Digital libraries can ensure continuity as Covid-19 puts brake to academic activity

by Eric Falt and Pratha Pratim Das

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As the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, most Governments have temporarily closed all educational institutions. These nationwide closures have impacted 90 per cent of the world’s student population. Localized closures in other countries have affected millions of additional learners.

Consequently, there is a transition to distance learning on an unprecedented scale. Institutes are racing to shift their courses online; students are engaging en masse with e-books and e-learning; and researchers are drawing chiefly on electronic journals. As an emergency response, UNESCO has launched the Global Education Coalition to help countries scale up their best distance learning practices.

Digital libraries and publishers have risen to the occasion, offering more and more free content and curating personalized collections so that people can continue to read and learn without disruption. Indeed, as the demand for credible e-resources surges, digital libraries have emerged as vital pathways to high-quality e-books, journals and educational content.

This year, as we observe World Book and Copyright Day under these extraordinary circumstances, let us celebrate the primacy of digital libraries as knowledge portals and their contribution to sustainable development.

In their ‘Manifesto for Digital Libraries’, UNESCO and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) point out that ‘The mission of the digital library is to give direct access to information resources […] in a structured and authoritative manner and thus to link information technology, education and culture in contemporary library service.’

Statistics from the world’s leading e-libraries testify to their cultural significance. For instance, Europeana, a pan-European-Union virtual library, grants its half-a-million users access to almost 58 million digital contents every year. 

In the Indian context, the relatively young National Digital Library of India (NDLI) – headquartered at IIT Kharagpur – has established itself the as country’s largest online learning platform. A premier gateway to over 48 million e-books and knowledge products across disciplines, it has nearly 3 million regular users today.

We believe though that the role of e-libraries extends beyond providing access to content. As the UNESCO–IFLA Manifesto recommends, they should also raise awareness about intellectual property rights, support the preservation of cultural heritage, and ensure that disadvantaged groups enjoy equity of access.

In 2005, UNESCO set up an online ‘anti-piracy observatory’ to share best practices related to copyright protection and anti-piracy legislation. Moreover, it has released multiple toolkits to sensitize stakeholders about copyright issues. Inspired by these initiatives, the NDLI has launched a national movement to educate information professionals about the Indian Copyright Act and its implications for libraries. This will culminate in the publication in 2020 of a comprehensive librarians’ manual on applications of Indian copyright law.

Globally, virtual libraries are at the frontline of efforts to preserve documentary heritage. They are uniquely placed to advocate for and directly undertake digital conservation.

The World Digital Library, developed by UNESCO and the Library of Congress, is a pioneering attempt to foster intercultural understanding by offering access to digital heritage from 200 countries. In India, the NDLI has begun an ambitious digitization programme in collaboration with leading heritage archives, besides making available cultural texts that already exist in electronic form. It is also training archivists across the country to apply standardized ‘rights statements’ to digitized cultural objects, in order to communicate their copyright and re-use status to users.

We are convinced that access to knowledge cannot by itself act as a leveller. Inclusive knowledge societies are built only when equal access is enjoyed by all.

The needs of disadvantaged groups such as persons with disabilities must be integrated into the very design of digital libraries. India’s Sugamaya Pustakalaya, for example, is a remarkable online library that allows the visually impaired to access e-books. It is heartening that some of India’s larger e-libraries including the NDLI are undertaking to develop disability-friendly technologies. Collectively, however, we need to do much more to make access for persons with disabilities a reality.
The COVID-19 crisis has acted as an inflection point, throwing into sharp relief the many benefits of digital libraries. Indeed, digital libraries have demonstrated their potential not just to enable a richer, more diverse public domain, but to promote human development itself.

Looking ahead, we are confident that the use of e-libraries will continue to grow exponentially. This growth will be driven by immediate exigencies and global trends such as the explosion in smartphone penetration, the increase in ownership of ICT-based reading devices, and the now entrenched habit of seeking information online. 

On the occasion of World Book and Copyright Day 2020, let us recognize that digital libraries are helping us achieve certain key targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, let us celebrate their power to ‘ensure public access to information’, to ‘safeguard the world’s cultural heritage’, and to provide ‘safe, inclusive and effective learning environments for all’.

Eric Falt is the Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Partha Pratim Das is the Principal Investigator of the National Digital Library of India Project, and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Kharagpur.