UNESCO and IFLA: Celebrating 75 Years of Partnership
19 May 2022
On 20-22 May 1947, IFLA’s first council meeting following the end of the Second World War was held in Oslo, Norway (Wilhite, 2012). It was here that IFLA signed an agreement to cooperate with the newly formed United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) (Lor, 2012).
At this council meeting, as large parts of the world looked to reconstruction following the devastation of the Second World War, IFLA and UNESCO representatives first explored the possibility for libraries to contribute to UNESCO’s mission.
75 years later, IFLA still enjoys a partnership with UNESCO – working together to achieve our closely aligned objectives of improving outcomes for all through access to information, knowledge, culture, and learning.
To mark the 75th Anniversary of this meeting, this article will reflect on the partnership between IFLA and UNESCO over the decades. We will also look at the recent cooperation with UNESCO, with a view towards the future and an emphasis on how such cooperation is vital for meeting the complex challenges of our time.
UNESCO: a brief introduction
“Since wars begin in the minds of men [and women], it is in the minds of men [and women] that the defences of peace must be constructed” – UNESCO Constitution
The central mission of UNESCO is to build peace by enabling international cooperation in the fields of education, the sciences, and culture.
This mission was born in the aftermath of the first and second World Wars, where it was clear that peace requires more than political agreements between nations. Mutual understanding and cooperation, built on dialogue and moral solidarity, is required to build and sustain peace.
This was envisioned in the United Nations charter in 1945, and the following year, the constitution of UNESCO came into force.
How does UNESCO work?
UNESCO is an intergovernmental organisation (IGO), meaning its membership is primarily made up of sovereign nations.
During its biennial General Conference, delegations from its current 193 Member States [see the list here] come together to make critical decisions on UNESCO’s policies, budget, and programme of activities. For a recent glimpse at outcomes of this key meeting, review IFLA’s summary of the 41st General Conference (2021) [link here].
Currently, UNESCO’s work falls within five programme sectors: Education, Culture, Natural Sciences, Social and Human Sciences, and Communication and Information.
Within these sectors, UNESCO brings together international stakeholders and experts to develop education tools, provide global and regional thought leadership, create knowledge, and support member states by providing capacity-building, policy advice, international cooperation, and monitoring of key areas.
Across all of its programmes and projects, UNESCO pursues the two transversal global priorities of Africa and Gender Equality. These Global Priorities are aligned with UNESCO’s efforts to realise the UN Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Have a deeper look at how UNESCO fulfils its mission within its Programme Sectors here.
IFLA and UNESCO: decades of cooperation
In the opinion of former IFLA Secretary General Peter Lor, entering into formal partnership with UNESCO was a critical step towards the recognition of IFLA as the global voice of the library field. This is expressed in his article, “The IFLA–UNESCO partnership 1947–2012” [pdf], which provides a deep-dive into this chapter of IFLA’s history and is a key source for the following overview of IFLA and UNESCO’s relationship over the decades.
IFLA (established in 1927) is older than UNESCO, but the precedent for our organisations’ partnership was laid in the decades before the UNESCO’s founding.
In this early period, IFLA cooperated with the Committee for International Cooperation of the League of Nations – the predecessor of UNESCO, as well as of the United Nations as a whole – on a range of matters including librarian training, promotion of public libraries, and guidelines for international interlibrary lending (Lor, 2012).
The agreement between IFLA and UNESCO signed at the IFLA Council meeting of 1947 officially recognised IFLA as UNESCO’s primary partner for cooperation with professional library associations. (Koops & Wieder, 1977). At a similar moment, IFLA’s sister organisations – the International Council on Archives and the International Council on Museums also came into being.
In short, this agreement led to the following primary aspects of cooperation between IFLA and UNESCO:
- Recognition of IFLA as representing the global library community
- Representation of IFLA at UNESCO conferences, as well as representation of UNESCO at IFLA conferences.
