Battling corruption Libraries As Providers of Information

IFLA 2013

As guardians of freedom of information, libraries generate transparency and in doing so support the battle against corruption. However, awareness of this important function is only gradually beginning to emerge, explains Hermann Rösch, a professor at the Institute of Information Science at Cologne University of Applied Sciences, in an interview with Goethe.de

Mr Rösch, how would you describe the role libraries play in the battle for transparency and against corruption?

Essentially, libraries are institutions that play a vital part in the basic provision of information to a country’s citizens. This, in turn, is a prerequisite for reducing the disparities between the information levels of the general public and the government. As a member of the public, I can only adopt a particular stance, agree or protest if I know what activities are taking place at government level. In other words, a supply of information is indispensable to ensure freedom of opinion and democracy.

Naturally, this is not a task that libraries face alone. Libraries, however, thanks to their guaranteed quality, their freedom from economic constraints and their mandatory neutrality, are able to perform this role far better than, for example, the media, which are in private ownership or depend on governments and are subject to economic constraints.

“Shedding light around the corner”

Libraries, in other words, generate transparency?

Yes, their remit is to collect, open up and make available materials which document, comment upon or criticize government activities. Thus they are institutions that facilitate political civic participation.

If one wishes to fight corruption on a political level, one first has to identify it. Transparency must be made possible – shedding light, as it were, around the corner. Then citizens will be more likely to discover, for example, that certain agreements which may not be legally compliant have been made behind closed doors.

Are librarians in Germany aware of the important role they play in this context?

Even the reading societies which emerged in the 18th century as the forerunners of public libraries had the goal of controlling power and striving for democratic structures. Today, too, libraries help strengthen democracy, promote transparency and fight political corruption, though this tends to happen implicitly.

Were we to consciously and explicitly focus on this aspect of our role and develop services accordingly, our contribution to battling corruption could achieve greater impact – and would certainly also be beneficial to the reputation of libraries.

So why hasn’t this already happened long ago?

Partly, no doubt, because this role of libraries has not long been explicitly articulated. It was not until 2008 that the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions adopted a manifesto on this ...

... the IFLA Manifesto on Transparency, Good Governance and Freedom from Corruption …

Precisely. In my view this genuinely represents an extremely helpful stance which can serve as an orientation benchmark. Its aim is to transform the function that librarians fulfil, often subconsciously or indeed unconsciously, into a conscious and controlled function. As librarians, we could then perform this role far more intensively and effectively than we do at present.

The role of libraries in the political system

The IFLA manifesto calls upon libraries to “create anti-corruption portals and support existing or planned citizens’ advice centres provided by anti-corruption NGOs.” Is this already happening anywhere in the world?

I don’t know. The role of the manifesto, however, is not to describe an existing state but to articulate an objective.

Which concrete steps could librarians take to emphasize their role as information providers?

In their daily work, librarians in Germany tend to see their profession as being predominantly about providing access to media and less about playing an active role in the political system. They could step up their role in this regard if they were to take a stance, through their umbrella and professional associations, on socially controversial issues relating to freedom of information.

This concerns above all the question of data protection. As librarians, we have a huge interest in maintaining data protection. I think it would not be a bad idea, for instance, if one were to say that we, as librarians, are the guardians of freedom of opinion and information, which we believe is threatened by the use of government trojans – software which can be used to search private computers.

I believe we have yet to recognize fully what an important role we can play in the information society.