“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” JFK

Hello old friends. It’s been awhile. Grad school has been pulling my focus for the last few months, but I was recently posed a question that gave me a good reason to come back.

The question?

What am I going to do, in this field I am working so hard for a degree in, that is going to promote and further human rights?

That is a very difficult question.

To start, it feels necessary to spend a moment considering what exactly human rights are.

This short video can definitely provide the basics (and you get to see a lovely picture book- BONUS!)


For a complete breakdown, please check out the full text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but for the sake of brevity, let me try and condense the thirty stated articles as much as possible. It seems to me that human rights can be summed up fairly simply in that trite old phrase, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

So there’s that.

But the bigger part of the question, the part that I have spent a significant amount of time mulling over, still remains unanswered. What is it that I can do, personally, to be the kind of person who makes a positive change in the world?

I suppose the first question is, what am I willing to do? What sacrifices am I willing to make? What stands am I willing to take?  Those are hard questions to grapple with. I think most people want to think that if push comes to shove, they would always step up and do what should be done, but that’s often significantly more difficult to follow through on than perhaps we would expect.

For me, it is easier to state what I am willing to do, by understanding what I am not willing to do. For example, as a person who identifies as pansexual, I am uncomfortable with the idea of going anywhere that might have established anti-LGBT laws or a history of violence towards members of my community. That means that my human rights work might nor take place with groups that are physically on the ground in a variety of different places, trying to spread the message of global human rights.

And that is 100% okay. Individuals who work with groups like Peace Corps and Librarians Without Borders are doing great work in the world, promoting human rights and also helping to provide equal access to information in parts of the world without the same level of accessibility that I am granted as an information professional in Brooklyn, NY. Those individuals doing the footwork for human rights campaigns are making a tremendous difference in the world, but that does not mean that there is no more work to be done. The work I can do will just take place on a more local level.

That said, as I was considering what I was willing to do and what my role should be in furthering human rights, I found myself focusing on a couple of particularly relevant  Articles from the Declaration of Human Rights (linked above).

  • Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
  • Article 26: (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
    (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

These Articles, more than any of the others, speak to me as a future purveyor of information. This strikes me as the area where I can do the most good. You see, information inequality is not limited to economically developing countries*, but can be found as close as my own neighborhood.

According to the Comptroller of New York City, in 2014 almost 20% of Brooklyn households were without a computer. Among those who did have a computer in the home, a significant percentage still lacked reasonable access to the internet. In the world we live in, not having access to online resources can be a serious barrier to future success. People use the internet to research schools, to find jobs, to buy things they need, to search for medical care, and for millions of other daily tasks. Students are frequently tasked with using the internet to complete coursework or individual research projects. Lacking basic accessibility means that individuals who may already be somewhat less advantaged economically have to work extra hard to accomplish the same things as individuals with easy access to connectivity.

So what does this mean for me? As someone who is likely to be spending a good part of her professional life working in a public library setting, this means that I have to be especially diligent about promoting the library’s resources. Public libraries offer free and relatively convenient access to the internet to the communities they serve. There are often programs in place that teach people basic computer skills and others that help people start to become more information literate. In my neighborhood branch of Brooklyn Public Library, for example, classes are frequently offered in internet basics and email, often in both English and Russian, the dominant languages of the neighborhood. But these programs are only effective if people are aware of them, meaning that it is essential that I be a vocal advocate for the library and for the community it is in, a community that benefits from having increased levels of access to information.

A big part of promoting human rights for me is making sure that all individuals have access to the information they need.

Now, how does that relate back to those original Articles that stood out to me? Well, people who have access to information can participate more fully in a local and a global society. For the purposes of Article 19, making accessibility widely available means giving individuals another avenue to “seek, receive, and impart information” as they deem necessary. It also means that those opinions and expressions that we all have a right to can be more informed opinions based on having access to information that may not have been readily available without convenient access to the internet.