- Consultation with IFLA on relevant policy matters
- Financial support for IFLA publications and reports
- Grant funding for professional projects
- Guidance for improving IFLA’s procedures and structures of work
1940s – 1970s
During this period, UNESCO’s structure included a Libraries Division within its Department of Cultural Activities. In 1966, this was reformed into the Department of Documentation, Libraries and Archives – reflecting trends within UNESCO to move towards synergies in matters relating to information access. Regardless, work within this area strongly supported the establishment of libraries in the developing world, on which it worked closely with IFLA (Lor, 2012).
For example, starting in 1971, joint UNESCO/IFLA pre-session seminars focussing on library development in developing countries were held immediately before IFLA’s conferences.
In addition, UNESCO worked on issues relating to the provision of bibliographic services, development of learning tools and resources, and promotion of international cooperation. Cooperation with IFLA included promoting thought-leadership on technical library issues and the establishment and promotion of best professional practices.
One high point Lor mentions in his article is UNESCO’s emphasis on fostering cooperation between IFLA and other developing NGOs, such as the Association of Music Libraries (IAML), the International Council on Archives (ICA) and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) (Lor, 2012).
One notable output of this period is the creation of the first edition of the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto in 1949, which upholds public libraries as “living forces for popular education” [UNESCO, 1949).
This period intensified what is identified by Lor as a general shift away from libraries as a specific focus and towards their integration into engagement on documentation and information access (Lor, 2012). Workstreams also began taking radical shifts in information technology into consideration.
Notably, this period saw the establishment of UNESCO’s Programme Général de l’Information (General Information Programme) or PGI. The goal of this programme was to ensure the best possible service to information users of all types, and its work included capacity building for the development and improvement of library and information services (Lor, 2012).
Work with UNESCO at this time also addressed the need for compatible and machine-readable bibliographic records (which led to the establishment of UNIMARC), access to published material, and the preservation of library materials.
At IFLA, this period saw the rise of several core programmes, including the Universal Bibliographic Control (UBC) (1974-2003), the Universal Availability of Publications (UAP) (1980-2003), and the Preservation and Conservation (PAC) Core Programmes (1986-present) (Parent, 2004).
UNESCO helped support the establishment of these core programmes, alongside the support of a number of fellow international organisations and national institutional partners.
1990s – 2000s
The 1990s saw IFLA continue to strengthen its engagement in library advocacy with the establishment of the Advisory Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) and the Advisory Committee on Copyright and other Legal Matters (CLM), both in 1997 (Wilhite 2012).
Advocacy increasingly becomes a focus of IFLA’s interaction with international partners such as UNESCO. For example, the 1990s saw further development of library manifestos, namely an update to the UNESCO/IFLA Public Library Manifesto (1994) and the UNESCO/IFLA School Library Manifesto (1999). IFLA organised conferences and seminars in support of both, and its Professional Units provided implementation guidelines for both manifestos between 2001-2002.
In 1990, UNESCO’s General Information Programme was integrated into the newly established Communication and Information Sector. This marks an even greater focus on access to information, as the establishment of the CI Sector was warranted by the recognition of information and communication technologies becoming a key factor in social change and development (UNESCO 1990).
Following this change, a key milestone was the establishment of the Memory of the World Programme in 1992, necessitated by growing concern for the loss of documentary heritage.
IFLA was among the NGO partners who played a major role in the creation of this programme, holding a position on the International Advisory Committee. IFLA contributed to the preparation of General Guidelines for the Programme and helped compile the primary list of critically damaged documentary heritage collections.
Another notable development in this period is the establishment of UNESCO’s Information For All Programme (IFAP) in 2001, which sought to enable greater synergies in access to information and development of information policy. This programme incorporated aspects of previous programmes on information, namely the General Information Programme, which closed in 2000.
