-up in order to be effective and libraries can participate in this process by actively engaging with the most affected populations and unheard voices. The potential of libraries needs to be recognized not only in digital cooperation strategies but also as a core part of the community’s economic infrastructure. We must also keep in mind that due to the wide variety of library users, trained library staff is usually able to recognize particular patterns within their communities which makes them good candidates to ensure that this transition process comes from a localized perspective and that it ultimately caters to the needs of their communities.
The support of research and data collection to further explore this relationship will also be essential to monitor impact and determine possible steps to come. 

In December 2023, IFLA will explore further engagement for libraries in this area during the eWeek that will take place in Geneva on the 4-8 December and where attendees will explore key policy areas that must be addressed to build an inclusive and sustainable digitalization at the national, regional and global levels with the involvement of all relevant stakeholders.