What is social inclusion?

The Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC) / Conseil des Bibliothèques Urbaines du Canada (CBUC) defines social inclusion as the participatory, authentic, and accountable manner in which institutions uphold and reinforce the principles of access, equity and, as a result, social inclusion for all.

Social inclusion is the manner in which institutions understand and engage their communities, as well as how they explore, view, and challenge barriers, values, and behaviours. Social inclusion is also defined by how institutions develop, implement, and evaluate policies and procedures, how they provide equitable access to services, and finally, how they demonstrate the level of inclusion through tangible outcomes.

According to Fourie (2007), social inclusion refers to all efforts and policies to promote equality of opportunity to people from all circumstances and from all socially-excluded categories. The circumstances and the categories of people mostly linked to social exclusion are therefore the circumstances and categories to be addressed by efforts to enhance inclusion.

Finally, in Canada, social inclusion is understood as a multi-dimensional concept that facilitates inclusion from a variety of fronts that include:

  • increase of employment;
  • elimination of poverty;
  • enablement of civic engagement;
  • elimination of discrimination and racism;
  • promotion of access to a variety of public resources and institutions.

Based on the concept of social inclusion, projects that engage in social inclusion work should therefore be informed by the perspectives and worldviews of those to be included.

Why is social inclusion important to Canadians?

Today’s immigrants face multiple barriers in Canadian society. Many are characterized as socially excluded because they face economic exclusion upon arrival to Canada. Adults struggle because of different language and culture; youth face particular challenges “belonging” to their new communities and incorporating new and old ways.

According to a 2006 study that examines Statistics Canada’s Canadian Ethnic Diversity Survey (EDS), Canadian immigrants face many additional difficulties. They experience challenges having foreign credentials recognized, they lack Canadian job experience, and they are often subject to discrimination in labour markets. Other studies identify learning a new language, making friends, finding affordable housing – even coping with the Canadian weather – as common difficulties.

Without mechanisms in place to ensure newcomers are adequately included in their newly adopted society, these groups may be at greater risk of being at the margin of the democratic process, feeling isolated, or being socially excluded.

What is the library’s role in removing barriers to social inclusion?

Libraries have a role to play in breaking down barriers for new immigrants. In addition to offering a safe play and safe learning environment, libraries can provide free information and services.

Access to government, health, and community resources, for example, count among the services libraries can provide immigrants. Libraries can also offer free access to computers, information on local communities, plus updates on job opportunities. Libraries are also well positioned to provide exposure to ways to overcome settlement and language difficulties, including the ability to provide exposure to conversational English and English-language instruction.

In short, public libraries can help resolve social exclusion and promote social inclusion.

Social Inclusion and Access to Meaningful Information

As pointed out by Caidi and Allard (2005), access to necessary information is a fundamental component to achieving social inclusion for immigrants. Without it, immigrants cannot make informed choices and decisions.

This has become known as “information poverty” (Chatman’s 1996), a theory that identifies groups that have difficulty obtaining information to solve everyday life problems. The theory suggests a class of “information poor” exists whose members lack access to information and who are characterized by their inability to obtain useful information from people they know, from outsiders, or even from mainstream sources of information such as the media (Chatman, 1985, 1987, 1996; Dervin, 1983; Savolainen, 1995; Sligo and Jameson, 2000).

Immigrants are at risk of being information poor because they are unfamiliar with the Canadian information environment. Plus, they have small social networks from which to acquire information.

Social Inclusion, ICTs, and Information Literacy

Hendry (2000) estimated that in 2000, the sum of information available to the human race was doubling every 16 months. This means only those who are information literate and possess information and communication technology (ICT) skills have access to the plethora of information sources available. As the information revolution continues in the 21st century, it is irrefutably creating a new kind of inequality: the information rich vs. the information poor. The ways in which newcomers and immigrant communities locate and access content in forms that are understandable and usable to them is essential to their integration into society. The digital divide literature suggests that those who are significantly more at risk to be socially excluded include people living with challenges such as low incomes, family conflict, or problems in school. It also includes those living in deprived neighbourhoods in both rural and urban areas (Cabinet Office, 2001, p. 11). Risk factors are compounded for new immigrants because they are often visible minorities, live in low-income neighbourhoods, have lower incomes, and may have children at higher risk of schooling problems. This poses a challenge for public libraries to increase their efforts in promoting social inclusion.