IFLA also cooperated with UNESCO’s Culture Sector during this time. One example is IFLA’s role as a founding member of the International Committee of the Blue Shield in 1996, which became Blue Shield International in 2016. This enabled greater coordination with UNESCO’s work on cultural property protection.
IFLA also began participating in the nominating committee of UNESCO’s World Book Capital programme (established 2001), as well as contributing to the adjudicating panel of the Creative Cities Network (established 2004).
In light of rapid changes in societies, several more library manifestos were developed in the past decade.
The IFLA/UNESCO Multicultural Library Manifesto (endorsed in 2009) [pdf] recognizes the multicultural library as a gateway to a culturally diverse societies.
The IFLA/UNESCO Manifesto for Digital Libraries – Bridging the Digital Divide (endorsed in 2011) [pdf] recognizes the need to make the world’s cultural and scientific heritage accessible to all.
These are both examples of cooperation between IFAP and IFLA, as IFAP’s Intergovernmental Council reviewed both Manifestos and submitted them to the UNESCO General Conference for consideration and endorsement (UNESCO, 2009; UNESCO, 2011).
Rapid expansion of digital information has fundamentally changed how information is produced, and weakened the link between content and physical support. In this context, the UNESCO PERSIST programme was established in 2013 to respond to new challenges in the long-term preservation of and access to digital information. For a key output of this programme, see the 2nd Edition of the UNESCO/PERSIST Guidelines for the Selection of Digital Heritage for Long-Term Preservation (2021) [pdf].
This changing information landscape also necessitates involvement in the field of Media and Information literacy. Since its launch in 2013, IFLA participates in the UNESCO MIL Alliance, formerly known as the Global Alliance for Partnerships on Media and Information Literacy (GAPMIL).
IFLA also engaged closely in work in the 2010s focused on Internet Universality, highlighting the importance of public access solutions, and engaging with UNESCO on other internet governance issues.
IFLA projects have also been recipients of UNESCO support through its Participation Programme, with library projects being awarded grants in 2003, 2008, and most recently, in 2021.
See this article for an overview of how IFLA’s Preservation and Conservation (PAC) Centre in Cameroon hosted an international conference on documentary heritage safeguarding for peacebuilding with support of UNESCO’s Participation Programme.
IFLA has further strengthened engagement with UNESCO’s Culture Sector in recent years. IFLA has begun interacting more meaningfully in the area of Protection and Promotion of Diverse Cultural Expressions, and notably helped coordinate the 3rd Civil Society Forum in 2021.
Finally, there is also cooperation with UNESCO centres around the world, most notably the Centre for Books and Reading in Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLALC) and the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL).
Looking Ahead: continued cooperation
UNESCO’s focus on information access has further developed into the concept of inclusive knowledge societies – in which all people can be involved in accessing, creating, and sharing knowledge.
Libraries are multifaceted institutions providing access to a range of knowledge, bridging the sciences, culture, education, and creative expressions of all kinds, and this places libraries in a central position to input broadly on UNESCO’s work.
During UNESCO’s 41st General Conference, IFLA was recognised as a key partner in both the Programmes of the Culture and Communications and information Sectors for 2022-2025 (UNESCO 41 C/5, 2021), as well as the Report of the Implementation of the Information For All Programme (UNESCO 41 C/REP/25, 2021).
IFLA continues its engagement with IFAP, for example, through the 2022 update to the UNESCO/IFLA Public Library Manifesto, which is in its final stages of review.
IFLA also continues close work with Memory of the World, inputting especially on capacity building for disaster risk reduction targeted to documentary heritage and memory institutions.
IFLA has been coordinating with Memory of the World, as well as with the Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit (Culture and Emergencies Entity) and the Moveable Heritage and Museums Unit, to respond to threats to culture in the face of armed conflict – namely following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The upcoming UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policy for Sustainable Development (MONDIACULT 2022) is an opportunity for even greater library involvement in promoting cultural diversity in support of the sustainable development goals. Revisit the results of IFLA’s recent ResiliArt x Mondiacult event for more.
