One of the fundamental principles of librarianship is the notion of equity: that all people should have equal and equitable access to knowledge and information regardless of age, gender, language, race, religion, political belief or sexual orientation.
The 2018 ALIA Free access to information statement asserts the ‘equal and equitable rights of individuals to information’, and advocates ‘adopting an inclusive approach in developing and implementing policies regarding access to information’. The Public Library Manifesto (IFLA/UNESCO 1994–2019) continues to identify libraries as being central to the freedom and equity of access to knowledge and information for all people.
Equity is much broader than libraries promoting and ensuring freedom of access to knowledge and information. Equity is not only about maintaining free core library services, developing inclusive policies, and providing equitable access to activities and events, collections, services, equipment and resources for all individuals; it is also about social inclusion.
The Oxford Dictionary defines equity as the quality of being fair and impartial; and libraries promote themselves as free, welcoming, socially equitable, and inclusive public spaces. The Canadian Urban Libraries Council defines social inclusion as ‘the manner in which institutions understand and engage their communities, as well as how they explore, view and challenge barriers, values and behaviours’. Reflecting upon these definitions, library professionals have a responsibility to challenge and critically explore: are libraries genuinely socially inclusive, and are they providing universal and equitable access to library services and resources within the community?
Libraries are transforming from being collections and transactional-based institutions to contemporary spaces that provide access to information and resources, as well as enabling social inclusion and connections, community-driven initiatives and lifelong learning opportunities, by embracing cultural and community development principles into library service provision.
People are using libraries for more than borrowing books. As libraries introduce new service offerings, traditional library mindsets and existing library policies are being questioned as to whether these are fair and equitable practices. Showing compassion and meeting community expectation to modify or rescind policies requires a balanced and pragmatic approach as library professionals are still required to work within corporate policy and manage assets and budgets. Issues include:
- Challenging stereotypes and attitudes – are library policies inclusive of marginalised and minority groups?
- Library membership policies that require proof of permanent address – how is this inclusive for new migrants, the homeless?
- Charging fines for overdue loans – is this fair to low-income earners, children or students?
- ICT policies – do they enable free and high-quality wireless access, can newcomers easily Skype overseas relatives?
- Digital Divide - access to digital literacy programs, equipment, personal computers and technology – can items be borrowed free of charge?
- Library collections – do they reflect their local community demand and interest?
- Library building design – are facilities universally accessible and welcoming for all people?
- Community aspirations and need – are libraries researching and consulting, or are they participating in meaningful and two-way community engagement?
The UN 2030 Agenda (2015) developed a framework of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) spanning economic, environmental and social development as a master plan to achieve an improved and sustainable future for all. IFLA and ALIA immediately supported the SDGs by demonstrating how libraries contribute to improved outcomes to many of these global goals including:
- Promoting literacy and providing free access to a variety of literacy programs and resources for all ages.
- Providing equitable access to information and resources that support social, political and economic inclusion.
- Providing access to programs and resources and self-directed lifelong learning.
- Reducing inequality by providing welcoming places for all people.
In September 2019, ALIA will be holding a Sustainable Development Goals Library Industry Roundtable to develop a set of stretch targets for libraries relating to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Further information including ALIA’s report on how libraries are contributing to the SDGs, and an SDG Toolkit on how your library can be part of the Sustainable Development Goals is available on the website.
The Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) recently published a report on how university libraries contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. This report is available on the website.
For inspirational reading, I’d highly recommend Klinenberg’s book Palaces for the people, which discusses the value and power of social infrastructure (including libraries, parks, playgrounds, and other shared spaces) and the role of libraries in building social capital and inclusion. The book title acknowledges industrialist Andrew Carnegie whose philanthropy helped establish over 2,500 Carnegie libraries worldwide. To those interested in challenging stereotypes and library policies, Emilio Estevez’ film The Public, due for Australian release in August 2019, raises social advocacy issues when homeless people in Cincinnati seek shelter from the bitter cold and take over the local public library.
There is a wide variety of literature and resources available to assist libraries in understanding and becoming more equitable and socially inclusive, as well as participating in the Sustainable Development Goals. I’ve provided a brief list below which I hope you find useful.
ALIA Core Values Policy Statement: adopted 2002. Reviewed 2007. Amended 2018.
ALIA Free Access to Information Statement: adopted 2001. Amended 2007, 2015. Reviewed 2018, (Replaced 'Free library services to all, freedom to read'. Adopted 1971, amended 1979, 1985)
Estevez, Emilio (Producer, Director). (2019) The Public (Motion Picture). United States: Universal Pictures.
Klinenberg, Eric (2018) Palaces for the people: how to build a more equal and united society. London: The Bodley Head.