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To Bangkok Conference programme

65th IFLA Council and General

Bangkok, Thailand,
August 20 - August 28, 1999

Code Number: 048-79-E
Division Number: III
Professional Group: Division of Libraries Serving the General Public
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 79
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Library and Information Services to Disadvantaged Users: the way forward

Sue Lithgow
Chair, Section of Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons
Open Learning Unit, University of Wales
Aberystwyth, UK


The following paper provides a brief outline of the main objectives of the IFLA Section of Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons, the general need for services in these groups and a summary of past and present initiatives through which the Section aims to promote and develop such services. Consideration is also given to the future of these often marginal services and the role of the Section within that future.


It is now widely accepted that we are living in an information society,

    'A society characterised by a high level of information intensity in the everyday life of most citizens, in most organisations and workplaces; by the use of common or compatible technology for a wide range of personal, social, educational and business activities, by the ability to transmit and receive digital data rapidly between places irrespective of distance.'(1)

However, whilst we may be well aware of the existence and continued development of the information society, not everyone has the same membership rights. It can be said that some people have automatic life membership, some are offered ordinary membership and some are on a waiting list. Yet there are others who are clearly non-members and may well remain non-members, some through individual choice but others through circumstances outside their control.

These marginal groups who are denied full membership of the information society are of particular concern to the IFLA Section of Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons (LSDP). Central to this Section is the provision of library and information services to those individuals within the community who for whatever reasons are unable to make full use of conventional services. These include; hospital patients, prisoners, the elderly in nursing homes and care facilities, the homebound, the deaf and those with physical, developmental or learning difficulties.

Amongst the principal objectives of this Section therefore, is the need to maximise access to and the availability of effective library and information services for disadvantaged persons. In doing so, the LSDP Section acknowledges the current imbalance in service provision to these groups and the resultant information deprivation that they experience. Arguably, information deprivation can be experienced by all individuals, but for those already disadvantaged in some way, that level of deprivation is intensified. In order to prevent marginalised groups from becoming further marginalised, it is therefore crucial that future information society related developments fully address the needs of disadvantaged persons.

The work of the LSDP Section is therefore centred upon appropriate awareness raising through tailored projects and the dissemination of examples of best practice at an international level. Recent Annual Conference Open Sessions have addressed such issues as the role of technology for library and information services to disadvantaged groups and the training needs of library and information staff working in this field. The Section is also anxious to promote co-operative ventures and has organised a number of joint workshops as part of Annual Conference programmes. Recent workshops have been held in co-operation with the European Dyslexia Association and the IFLA Section for the Blind.

An integral part of the Section's Medium Term Programme is the development of specific projects designed to further advance library and information services to disadvantaged persons. A number of service guidelines have been produced such as guidelines for library services to the deaf and prisoners, and more recently the Section has published guidelines for easy-to-read materials.(2) As with all its publications the Section has endeavoured to translate them into as many languages as possible in order to maximise their practical application. Based on international examples of best practice, the purpose of such guidelines is to outline minimum service level requirements and to provide practical suggestions on how to develop and maintain effective services in this area. No matter what stage of development a service may have reached, it is hoped that guidelines of this nature can be further used as a bargaining tool with which to secure funding and additional support.

Current LSDP Section Projects include the development of guidelines for library services to hospital patients and the development of a Section Resource Book. The Resource Book will include a history of the Section, a bibliography of Section publications and relevant conference papers and a subject bibliography for literature in the field of library and information services to disadvantaged persons. Projects planned for the future include the development of guidelines for library and information services to dyslexic users. Following a highly successful workshop on dyslexia and a planned poster session, the Section wishes to capitalise on these developments and formally document the resulting information so that it can be disseminated throughout the profession.

With less than 80 members, the Section of Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons is one of the smallest IFLA Sections, yet arguably it is one of the most active. In addition to the above programme of work, the Section has for many years managed to organise Mid-Year Standing Committee Meetings and study visits at various locations around the world. Not only do these enable the Standing Committee to maintain a demanding schedule of project commitments but they also further enhance the international exchange of principles and practice. The full extent of this Section's activities is reported in its biannual newsletter and web pages on IFLANet.

However, whilst the Section of Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons is highly active and makes a significant contribution towards promoting and developing relevant services in this field, it cannot champion the cause of disadvantaged users single handedly. Many disadvantaged users have highly specific needs which are often beyond the immediate expertise of LSDP Section members. In recognising this deficiency, the Section further acknowledges that the need for collaborative ventures far exceeds that of internal co-operation with other IFLA Sections and Divisions and needs to embrace a multi-agency approach. The Section has already developed a close working relationship with the European Dyslexia Association and has recently successfully campaigned for the awarding of consultative status to the World Federation of the Deaf. Such multi-agency involvement is essential if library and information services to disadvantaged users are to keep pace with ICT and service developments. Such involvement will also help to ensure that mainstream library and information provision developments incorporate the specific needs of disadvantaged users.

Many countries are moving towards the age of teledemocracy but there are still many parts of the world where internet access remains a distant reality and the information superhighway 'is a one-way street from the First World to the Third'.(3) Thus,

    'despite the convergence of a whole range of new information technologies, access to information that can really empower and liberate people, still looks set to be the preserve of an affluent minority.'(4)

In this respect there is a very real danger that the information gap between information rich and information poor will widen still further and marginal or socially excluded groups such as those supported by the LSDP Section are amongst those most at risk. It is thus imperative that the work of the Section remains both multi-agency and multi-national in nature. Whilst local initiatives are invaluable as examples of best practice, their outcomes need to be translated into policy documents and taken forward on an international scale and at a governmental level if they are to bring about change. LSDP Section members and all those concerned with library and information services to disadvantaged persons therefore also need to act as advocates for the very groups they aim to serve. In this way, although we may have to accept that there will always be an information gap, we can at the very least hope to contain its growth.


1 IBM. The Net Result: Social Inclusion in the Information Society. London: IBM, 1997.

2 John Day, ed. Guidelines for Library Services to the Deaf. The Hague: IFLA, 1994. Frances Kaiser ed. Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners. The Hague: IFLA, 1995. Bror Tronbacke, ed. Guidelines for Easy-to-Read Materials. The Hague: IFLA, 1998.

3 Christopher Zielinski. 'The electronic age and the information poor: threats and opportunities.' On-line Information '95. Oxford: Learned Information Europe, 1996.

4 Trevor Haywood. Info-rich Info-poor: Access and Exchange in the Global Information Society. London: Bowker, 1995.


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