“Acting for Humanity”: Libraries Worldwide Respond to UN Sustainable Development Goals | ALA Annual 2017

The majority of the offerings at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in Chicago focused on libraries and library-related content based in the United States and Canada. A notable exception was the International Relations Round Table (IRRT) Chair's Program, “Acting for Humanity: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Libraries,” which took a look at how libraries both domestic and abroad are working to address the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) developed by the United Nations (UN) Development Programme.
As the event name would suggest, the majority of the offerings at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in Chicago focused on libraries and library-related content based in the United States and Canada. A notable exception was the International Relations Round Table (IRRT) Chair's Program, “Acting for Humanity: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Libraries,” which took a look at how libraries both domestic and abroad are working to address the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) developed by the United Nations (UN) Development Programme. The SDGs were adopted by world leaders at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015 to address extreme poverty, inequality and injustice, and climate change. Each of the 17 goals has set a series of targets—there are 169 altogether—to be achieved over the following 15 years. The session’s five panelists outlined the work that their organizations are doing to further the SDGs. Among those are references to Access to Information (A2I), a specific target under the 16th SDG goal: to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. On July 17 the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) issued its “Development and Access to Information 2017” report, the first in a series that will examine the ways meaningful A2I contributes to global development, and how libraries can work support this goal. The report’s executive summary states: “At the global level, [libraries] are the backbone of innovation systems, supporting the research that allows for better decision making in governments and in international organisations. At the local level, they provide a safe, community-focused space for users to access and put information to work in a meaningful way.” More broadly, as IRRT board chair Beth Cramer said by way of introduction at the June 25 ALA session, the goals encompass “what it means to be a human—and also what it means to be a librarian.”


Raphaëlle Bats, international relations officer at Enssib, the French National School in Library and Information Science, and Terry Weech, associate professor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Urbana-Champaign, discussed their work around SDG #16. In particular, target 16.10—“Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”—is an item that libraries worldwide are well positioned to take on. Bats and Weech noted that while it has become common practice in the United States for public libraries to be turn outward and engage with their community—what Bats termed “participatory involvement”—it’s a new experience for many libraries and librarians in France. Libraries in Western Europe are more closely aligned with their central government than their American counterparts are, said Weech. Because they need to maintain nonpartisan positions, it can become an issue when European libraries want to take part in civic debate, or ally themselves with local government initiatives. It is important for them to be perceived as balancing all political elements. Bats, a researcher at the public library of Lyon, has been active in Lyon’s Democracy Project, where she is working to help change the way libraries in France relate to their communities. The project’s three objectives, she explained, are to identify the library as a place for open debates on political questions; to change the way library management works and participates; and to reach out to specific groups: students in grades 6–12 along with their teachers, the general population age 15–35, and what she termed “invisible people”—the homeless, refugees, prison inmates, etc. To these ends, the Democracy Project organized a series of cultural programs throughout Lyon’s 15 public libraries and public spaces from November 2016 through March 2017, including a three-day forum in March. As a result, the project drew up a series of tools for libraries around the themes of “knowledge and emancipation” and “freedom of expression and [the] public sphere.” Ultimately, participants found, France’s libraries can work toward Goal 16 as long as librarians accept the obligation to share their skills, competencies, and expertise; libraries accept the need to participate in debate and host political activities even while remaining neutral; and they agree that they must work with the public rather than simply for them, “because we are them.”


