As public spaces, open to all members of the community, libraries enable people to exercise and enjoy their human rights. A new report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights highlights this role, and the conditions for it to be realised. It provides a useful advocacy tool for libraries.

Libraries around the world are increasingly realising the potential of their spaces as a means of delivering on their missions. In addition to being quiet places to study, they are proving their value as spaces for meetings, workshops and for community interaction.

Especially in a digital age, these physical spaces have an important role both for individuals and communities. They provide opportunities to realise a variety of human rights, including participation in civic life, freedom of access to information, and cultural rights. They allow for a social, shared dimension to rights, going beyond the individual.

The Need for, and Challenges to, the Right to Public Space

The right to public spaces notably features in the United Nations 2030 Agenda as target 11.7, and in concepts such as the Right to the City.

This right is also the subject of a new report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, Karima Bennoune. In this, she looks the different ways in which public spaces make a contribution, and the efforts that all actors need to make to ensure that they remain open to all.

She notes in particular the risks posed when companies or particular narratives come to dominate such spaces, or when examples of spaces, such as rural or mobile libraries are closed.

There is a strong emphasis on the need to be open and accessible, in order to ensure that people with disabilities, or belonging to other marginalised groups, do not feel excluded.  

She recommends that authorities should: (a) make public spaces and the right of all to access them more widely known; (b) take steps to make these spaces more welcoming; and (c) provide further opportunities for social interaction in them.

The Possibilities – and Responsibilities – of Libraries

The report includes a number of references to libraries as an important example of a public space which enables the delivery cultural rights. The combination of a physical place, and their collections, make them ideal for this.

It also notes the harm that comes from cuts or closures, which inevitably reduce possibilities for people to interact, and in particular to participate in cultural life.

Rather, the report implies, governments should recognise and support the work of libraries in their community, and promote active cultural programming.  

However, it also underlines that libraries themselves need to think hard about how they fulfil these missions. The work of IFLA sections in helping libraries be as welcoming and accessible as possible to all provides a vital support in this respect.

Overall, by underlining the importance of public, non-commercial spaces, the report should provide an important reference point for libraries looking to build understanding their social and community role.

Find out more about the work of IFLA’s Sections on Libraries serving persons with Print Disabilities, and Libraries serving persons with Special Needs, as well as our Public Libraries Section. Read also our advocacy pack for the 25th Anniversary of the Public Library Manifesto.