News article: For democracy, libraries and the right to knowledge*

With the enclosure of knowledge and information in line with the economic priorities of corporations, we are moving towards a society of ignorance. Historically, the great revolutions and social developments in Europe and worldwide have been made based on participation in the production of knowledge. In this context, European libraries have a long tradition of defending people’s rights to information, education, research, and culture, which are constituent elements of democratic societies.

However, in recent years, and because of technological, political, and ideological changes, libraries have faced challenges preventing them from offering their services to the public and operating according to their principles and objectives. The uncritical commercialization of knowledge and information, especially in the new technological environment of e-books and digital communication, is a situation that distorts both the ability of libraries to function and the rights of citizens, teachers, students, and researchers to have access to literary works or scientific publications.

In the e-book market, various phenomena, as analyzed individually by the public statements of IFLA, KR21, and other stakeholders, exclude a whole segment of the population that relies on libraries for equal participation in education, lifelong learning, research, and culture.

In 2016, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued an important ruling, Judgment C-174/15, in response to a question from the Court of First Instance of The Hague on the use of e-books by libraries. The judgment, among other things, states: “There is no decisive reason to exclude, in any event, the lending of digital copies and intangible objects from the scope of Directive 2006/115 [the Rental and Lending Directive].

Especially in the proposals of Advocate General Maciej Szpunar, we find an excellent rationale: “Without the privileges which flow from a derogation from the exclusive lending right, libraries are therefore in danger of no longer being able to perpetuate, in the digital environment, the role which was always theirs in the era of printed books.

As this shows, in the legal world, researchers, educators, and citizens recognize that the models for publishing and making knowledge and culture available in the new digital environment are problematic and systematically hinder people’s access to knowledge. Ultimately we are heading toward an luxury model of access to knowledge, which only those who can pay will access. For many, the only way out risks being either to give up, or less legitimate means. 

This should be a political priority. There’s a great debate about fake news, misinformation, and manipulation and how these issues can be addressed. But at the same time, the sources that can be used by public institutions (such as libraries) come with prohibitive cost and technological limitations. And herein lie crucial issues of democracy that politicians often overlook. During the pandemic, the need for scientists to immediately access data and information, studies, and research, to better address the situation and ultimately save more lives became apparent. The need for democratic participation in knowledge and culture becomes imperative.

Policymakers must move immediately towards adopting rules and practices that ensure that libraries can purchase, preserve and lend electronic and digital books while respecting authors’ rights, as they do for print publications. We need to create a democratic model of access to knowledge that serves people and societies.

* shortened, translated version of an article published on 10 March 2023 at the “η εφημερίδα των συντακτών” newspaper by Mr Georgios Glossiotis (Librarian, KnowledgeRights21 project national coordinator for Greece). Full version, in Greek, is accessible here.