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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Revision of the Unesco Public Library Manifesto

Abdelaziz Abid
Information and Informatics
Paris, France


The new edition of the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto is the third. The principle of producing, in the form of a manifesto, a document summarizing the aims and key missions of public libraries was adopted in 1947 at the second session of the General Conference of UNESCO, and the first version aimed at the general public, was translated into many languages and published in the form of leaflets an d posters. During the International Book Year in 1972, UNESCO asked IFLA's Section of Public Libraries to update it. The text prepared by the Section, with professionals more specifically in mind, was accepted by UNESCO, published in the June edition of the UNESCO Bulletin for Libraries and also translated into many languages. Twenty years later IFLA's same Section of Public Libraries decided to include in its medium term programme for 1992 1997 a new version aimed essentially at the authorities. This is the version being described here today.

A necessary update

The 1972 manifesto gradually came to be well enough known to serve as a reference throughout the world. Nevertheless it became necessary to update it for two main reasons. Firstly, however useful it was with regard to intentions, it was in danger of appearing archaic or outmoded. The economic context and changing attitudes called for something more in keeping with the way of looking at things tod ay and the emergencies of the moment. Secondly, the technical environment of libraries had changed more rapidly and radically since 1972 than it had between 1947 and 1972. The accelerated pace of technical innovation in the field of data processing and transmission and the resulting revolution in information technology had to be taken into consideration.

This overall context accounts to a large extent for the fields covered by the new version. Some of them simply reflect recent professional concerns such as functional illiteracy, information technology, continuing education. They also reflect, as they should, requirements of specific target groups such as children, the handicapped, prisoners. In a much broader perspective, the others demonstrate the determination of librarians not to be left behind in two essential spheres namely, the strategic and technical choices imposed by a new technological environment and the challenges posed by a style of management made necessary both by the inflated cost of equipment and services that are on the increase and becoming more and more diversified, and by a lasting context of budgetary austerity.

Key missions

Right from the start, the new version stresses the principle that the library is open to everyone. The chapter 'The public library' defines it as a place which is accessible to all and carefully anticipates all the different types of exclusion which IFLA's various sub committees are striving to counter. While a consensus might exist, at least in theory, where the rights of people with disabiliti es and people in hospital are concerned, those of people in prison and of linguistic minorities, and the principle of equality of the sexes, imply a restatement of human rights which is less a matter of form than it might seem at first glance.

The rejection, in one go, of all forms of social discrimination confers on the public library an outstanding legal and social function in the promotion of equality of opportunity.

The library's functions are set out in the list of key missions, in which even greater emphasis is put on information and eduction than in the previous version. The concept of 'leisure activities' as such is no longer mentioned. This reflects the desire to avoid any misunderstanding about the services that a library may provide and not a refusal to envisage the use of these services for leisure p urposes. Reading, obtaining knowledge via the sophisticated tools now provided by technology and having access to documentation may all be academic and professional necessities, but they can also be just a matter of pleasure. The concepts of 'reading', 'personal creative development', 'awareness of heritage', 'appreciation of the arts, scientific achievements and innovations' clearly form part of leisure activities. Besides, generally accepted ideas notwithstanding, work and pleasure are not incompatible. The manifesto therefore seems to be distancing itself not from the use of libraries for leisure purposes but from a drift towards cultural relativism which, on the pretext of wanting to cater for all forms of leisure activity, leads to a view of the public library as a place that has to be passively even handed. The reference to 'high quality' and the desire that the library should remain free not only of explicit forms of 'ideological, political or religious' censorship but also of commercial pressures are evidence of the wish to avoid such a drift. The library should no more surrender to the dictatorship of audience ratings than it should fall victim to abuses of power.

Co operation

As in the previous version of the manifesto, the library is defined as a public institution. This is why it is still recommended that its funding should be the responsibility of 'local and national authorities'. Its services 'shall in principle be free of charge'. This means that while charges are not excluded, they play an auxiliary and not a strategic role. The public library should thus depend for its existence not on income coming directly from users, but on a share of society's resources. As a public service, it should 'be an essential component of any long term strategy for culture, information provision, literacy an education', funded by each and every citizen. It is therefore logical that its existence should be guaranteed by law.

This legal dimension should ensure permanence and continuity in the action of public libraries, and should also promote co operation. Emphasis is now put on the complementary role of libraries of all kinds. The network of public libraries should be seen today as an integral part of a wider network which encompasses all types of 'national', 'research', 'special', 'school and university' libraries. In this way, the public library is emerging from its isolation. Its specific action has to take into account the action of the other libraries.

The new version of the manifesto nevertheless goes further in its desire to break with the temptation of disorganized, blind development. The public library should not only take into account the documentary environment, but also the environment per se and it should therefore envisage co operation with anyone who can become its partner instead of having an introverted view of its work. Taking as a starting point this awareness of the environment and an analysis of the needs of the various groups of people to be served and of the services already available to the public concerned, its action should be based on 'a clear policy'. It thus seems natural that 'objectives, priorities and services' should be decided on which reflect the needs of the community. This desire to clarify and rationali ze the functioning of public libraries is an expression of the desire to fit traditional librarianship into the pattern of the methods of public management, without, however, falling into the errors of managerial ideology.