Communications and information are the lifeblood of sustainable communities, and public services such as libraries are often important conduits for information and knowledge.

New iterations of the digital divide stress that access must be combined with an understanding of how to effectively make use of ICTs – in other words, information and ICT literacy.

The social inclusion framework fits well in this new understanding of digital divide perspective because it highlights the complexity of the marginalization process; i.e., the digital divide is connected to other systems of marginalization and exclusion.

Addressing social inclusion through technological initiatives has become a strategy of policy making within various organizations including libraries (Council of Administrators of Large Urban Public Libraries of Canada – Canadian Urban Libraries Council, 2004). But it is not limited to that. If we conceive of the digital divide simply in terms of haves and have-nots, social inclusion policies would only require us to increase access to ICTs among marginalized communities. In fact, it is not only that individuals do not have access to ICTs, it is that they do not possess the literacy (technological and otherwise) to use these technologies effectively. Warschauer (2002) refers to these skills as “meaningful social practices” (Models of Access section, para. 4).

Similarly, Schuler (2001) talks about “civic intelligence” which includes access to relevant and usable content, skills in utilizing libraries and ICTs, a supportive environment, and attitudes as to the appropriateness, usefulness, and relevance of libraries and ICTs to one’s purposes.


Used properly, information technology can empower ordinary people and their communities, putting them in control of their working lives, allowing them a fuller exercise of their rights and an outlet for their creativity. The European Commission in Networks for the People and their Communities: Making the Most of the Information Society in the EU (1996).

Features of a Flourishing Community Information Environment

  • A culture of participation, collaboration, information sharing and diversity.
  • Available skills – communications, information handling, and processing skills.
  • Responsible gatekeepers – key local activists or professionals who are links between information.
  • “Occasions” – informal social opportunities where information is exchanged and refined in a social setting.
  • An appropriate administrative and physical infrastructure which encourages community development.
  • Relevant, accessible content.
(UK Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, 1999)
In their research on the role of public libraries as public community spaces, Leckie and Hopkins established that libraries acted as a space where new immigrants were able to acclimatize themselves to Canadian culture (Leckie and Hopkins, 2002). Participants from their study found the library a non-intimidating and quiet space to go to “observe” Canadian social practices. Hicken highlights the potential of libraries to support excluded groups, describing the library as a “refuge” which provides “a warm, unthreatening environment” (Hicken, 2004 p. 51). Libraries are a crucial community resource where residents may access essential everyday information, public ICTs, literacy training, leisure material, settlement information, and community programming that they may be unable to find or afford elsewhere. According to Hicken (2004), the library is often the only place some excluded groups can access information and learning. Additional research conducted by Fisher, Durrance, and Bouch Hinton (2004) identified four building blocks in immigrants’ constructs of the public library:
  1. Awareness of the resources available and acquisition of library skills.
  2. Discovery of the library and experience of its safe and accommodating environment.
  3. Telling family and friends about how libraries can help them.
  4. Learning to trust library staff (p. 760).

Key Learnings: Libraries and Social Inclusion

  • Public libraries have a fundamental role to promote social inclusion by bridging the gap between the information poor and the information rich.
  • Access to information is imperative for social inclusion, but simply putting multilingual books in libraries will not foster social inclusion for new immigrants.
  • Librarians have an opportunity to make libraries a place where immigrants feel included by making them relevant and meaningful. They must also provide the information literacy skills that will make library programs and collections accessible.
  • Librarians and information managers should view themselves as mentors and gatekeepers for those deprived of access to ICTs and meaningful information.
  • Libraries, through the provision of resources, public space, and ICT access and training, have a key role to play in the promotion of social inclusion.
  • A myriad of barriers, including institutional factors such as library membership policies, must be examined and assessed in partnership with the communities libraries serve.