IFLA, and its Indigenous Matters Section, further plans to align activities with the UNESCO Decade of Indigenous Languages – read more on the Section’s plans here.
IFLA continues to provide expert input on UNESCO’s initiatives. One example is our contribution to the drafting process of the UNESCO Open Science Recommendation (2021) (IFLA 2021).
There is scope to deepen involvement with the Education Sector, namely through a planned update to the UNESCO/IFLA School Library Manifesto and engagement with the Futures of Education initiative. For ideas, read more on how libraries factor into UNESCO’s vision of a new social contract for education here [pdf].
In the conclusion of his article, Lor suggests that there should be at least one librarian in every national UNESCO commission (Lor, 2012).
This is an excellent goal, with a good first step being to find the platforms or other means by which you can follow the work of your national UNESCO commission, in order to identify opportunities to get involved. You can find a list of National Commissions here.
Interacting with programmes at the national or regional levels, such as Regional Memory of the World Committees or National IFAP Committees, is also a positive step towards deepening library representation in UNESCO’s work.
Here are two actions to consider:
The CI Sector:
In celebration of its 30th anniversary this October, the Memory of the World Programme is encouraging national and regional committees to hold celebrations on the theme: Enlisting documentary heritage to promote inclusive, just and peaceful societies”. This could be an excellent opportunity to celebrate both anniversaries by getting involved in your country – find out more here.
The Culture Sector:
Civil society representatives, including libraries and library associations, are invited to provide input to the periodic reports of the 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. Find out how you can use this framework to highlight your library’s work directly to authorities in your country here: Periodic Reporting.
IFLA looks forward to many future anniversaries of our partnership with UNESCO. Beyond this, we look forward to working with our members to deepen their involvement with UNESCO – allowing them to demonstrate the many ways in which libraries contribute to building a better, more peaceful, world.
Koops, WRH, & Wieder, J. (eds.) (1977). IFLA’s first fifty years; achievements and challenges in international librarianship. Munich: Verlag Dokumentation. Retrieved from de Gruyter Reference Global: https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783111356655/html
Lor, P.J. (2012). The IFLA–UNESCO partnership: 1947–2012. IFLA Journal, 38(4), 269–282. https://doi.org/10.1177/034003521246313
Parent, I. (2004). The IFLA UAP and UBC programmes: a lasting impact on information services in the global society. Alexandria: The Journal of National and International Library and Information Issues, 16(2) 69–75. https://doi.org/10.1177/095574900401600202
UNESCO. (1949). “The Public Library a Living Force for Popular Education, (Paris: UNESCO/LBA/1, 1949), https://www.ifla.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/assets/public-libraries/documents/unesco-public-library-manifesto-1949.pdf
UNESCO. Director-General, 1987-1999 (Mayor, F.). (1990). Reforms with a view to implementing the new Medium-term Plan adopted by the General Conference at its twenty-fifth session, DG/Note/90/2, available from: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000218944?27=null&queryId=94090f7d-5ae9-49fc-be10-be866c466984
UNESCO. General Conference, 35th, 2009 . (2009). International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Multicultural Library Manifesto, 35 C/51, available from: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000184302?2=null&queryId=2b2771e3-12bc-4139-a513-282547880b16
UNESCO. General Conference, 36th, 2011 . (2011). Digital Library Manifesto of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), 36 C/20, available from: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000212534
UNESCO. General Conference, 41st, 2021 . (2021). Draft Programme and budget for 2022-2025, 41 C/5, available from: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000375756
UNESCO. General Conference, 41st, 2021 . (2021). Reports on the implementation of the Information for All Programme (IFAP) (2020-2021), 41 C/REP/25, available from: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000379647?1=null&queryId=b41b8358-3c1b-4eb6-a8f2-3290a05eb47c
Wilhite, J. (2012). 85 years IFLA: history and chronology. Munich: De Gruyter. (IFLA Publications).