In 2015, after lengthy debate, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld) and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs; sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs). The Agenda, with its SDGs as a framework, has a total of 169 Targets spanning economic, environmental, and social development. They lay out a plan for all countries to engage actively in making our world better for its people, with no one left behind. This is the first time that the United Nations development agenda applies to all nations of the world.
As the global voice of libraries, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA; ifla.org) represented the world’s libraries in the 2030 agenda negotiations. The U.N.’s Member States shared the viewpoint that access to information is the foundation for achieving all of those goals. Therefore, people, communities, and organizations need universal and equitable access to information. It is the delivery of high-quality information services that guarantees these rights.
However, significant barriers exist in many countries. According to the World Economic Forum, “More than 4 billion people, mostly in developing countries, still don’t have access to the internet. This means that over half of the world’s population is missing out on the life-changing benefits of connectivity, from financial services to health and education. …” (www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/05/4-billion-people-still-don-t-have-internet-access-here-s-how-to-connect-them). This is true in such highly developed countries as the Unites States. According to an April 2018 article in Motherboard, “In every single state, a portion of the population doesn’t have access to broadband, and some have no access to the internet at all” (motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/d35kbj/americans-who-dont-have-internet).
More important than the digital divide is the resulting information poverty that results from it. If we ignore the need to bridge the information poverty gap, we get caught in a negative downward spiral. Efforts to promote connectivity stall, and even where there is the option, there is little interest in an internet dominated by content from only a few corners of the world. The law cracks down on free speech. Copyright limits fair uses of works. Education and training fail to ready students for the information society, and no options exist for them to have a second chance as adults. The digital divide—between rich and poor, men and women, urban and rural, high- and low-skilled—becomes an information and knowledge divide.
This slides into a development divide, with large segments of our communities unable to benefit from the latest innovations, participate in cultural life, or ensure the well-being of themselves and their families. Decisions are guided at best by ignorance, at worst by misinformation and lies. Development happens for some, but not for everyone. We fail to achieve the 2030 Agenda.
If libraries take action, there will be a positive outcome. Not only do growing numbers of people enjoy the possibility of internet access, but there is enough locally relevant content for them to want to connect.
When people get online, they become confident users, able to get the best of the internet and disregard the worst. Even being confined to their homes or villages, people can enjoy all the knowledge that the world can offer, and use their skills to make it applicable to their own situations. They can create their own information and knowledge, which they share with their families, communities, and countries.
Information travels across borders, enabling research collaborations that make new headway in tackling the grand challenges of our day, such as the rare diseases previously seen as untreatable. This is also a scenario that an effective library system can help deliver.
Libraries have unique attributes. They are dedicated to serving their communities, without commercial motivation. Public libraries, for example, are often the only public space in the community where all can come together. As such, they can be a space for civic engagement; in Colombia, for example, library programs have helped bring communities back together.
Public internet access in libraries is also key for those who cannot afford, or do not see the value in, their own connection. But even when there are other options, libraries still have value. Compared to other environments, such as internet cafés, libraries offer a safe space for looking for often sensitive information, such as health-related queries.
Some argue that as home internet use grows, usage of the internet in libraries will decline. But the evidence suggests that this usage goes hand-in-hand, with countries such as Finland and Denmark showing high use of both connections in the home and library.
With a strong focus on responding to the needs of their users, libraries know how to make information useful and relevant at the local level. They work with partners to develop programs and new services that can deliver everything from literacy classes to information about agricultural markets.
Libraries are staffed also with dedicated professionals who regularly go from organizing coding clubs to simply offering the answers and encouragement necessary to help someone feel confident online. Libraries do everything, including turning complicated datasets into easy-to-use guides and establishing makerspaces. They help make access meaningful to people.
Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, IFLA has focused on helping librarians all over the world demonstrate how they are crucial to the achievement of the 2030 agenda. The “Development and Access to Information” report (da2i.ifla.org) sets a baseline for documenting these positive outcomes. It and its successors can be used to demonstrate to decision makers everywhere what libraries do to help their national and local leaders achieve success. When a government invests in its libraries and gives them the laws they need, it creates a valuable partner in development.
As the focus has now shifted to implementation, the information profession recognizes that the passage of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals at the United Nations fertilized the ground for the transformation and growth of libraries world wide, especially the public library movement. Already, libraries are engaged in helping their communities achieve the SDGs. They provide information on basic rights and entitlements, public services, the environment, health, education, work opportunities, and public expenditure that supports local communities and people to guide their own development.
There is no truly sustainable development without access to information and no meaningful, inclusive access to information without libraries. The SDGs provide a road map, but implementation is up to us. Librarians stand ready to work with governments, international organizations, and funders to deliver the programs that will improve the lives of those in our communities. Librarians have the power to help change people’s lives and create a better tomorrow.