On the Canadian front, Christine F. Smith, collection development manager at GOBI Library Solutions from EBSCO (formerly YBP Library Services), has been assessing the state of colonialism in publishing when it comes to language and metadata. GOBI partners with academic libraries to enable their selection of scholarly content, and Smith with helping improve GOBI’s practices in order to incorporate issues of Canadian indigenous history. Changes to terminology can happen in several ways: through industry developments, such as changes to Library of Congress Subject Headings; via contemporary societal developments; or as a result of market demand, e.g. feedback from libraries. Smith’s project was driven by societal changes, particularly the national Truth and Reconciliation movement that seeks to address the abuses inflicted on Canada’s indigenous population by the Indian residential school system. Smith distributed a survey to customers, analyzed book list sources, and examined GOBI’s own terms. First, she wanted to find out what term or terms were the most preferred and inclusive when referring to first and traditional ancestral peoples of a given area and discovered that, while people preferred to be referred to by their self-identified term of choice, the term “indigenous” was accepted around the world. In looking at trends in publishing with regards to works about indigenous peoples, Smith found the vast majority to be English or bi/multilingual, with only two percent of titles uniquely in a non-English European language. In addition to these colonial languages, the title list offered texts cowritten in or written about 42 indigenous languages, from Cree and Salishan to Quechua and Pitjantjatjara. The most prolific publishers also dedicated the most time and resources to indigenous content. A strong need still remains, said Smith, for indigenous voices in the publishing universe, with librarians asking for more “locally produced,” “small,” and “tribal” publications. For its part, GOBI can help fulfill collection development needs in this area by being a vocal advocate “for books involving people of color,” and making materials by and about indigenous peoples more accessible. The term “Native Americans” should be replaced with “indigenous peoples” and “indigenous studies.” And atrocities inflicted on indigenous peoples and cultures should be labeled as such.


Lesley Farmer, professor of library media and ICT (information and communication technologies) literacy project manager at California State University, Long Beach, and chair of IFLA’s School Libraries Section, examined best practices for guiding school libraries to meet the SDGs. The IFLA School Library 2015 Guidelines, based on the IFLA/UNESCO School Library Manifesto of 1999, were drawn up to assist school library professionals and educational decision-makers in the context of a changing information environment. Taking into account the resources that school libraries have to work with—not only physical and digital materials, but the legal and financial framework, human resources, and public relations networks—Farmer outlines several ways that the Guidelines can help shape school libraries’ work toward the goals’ missions. The first, she said, was to identify school libraries as key components for lifelong literacy skills, and collaborate with the educational sector to develop supportive policies. School library workers should be trained to help students grow their physical and intellectual access to information, as well as to build collections that reflect school communities’ academic and cultural needs. Finally, school library workers need support to build capacity to provide community-relevant, high-quality school library programs, resources, and services. The Guidelines are currently available in draft form. Working with the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL), IFLA’s School Libraries Section has been holding international training sessions for school library workers that incorporate implementing the Guidelines as well as advocacy training; so far they have been held in Japan, Sweden, Poland, and the United States.


The final speaker, Buhle Mbambo-Thata, looked at the intersection of libraries and SDG through a pan-African lens in her presentation, “Transforming Communities Through Libraries: Towards the Africa We Want.” Mbambo-Thata is the resource development director of the African Library and Information Association and Institutions (AfLIA), and has served as governing board member of IFLA and a member of the strategic advisory network of the Global Libraries Program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Mbambo-Thata enumerated the aspirations—targeted for 2063—contained in AfLIA’s African Union Agenda (AU2063), which map closely to the 17 SDGs. These, in turn, can be supported by a range of LIS sector activities, including 2014’s Lyon Declaration on Access to Information and Development, the IFLA SDG Tool kit, developed in 2015, IFLA International Advocacy, and the 2015 Cape Town Declaration, signed by ministers and representatives from Angola, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Lesotho, Guinea, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, South Sudan, and Swaziland to address the status of libraries and implementation of access to information. Library initiatives across Africa aptly demonstrate the cross-currents between AfLIA’s work and those of the SDGs. The Tanzania Library Board, for example—targeting SDG #4, Quality Education—has opened areas in every branch dedicated to children and early literacy, as well as instituting after school and adult education programs. In Uganda, the Lira Public Library has addressed SDG #5, Gender Equality, by instituting information and communication technology training for local girls and women. The library offers instruction in typing and email, job searching and filling out applications, writing CVs, establishing networks, and general “self-care.” SGD #2, End Hunger, is addressed through the Urban Agriculture Information program at Uganda’s Kampala Public Library, which offers information for crop farmers and those raising and selling fish and animals. SGD #4, Quality Education, maps to the AU2063 goal #2: “Well educated citizens and [a] skills revolution underpinned by science, technology, and innovation.” The Luderitz Public Library, Namibia, has taken on these educational goals with computer training for youth, and reading and math help for primary school students using books and board games. These goals—for Africa and for the world—may be ambitious. But they can be achieved by starting at the community level, noted Mbambo-Thata, with SDG and AU2063 providing the framework, IFLA and AfLIA providing the tools, and library associations providing local leadership. We can transform our nations, she said—“one library at a time."
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