Citzenship, Communication Rights, and Libraries

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William Birdsall

With the advent of the potential of access to instantaneous interactive global communication by the average citizen traditional concepts of universal service are outmoded. A more comprehensive conceptual policy framework grounded in a right to communicate that encompasses rights relating to access, privacy, intellectual property, cultural identity, language, and intellectual freedom is required (Birdsall and Rasmussen 2000). This rights framework provides a new conception of the library as an institution embodying these rights that ensures a public space for civic discourse in the 21st century. As such the right to communicate can be conceived as a pattern consisting of a cluster of rights embodied in the institution of the library.


Traditional concepts of universal access that arose out of the development of the telecommunications sector are obsolete as a public policy framework in the new century of global personal interactive telecommunications. Current public policy in Canada and the United States is driven by an ideology of information technology that narrowly defines universal access strictly in terms of connectivity to promote economic development. Issues of intellectual property, access, government information policy, cultural identity, and so forth are delineated within economic parameters ignoring civic, cultural, and educational needs social and individual needs. It is proposed that a right to communicate, first enunciated in the late 1960s, is required to address this broad range of public policy issues within the current evolving global telecommunication environment. Furthermore, the right to communicate also provides a framework for a new concept of the library as an institution that provides public spaces embodying all the elements of the right to communicate.


Universal access has been a longstanding public policy concept and objective arising out of the development of telephony. During the closing decades of the twentieth century a prevailing ideology of information technology led to the re-formulation of this concept into a narrow objective of connecting consumers as opposed to citizens to the information highway for the sole purpose of economic development. A cluster of rights relating to privacy, intellectual property, and access to information, intellectual freedom, and so forth are framed within this economic framework. This public policy framework has distorted the objective of such public spaces as libraries. The library's role of serving civic, educational, social, and cultural needs has been constrained while the library is expected to focus on advancing economic development and to provide access to the information highway mall for those who cannot afford a computer in the household. The library is transformed into a social welfare agency to serve the disadvantaged trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide (Birdsall 2000).

What is needed is a new conceptual policy framework that addresses issues of access, intellectual property rights, intellectual freedom, and so forth in the new electronic environment that recognizes these are rights of citizenship and not just consumer rights. This conceptual framework should offer as well an alternative to the outmoded concept of universal access. Finally, it should also be a new conceptual framework for the role of the library in the twenty-first century.


Since the beginning of the 1960s efforts have been made to formulate and entrench in international agreements a right to communicate. Such a right provides a new conceptual framework for the pattern of rights associated with communication: privacy, access, intellectual freedom, assembly, language, etc. It provides a new vocabulary and alternative to the outmoded concept of universal service.

The conceptual framework of a right to communicate also provides a way to develop a new concept of the library that divorces it from the traditional concepts of a material library as place or the more recent digital or virtual library. (Birdsall 1994)Instead, using the right to communicate as a conceptual framework, the library is conceived as an institution embodying a pattern of rights constituting the right to communicate: access, privacy, assembly, language, intellectual freedom, intellectual property, cultural identity. The library is an institution, then, that promotes and insures a public space for the practice of citizenship regardless of what material or virtual form the library takes.

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