Reflections: Workshop for Librarians in Harare

Lena Olsson, Senior Adviser and Librarian:

Ten librarians were invited to attend a workshop in Harare during the spring. These came from five partner university libraries in Zimbabwe, from the East African Court of Justice (EACJ), and from the African Court on Human and People’s Rights (ACoHPR) in Tanzania. These university libraries have, for several years, received donations of printed books which support teaching, learning, and academic research. Previously, progress was hampered by a lack of updated and accurate literature. Now, difficulties have been eased thanks to the literature support program carried out by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute. Said program is part of a broader effort aimed at supporting partner universities. The five partner libraries are now well equipped with up-to-date core literature on human rights and related matters.

Digitalisation has changed the way libraries work and reach users. While a lack of electricity and internet connection act as hurdles for accessing digitalized resources, these resources often bring benefits by making knowledge more accessible outside of a library’s premises. Our partnered libraries have access to e-resources, with people being able to access them outside of university premises – convenient during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.

Presentations and Discussions

What do librarians discuss when they meet? What topics are discussed in the academic library community? Very much the same in Zimbabwe and Sweden. For instance, how has and how will the digitalisation and introduction of electronic media affect libraries? Shall we continue to purchase printed books or turn to e-books despite the fact that not all books are available as e-books? Are databases, e-journals, and e-books only available for rich universities? Do libraries have a role to play in finding new ways of diffusing knowledge by using open-access, open-source, and open-data collaborative digital technologies?

Workshop participants organized presentations for the workshop. One presentation was titled ‘Access to Information in the Digital World: A Human Rights Perspective’. Nancy, from the University of Zimbabwe Law Library, argued that advances in technology have created opportunities to share and access information, despite geographical boundaries. However, technological capacities have spread unequally, with many having insecure access to digital information. Some experienced hardship during COVID-19 lockdowns due to lacking computers and internet access. Nancy argued that we, as librarians, need to be mindful of these obstacles.

In 2020, the World Economic Forum stated that digital rights are legal and human rights that allow individuals to access, use, create, and publish digital media; or to access and use computers, other electronic devices, and telecommunications networks.

Other presentations discussed the role of librarians as research partners, as well as their broader role in the research process. We listened to experiences about librarians helping students and academics around citation guidelines. Furthermore, we highlighted the importance of librarians training students and young researchers on the usage of Information Management Systems.

Other topics that require increased awareness are freedom of expression, tendencies towards censorship, and the complexities of intellectual property and copyright law.

Some provocative questions were asked followed by an animated discussion:

What is the library’s role in facilitating freedom of expression through digital resources and services? How should libraries address vendors, network providers, and licensers who attempt to limit or edit access to digital information? Why do libraries have an obligation to provide government information in digital formats? To protect a library user or reflect community values, can the library deny access to constitutionally protected information on the Internet? Can libraries use software that filters or blocks access to digital information resources on the Internet?

Among some questions asked when discussing copyright: Do copyright and intellectual property laws apply to digital information? Do censorship laws apply to digital information? What does the constitution state about freedom of expression and access to information as a human right?

These examples are from the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 20) Act, 2013

  • Freedom of expression and freedom of the media 1. Every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes– a. freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information; b. freedom of artistic expression and scientific research and creativity; and c. academic freedom. 2. Every person is entitled to freedom of the media, which freedom includes protection of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources of information
  • Access to information 1. Every Zimbabwean citizen or permanent resident, including juristic persons and the Zimbabwean media, has the right of access to any information held by the State or by any institution or agency of government at every level, in so far as the information is required in the interests of public accountability

Librarians who manage donations from the Raoul Wallenberg Institute have been enthusiastic about learning more about human rights – the workshop was a positive step in that direction. It is important that those who guide and advise are fully up to date with developments in the human rights sphere.

Developing a Human Rights Library – a Manual

In 2014, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute published a piece called ‘Developing a Human Rights Library’. It collected impressions and experiences from training sessions and other similar occasions in several African and Asian countries. The publications, which with illustrations, list salient facts about human rights.

We opened the discussion thinking that we would just edit the existing text – perhaps adding new photos. Things changed quickly, though. “Why not write a totally new manual?” Someone asked. We quickly agreed that much has changed for libraries in recent years. Additionally, we felt that the previous manual lacked African experiences and voices.

We came up with an outline after hours of groupwork. The skeleton of a new publication was starting to take form! We were all very active, eager, and optimistic. If we don’t end up writing a totally new manual, we will at least end up with an annex. Said annex would have updated information, integrating experiences from Southern Africa and Zimbabwe.


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