[AIB]AIB Notizie 8/2002
AIB-WEB | AIB Notizie | Sommario fascicolo 8/2002 | Italian version of this article

A disappointing Manifesto

Riccardo Ridi

(translation by Juliana Mazzocchi)

I am sorry to say it, but The IFLA Internet Manifesto <http://www.ifla.org/III/misc/im-e.htm> is disappointing. Approved and proclaimed between March and May 2002, when the Internet cannot be considered any longer an innovation for most people in the world, the Manifesto is ambiguous and reticent on too many crucial points.

After more than ten years since the World Wide Web (which was the crowning and the greatest spread factor of the Internet) was invented, one could expect IFLA to make a "traditional" and consolidating statement, as a sign of continuity (the Internet is an information resource like all the others, to be used exactly like all the others in library services and, strictly speaking, a dedicated manifesto should not be necessary) or an "avant-gardist", breaking-off statement, as a sign of discontinuity (the Internet is something radically different from the information resources used in libraries up to now and a new Manifesto is necessary to explain what are the differences and the consequences of them upon the various services). Unfortunately the document proclaimed by IFLA chooses none of these ways resolutely. It is still ambiguous when it becomes specific and, when it establishes general principles, it only repeats concepts already stated in other official documents.

The premises from which the Manifesto starts are already all included in the IFLA Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom <http://www.ifla.org/faife/policy/iflastat/iflastat.htm> approved by IFLA in 1999 and in the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto <http://www.ifla.org/documents/libraries/policies/unesco.htm> of 1994. They can be reduced to two fundamental principles: on the one hand every human being's right to express his/her thought and to access other people's expressions of thought; on the other the task assigned to libraries to be a basic tool to guarantee this twofold right to anybody without any kind of discrimination, as for the access, more in general, to any kind of public information.

Almost half Manifesto is used to confirm these concepts and other related corollaries of general value, aside from the kind of information resource involved. Of the remaining, limited space, one would expect some enlightenments on the main topics under discussion nowadays about libraries and the Internet, that is to say:

The concept of "Internet resource", the exact definition of which (not at all obvious, however) should be preliminary to the clarification of the five questions, is treated vaguely by the Manifesto. In some points it writes generically about "access to the Internet" and of "resources available on the Internet", assigning to libraries a likewise generic role of "essential gateways to the Internet" which seems to mean an opening to any kind of resource, even not documentary. Elsewhere, on the contrary, libraries are given the task to promote and to facilitate the access to the "networked information", in order to guarantee to anyone the "equality of access to information", restricting, more traditionally, the library competence about the Internet only to the informative sphere. On the whole, supported also by the lack of examples or explicit definitions, the impression is that the Manifesto has not focused the distinction on which question 1 is based and therefore leaves it substantially undecided.

Such indecision, although less marked, comes out also for question 2 which, considering the preliminaries about intellectual freedom, should have been particularly central for the Manifesto. The access to the Internet must be "unhindered" (a very expressive word at the beginning of the Manifesto) and "consistent with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and, inversely, "the Internet enables individuals and communities [to] present their interests, knowledge and culture for the world to visit". With these premises it is natural to conclude that the access to the Internet "should neither be subject to any form of ideological, political or religious censorship".

We could stop here and the message would be clear and plain in its radicalism. However the Manifesto goes on reminding an obvious thing that was not necessary to recall when the text was generically dealing with access to information sources, that is that "in addition to the many valuable resources available on the Internet, some are incorrect, misleading and may be offensive". Well, that's life! So what? The Manifesto at this point concludes that librarians "should proactively promote and facilitate responsible access to quality networked information for all their users, including children and young people".

But what does "responsible access" mean? That the librarian has to teach how to find and evaluate the information on the Internet, but it will be the user who decides autonomously which documents read and how much credit give them, or is it a subliminal, surreptitious, microscopic opening towards filters, controls, lists of "good" and "bad" sites and, in a word, censorship? And how should the reference, almost at the end, to children and young people be understood? Is it only a typology of users among many (if no site has to be censored to any user, this is banally true also for children users and for young users) or, ventilating this example, the document is suggesting (but without saying it explicitly) that for children and young people the access must be even more "responsible", whatever meaning is given to this term?

But maybe I am too suspicious. After all the Manifesto ends encouraging "all governments to support the unhindered flow of Internet accessible information via libraries and information services and to oppose any attempt to censor or inhibit access", without hinting any exceptions, neither for typologies of users, nor for typologies of documents.

With regard to question 3, the crucial passages are: "Libraries and information services provide essential gateways to the Internet. For some they offer convenience, guidance, and assistance, while for others they are the only available access points. They provide a mechanism to overcome the barriers created by differences in resources, technology, and training. [...] Users should be assisted with the necessary skills and a suitable environment in which to use their chosen information sources and services freely and confidently. [...] Librarians should provide the information and resources for library users to learn to use the Internet and electronic information efficiently and effectively".

The position of the Manifesto seems slightly more resolute on this point. One can share it or not (personally I do not agree, I believe that computer literacy is a main duty of other specific educational institutions, such as schools, universities and institutes for long-life education) but the Manifesto seems to assign to libraries (even without referring to other organizations that could collaborate) the demanding task of filling the educational gaps concerning the ability to use not only the Internet as a whole, but also the even wider ensemble of electronic information. I say "seems" because, instead of stating explicitly that librarians should teach how to use the Internet and the electronic information, the Manifesto prefers to affirm that they "should provide the information and resources for library users to learn", leaving a narrow opening to the interpretation, quite more reasonable, of the library as a support and not as a substitute of school education.

Questions 4 and 5, in the end, are not even skimmed over in the Manifesto by IFLA, which had already addressed to preservation some sentences in the IFLA Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom and which deals with cataloguing authoritatively and massively.

Therefore the Manifesto is altogether incomplete, as it does not tackle or leaves unresolved the "hottest" questions. On the contrary, where it speaks clearly, it says things already known or questionable. I hope that it will be considered a "beta version" to be tested through the debate and professional practice, in order to allow IFLA to issue soon a more satisfactory version.

In the meantime it can be useful to confirm and consecrate some basic principles that should be already acquired by all libraries and especially by all their administrations, but that nowadays may need a brave defence. The Internet is a fundamental tool to reach likewise fundamental aims of freedom of expression and of free access to information, therefore libraries must do anything to let their users access to it with the required help, the necessary information and free of charge, without any kind of discrimination or censorship.


RIDI, Riccardo. A disappointing Manifesto, English translation (2004) by Juliana Mazzocchi of Un manifesto deludente. «AIB Notizie», 14 (2002), n. 8, p. 3-4, <http://www.aib.it/aib/editoria/n14/02-08ridi.htm>
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Copyright AIB 2004-04-13 a cura di Riccardo Ridi Ultimo aggiornamento 2010-03-02
URL: http://www.aib.it/aib/editoria/n14/02-08ridi-e.htm

AIB-WEB | AIB Notizie | Sommario fascicolo 8/2002 | Italian version of this article