The role of the librarian

Lastly, the manifesto describes the role of the librarian as that of 'an active intermediary between users and resources'. To a greater extent than a rapid reading might suggest, this definition fits into an onward looking, strategic view. When the previous version of the manifesto was published, André Maurois declared that school was the key that opened the library door. This apt description is, of course, still valid, although one might add today that the library is one of the keys which open the doors of the information highways. The search that a reader carries out in an almost unlimited mass of the most diverse and directly accessible data requires guidance, all the more so as users of public libraries are often quite unable to direct their searches correctly. Searching through a hy pertext, for example, can only produce results if knowledge of the subject dealt with makes it possible to work out sensible clues for the search and to see the relevance of the answers found, both when the answers are expected and, even more so, when they are discovered by chance.

Supplementing the vital role played by schools, the library leads to a reasoned approach to knowledge, which is the modern version of the ambition of encyclopaedists, who sought, as far as possible, to set forth the order and sequence of human knowledge, given that a disordered compilation is not science. That is precisely where the library, its services, its equipment and organization catalogu es and classifications or, in the final analysis, its staff have their role to play. The manifesto therefore lays stress on the need for the profession and continuing education of staff and on the work of educating the public to use the library's resources and, more generally, of ensuring the development in the public of information and computer literacy skills, which in practice means learning t o use on line databases.

A break with the past, continuity and innovation

This new version thus combines a break with the past, continuity and innovation. There is continuity in that it is still based on confidence in the liberating role of knowledge, necessary for freedom and progress and here one can discern the ideological legacy of the Enlightenment. There is continuity, too, in the role which it assigns to culture, serving tolerance, understanding, mutual benefi t an the respect and preservation of cultures. The manifesto remains faithful to UNESCO's humanist principles and the ideas on which the Organization is based. Finally, there is continuity in the desire to see the library recognized as a public institution essential to justice, freedom and social cohesion.

Nonetheless, the manifesto breaks with intentions which are too general in character, purposes which are too broad and vague and the legacy of the 'leisure society', which was the cultural outlook dominant at the time of the previous version. The present version breaks new ground by taking into account the information explosion, and by its wish to be precise in laying down explicit policies, choo sing priorities, maintaining standards, networking, and seeking for efficiency. These objectives bear witness to the increasing prominence of new technologies and management including evaluation in the professional thinking of librarians and of the authorities to which they are answerable.

The final version of this new UNESCO Public Library Manifesto has the merit of defining forceful ideas which transcend traditional divisions and frontiers. From now on, it will serve as a reference for anyone who can contribute to the progress of public libraries throughout the world, and professionals and their associations will be able to make it their own.

Promoting the Manifesto

The Manifesto is now translated from the English original version into the other five official languages of UNESCO. These translations are available on IFLANET. Other translations are also available in Catalonian, Danish, Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Slovakian and Swedish. Booklets have been published in Norway, Spain and The Netherlands.

IFLA is planning, in co operation with UNESCO, the production of a leaflet, a poster and, if possible, a video to promote the Manifesto worldwide. Articles have been published in IFLA Journal, Libri, The UNESCO Courrier and other international journals.

At the country level, once the Manifesto is translated into the local language, it is expected to be published in professional and non professional journals and to be forwarded to national and local governments as they are both responsible for developing library services and networks to ensure to all citizens free and equal access to information and knowledge. In Slovakia, the Manifesto was used by the Slovak Library Association as a basis for the preparation of a draft new Library Act. In Denmark, the Manifesto was sent to all City Councils and public libraries and discussion is now going on how to translate the Manifesto into the framework of the Information Society. Similar developments are taking place in Norway and Sweden.

In Russia, the Rudomino State Library for Foreign Literature has started a campaign to promote the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto in Russia. The Russian translation of the Manifesto was prepared by the Centre for International Librarianship (structural unit of the Library) in December 1994 and the first 50 copies were distributed to Russian IFLA members and major public libraries by mail or duri ng several seminars and workshops held in RLFL or in other Moscow libraries.

Early in 1995 the Russian text was published in a number of professional periodicals, such as the Newsletter of the Russian Library Association (circulation 150 copies) and Libraries Abroad (circulation 700 copies). Soon it will be published in an all Russia monthly Biblioteka (Library) whose circulation runs up to 60,000 copies. It has also been brought to the attention of t he Library Department of the Minsitry of Culture of Russia.

Currently some other activities to promote the Manifesto are being planned by CIL, e.g., designing a poster and delivering it to the Moscow State University of Culture (higher educational institution in librarianship) for the faculty and students.

Even if this version of the Manifesto is aimed essentially at the decision makers at national and local levels, no real development of the public library implementing the principles expressed in this Manifesto could take place without the commitment and support of the library community at large.