As for Article 26, to me access to information is a major component of access to education. Without access to information, the entire second section of the Article would be much more difficult to bring to fruition. Having access to a world of possibilities helps individuals feel connected to the larger society. Information accessibility goes a long way toward promoting “understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups” among other often estranged factions of society. Ignorance begets intolerance, so by promoting education through information accessibility, it is possible to fight the limitations of ignorance and encourage the evolution of a society that is informed and enlightened.

This is how I begin my approach toward furthering basic human rights. With information accessibility and education.

But there is more to what I can do than just providing access, although information access is certainly a major building block in constructing an educated and informed social infrastructure. As I have been writing and reflecting, it has become more and more apparent that what I want is to feel personally connected to the work that I am able to do in the human rights field. For me, that means that a large part of my focus will be in the area of LGBT rights as Human Rights.

In even the most liberal countries, hate crimes still take place with disturbing regularity and LGBT people frequently see their rights discussed in a way that classifies them as “other” and removes them from the discussion of human rights as fundamentally available to all. And the truth of the matter is that there is not a lot that I can do about that on a global level. Changing minds starts with the individual. Thus if my overall motivation is for LGBT Rights to be Human Rights and Human Rights to be LGBT Rights, my work begins at home.

As an information professional, I have so many avenues open for me to work towards increasing tolerance, encouraging acceptance, and ultimately helping create the world I wish I lived in. For starters, as a librarian I have varying degrees of influence on collection development. This means that I can work toward making sure there are books with LGBT themes available in all sections of the library. I can work towards inclusivity by making sure the materials available cover a broader range of subjects than might typically be available on the LGBT specific shelf. I will also be able to work toward finding diverse choices that represent more than just the middle class white experience of being part of the LGBT community.

Making sure my collection represents the intersectionality of this community is imperative. These books offer patrons both mirrors and windows, giving readers a way to see themselves in texts and allowing them insight into experiences they may not have even known were possible. Additionally, I can make sure that these materials receive attention every month, not just in June during LGBT Pride celebrations. Finally, in terms of collections, I will be in a position where I have the privilege of recommending materials to readers, which is a great opportunity to put more diverse books in the hands of patrons who might not gravitate toward them on their own.

Additionally, as a librarian, I have some responsibility for instituting programs and classes for my library. This means that I can use an intersectional lens to create content and expand access to educational opportunities so all members of the community have the chance to develop new skills and explore unfamiliar concepts. There really is no limit to the work I can do.

So, that was a lot. But a serious question deserves serious reflection, so that is what I wanted to give it. My version of helping to save the world and further human rights may not feel huge in a global context, but the more I reflect, the more I realize that we all have opportunities to be a piece of the puzzle with our own unique contributions and our own distinct approaches to making the world a better place. And we all know that every piece of a puzzle matters as much as the other pieces. We all have the potential to make an impact in a multitude of different ways. For me that means embracing my potential as an information professional and future librarian and using what I know to make the difference that I can.

So now it’s your turn. What have you done today to make tomorrow a little better? Let me know right down there in the comment section. Let’s chat about how to make things better around here.

For Further Reference

Bishop, R. S. (n.d.). Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from https://www.psdschools.org/webfm/8559

Calendar. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://www.bklynlibrary.org/calendar/list?loc%5B%5D=568

Hate Crimes. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://www.lgbtqnation.com/tag/hate-crimes/

Librarians Without Borders. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://lwb-online.org/

Peace Corps. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2016, from https://www.peacecorps.gov/

Silver, M. (2015, January 4). If You Shouldn’t Call It The Third World, What Should You Call It? Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/01/04/372684438/if-you-shouldnt-call-it-the-third-world-what-should-you-call-it

Smith, G. B. (2014). Poor NYC areas have slow or no access to Internet: Report. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/poor-nyc-areas-slow-no-access-internet-report-article-1.2036599

Stringer, S. M. (2014, December). Internet Inequality. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from https://comptroller.nyc.gov/wp-content/uploads/documents/Internet_Inequality.pdf

Universal Declaration of Human Rights | United Nations. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2016, from http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

*Sidebar- I understand that the term “developing countries” is potentially problematic and would welcome suggestions for replacements, but am modelling my use of language in this context after the AP style guide. A more detailed debate on this terminology can be found here if you would like to learn more.