Love grown cold: UNESCO and libraries

 

Back in 2012 I presented a keynote paper at the UNESCO Open Session during the IFLA World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) on “The IFLA-UNESCO partnership 1947-2012”, later published in a revised version in IFLA Journal. In it I traced the evolution of the relationship between IFLA and UNESCO during that period. Initially the relationship was very close. UNESCO played a major role in, as it were, reinventing IFLA after the Second World War, and making it a modern, effective international NGO. Libraries were important enough to UNESCO for there to be a separate, very active, Libraries Division, which played a major role in most areas of library development worldwide. But UNESCO gradually shifted its attention away from libraries to documentation and later information society and “knowledge societies” issues.

One of the main motivators for UNESCO’s initial interest in libraries was the potential role of libraries in promoting peace – through literacy, education, and provision of information, people would be better informed, and this would lead to greater understanding, tolerance, and hence peace. While pursuing some research on the role of libraries in building peace, today I visited a number of UNESCO web pages to see whether the role of libraries in building peace still features there. I discovered that this is not the case, and that, in fact, libraries hardly feature in UNESCO’s programmes and activities at all. Here is an account of what I found.

 

UNESCO’s Communication and Information Sector

Searching the web pages of the UNESCO’s Communication and Information sector, I found that the topic “Libraries” is not immediately visible without some scouting around. One has to look under the theme “Access to knowledge”. Here I found a number of news items, the most recent one dating from July 2013, the others from 2011 and earlier. There are also links to three topics:  the Biblioteca Alexandrina, UNAL, and UNESCO/IFLA manifestos. I looked at each of these.

Biblioteca Alexandrina

The web page for the Biblioteca Alexandrina mentions its objectives. One of these is to be “a vibrant center of cross-cultural dialogue and understanding”, which is encouraging because of the link between understanding and peace. I found links here to a number of pages of “related information”, but none of this was more recent than 2002, the year in which this library was inaugurated.

UNAL: UNESCO Network of Associated Libraries

On the UNAL web page I found both libraries and peace were mentioned:

UNAL was established in 1990 to promote co-operation among public libraries to build international understanding and to establish contacts between libraries of the North and of the South.

Objective: UNAL’s principal objective is to encourage libraries that are open to the public to undertake activities in UNESCO’s fields such as the promotion of human rights and peace, cultural dialogue, protection of the environment, fight against illiteracy, etc. Over 500 libraries around the world are members of the Network.

There is no link to “related information” on UNAL on this page. Using Google one can access an older page for UNAL on the old UNESCO portal. This was last updated on 28 January 2009. The information provided here is meagre and outdated. Some links are no longer active. From a “Documents” link one is taken to a description of a brief document about UNAL, The UNESCO Network of Associated Libraries: An Introduction, but there is no link to the document itself. This page was last updated in 2002. A further Google search yields a PDF copy of a 48 page address list of UNAL members, dated 1998. It does not seem that UNAL is still functioning.

UNESCO/IFLA library manifestos

Going back to the Libraries page in the Communication and Information web page, I found a brief piece on the UNESCO-IFLA library manifestos. Here is another reference to the role of libraries in building peace:

UNESCO and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), have launched two declarations of principles which should guide the creation and operations of public libraries and school libraries worldwide.”

The Public Library Manifesto, adopted in 1994, proclaims UNESCO’s belief in the public library as a living force for education, culture and information, and as an essential agent for the fostering of peace and spiritual welfare through the minds of men and women.

The two manifestos mentioned are the public library and school library manifestos, the latter having been adopted in 1998. There is no link here to “related information” on the manifestos, and no links to them on this page.

 

The UNESCO Libraries Portal

Using Google other library-related pages can be found. I searched for the UNESCO Libraries Portal, landing on an information page about the Communication and Information Sector’s portals, where I found some news items dating from 2006 and 2007. A link to the UNESCO Libraries Portal returned a “Not found” message. Clicking on a link to “UNESCO and Libraries” here took me to the Communication and Information Sector’s “In Focus service”, an archive of items sorted by year. I browsed the years 2015, 2014 and 2013, without finding anything specifically on libraries. Clearly, this covers the full scope of the Communication and Information Sector, but the Communication side dominates. Most of the items dealt with media issues such as press councils and safety of journalists. There were a few ICT-related items as well.

 

IFAP: Information for all Programme

I don’t know how easy it is to find IFAP if you don’t happen to know about it. To find it you have to search under the Communication and Information Sector’s Intergovernmental Programmes. These are the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) and the Information for all Programme (IFAP). A brief YouTube video I saw here outlined IFAP’s five priority areas: Information for development; Information accessibility; Information literacy; Information Ethics; and Information Preservation. All of these are relevant to libraries, but the L-word was not mentioned. IFAP’s Information Society Observatory is active, with many recent posts, but these are mainly concerned with the application of modern ICTs. Libraries do not feature among the “subjects” listed there as being covered.

 

Conclusion

I will readily admit that I’m not the brightest Internet surfer and that I may have missed relevant web pages – and maybe some readers will comment and point out stuff I missed – but I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that UNESCO has lost any interest it once had in libraries. Libraries, other than the Biblioteca Alexandrina, which seems to have been the pinnacle of UNESCO’s involvement in our field, have largely disappeared from its web presence. Occasionally libraries feature indirectly in relation to that relic of better days, the Memory of the World programme, or sometimes to information literacy, but generally libraries only appear on web pages that have not been updated for years. They are largely absent from current UNESCO concerns. These are relevant to librarians too, and such pages as the Information Society Observatory are worth bookmarking, but as far as libraries themselves are concerned, the romance is over.

About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. He is a part-time professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He also teaches a course in international and comparative librarianship at the School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA.
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