From the UK Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, (1999)

  • Social inclusion should be mainstreamed as a policy priority for library and information services.
  • Library authorities should consider what specific services need to be tailored to meet the needs of minority groups.
  • Library authorities should consult and involve socially excluded groups in order to ascertain their needs and aspirations.
  • Library authorities should consider the possibilities of co-locating their facilities with other services provided by the local authority.
  • Libraries should be a major vehicle for providing affordable or preferably free access to ICT at local level.
  • A culturally competent library is able to provide services to people with diverse values, beliefs, and behaviours, including tailoring delivery to meet new immigrants’ social, cultural, and linguistic needs.
  • Cultural competent libraries are equipped to devise strategies that identify and address cultural barriers to accessing urban library services.
  • Cultural competence is achieved by incorporating one’s understanding of individuals and groups of people into practices and policies used in appropriate cultural settings.

New Immigrant Youth

Little research exists on immigrant youth. It is critical to understand what socially excluded communities, in particular new immigrant youth, want and need from public libraries. This would be a significant step toward building relevant and inclusive libraries that respond to the needs of all community members.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), more than 60% of immigrants and 70% of recent immigrants live in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Both first and second generation immigrant youth – those born outside Canada and those born in Canada to foreign-born parents, respectively – live primarily in urban centres (Anisef et al, 2005). More than one-third of immigrant youth aged 15 to 29 are first generation Canadians residing in Toronto and Vancouver (Anisef et al, 2005).

More specifically, the CIC reports nearly three-quarters of a million newcomer children and youth have settled in Canada over the past decade. Approximately 50% came from Asia and the Pacific, 20% from Africa and the Middle East, 15% from Europe and the UK, 10% from South and Central America, and less than 5% from the United States (CIC, 2007). Ontario receives the greatest share of these immigrant youth, with more than half of all newcomers settling in the province. Ontario is followed by British Columbia, which receives just under 20% (Anisef et al, 2005).

Urban public libraries serve a large percentage of immigrants and immigrant youth, and are committed to providing them with relevant services.

Community Based Research (CBR)

The following case study explores the information practices of Sudanese youth in London, Ontario. It was devised through community based research (CBR), a practice that can be used to enhance social inclusion. Defined as collaborative research undertaken within communities to instigate community level change, CBR initiatives are generally action-oriented and intent on effecting real change through policies and practices at local and regional levels (Wellesley Institute, 2007).

Case Study

Silvio (2006)

Silvio (2006) explores the information practices of Sudanese youth in London, Ontario and concludes that their most commonly cited needs include information on education, health, employment, politics, and how to deal with racism (2006, p. 263).

According to Silvio, most Sudanese youth prefer easily accessible informal sources such as trusted friends, relatives, and co-workers. In general, “they are very sceptical of information they receive from the radio, television, Internet, and other mass media.” (2006, p. 263). They are also suspicious of government agencies, although this mistrust tends to diminish over time. Although Silvio does not explain why, one can speculate that the political climate of civil war may have led Sudanese youth to be suspicious of people and organizations with whom they are not familiar.

This finding illustrates that social and cultural context play an important role in how an individual finds and evaluates information. It also illustrates the role that the library can play, and points to the fact that youth have specific information and social inclusion needs.

Barriers Faced by Newcomer Youth in Canada

Here are some of the barriers faced by youth immigrants to Canada:

Immigration, Settlement, and Adolescence

  • Youth do not adapt as easily as assumed. Problems they encounter include, “disappointment with life, low self-esteem, dysfunction, tension and a sense that they are not accepted by and are isolated from mainstream Canadian society,” (Seat, 2003, p.163).
  • They must cope with many new demands: to meet new academic challenges, deal with new expectations from teachers and parents, gain acceptance into new peer groups, and develop new kinds of social competence.
  • Throughout this process, they are obliged to negotiate the differences between the cultures of their countries of origin and their new home (Seat, 2003, p. 164).
  • Desai and Subramanian (2003), in a study of South Asian immigrant youth in the Greater Toronto Area noted, “Youth are confronted not only with the developmental challenges of adolescence, but also with adjustment problems because of intercultural conflicts between the values of the host culture and their culture of origin,” (p. 130).
  • Immigration requires youth to reassess and renegotiate their identities and sense of belonging. This can be a delicate balance, as they may struggle to reconcile the values of their traditional background with those of their new peers.
  • Janzen and Ochocka (2003) found, “immigrant youth wanted to feel accepted by others and conform to mainstream expectations and practices. On the other hand, youth wants to maintain and affirm their own personal identity; an identity stemming from their cultural background,” (p. 49).
  • For newcomer youth, learning English can be “a major personal challenge” that should be overcome in order to secure acceptance by those around them (Janzen and Ochocka, 2003, p. 47).
  • For newcomer youth, the many challenges of settlement, including learning English, finding employment and coping with the stress of adaptation, are combined with the unique pressures of adolescence. Youth must navigate the sometimes conflicting values of family and peers, grapple with issues of identity formation, and adjust to different roles shaped by shifting family dynamics.
  • Seat (2003) refers to the “process of settlement, adaptation, and integration” among immigrant and refugee youth as “a complex and multifaceted experience,” a process “that in many cases can be extraordinarily intense and stressful” (p. 162).
  • Experiences of poverty faced by new immigrant youth complicate the already challenging process of settlement. Peera (2003) notes that issues related to poverty and social housing include a “lack of aspirations for the youth and lower performance in school, as well as violence, criminal activity, and substance abuse,” (p. 72).

Role Change

  • The exchange of roles between parents and youth is necessary for new immigrant families, and this leads to a shift in the families’ power dynamics as youth are called on to act as “interpreters of language and culture for their parents,” (Janzen and Ochocka, 2003, p. 52-53).
  • In a study of youth in Waterloo, newcomer youth described how their parents worried about money and employment and the limited family time. “Observing their parents’ struggle in these new ways was hard for them,” (Janzen and Ochocka, 2003, p. 53). This experience can add to the stress of the youth’s own adjustment.


  • The settlement challenges faced by newcomer youth are acutely felt by refugees. Refugees represent a significant proportion of the newcomers arriving in some Canadian cities, “…approximately one-third of the newcomers arriving in Waterloo and Ottawa are refugees,” (Janzen and Ochocka, 2003; Peera, 2003).
  • Peera (2003) notes that refugees need to deal with other issues, in addition to acquiring English, as they have likely experienced emotional trauma. Other barriers include literacy problems and racism.

Lack of Community Supports and Information

  • Examining formal settlement services in Waterloo, Janzen and Ochocka (2003) came to the same conclusion as Desai and Subramanian (2003), whose focus was on services in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), “…mainstream agencies are not offering adequate, appropriate, or accessible services for newcomer youth.”
  • The few services offered to newcomer youth in Waterloo region “…that did exist were sometimes inaccessible because of language, financial, or various cultural barriers,” (Janzen and Ochocka, 2003, p. 63).
  • Desai and Subramanian (2003) noted barriers to the provision of services to South Asians in the GTA, “…mainstream agencies are unable to provide culturally appropriate and sensitive services because of systemic racism and language barriers” (p. 126).
  • According to Seat’s (2000) results of a study of 300 immigrant youth, participants did not have access to necessary information regarding settlement services. As a result, many youth were unaware of supports and services that were available to them.

Difficulties in Asking

  • It can be difficult for youth to state their needs by asking for help or accessing services, “The general disorientation that came with being an immigrant also made it hard for newcomer youth to know how and where to reach out for help, let alone articulate their concerns to service providers,” (Janzen and Ochocka, 2003, p. 62).
  • Researchers found some reluctance among youth to admit that they need help, “Some youth said it was hard to ask for help because they felt ashamed of their circumstances. Or if they did ask for help, they were not understood,” (Janzen and Ochocka, 2003, p. 63).

Obstacles and challenges to creating an inclusive workplace

Following are five impediments a public library may encounter while striving to create an inclusive workplace.

  1. It isn’t a priority
    The emphasis and priority the CEO or Chief Librarian places on social inclusion is critical to its success.
    Research suggests that the degree in which an organization is inclusive is often directly related to the priority that the leadership team places on this work. The authors of Inside Inclusiveness: Race, Ethnicity, and Non-profit Organizations (2003) state that the “CEO of the organization almost always establishes the level of commitment, the attitude, the pace, and the behaviours related to an organization’s overall inclusiveness practices.”
      The CEO must be an internal champion
  2. The community isn’t consulted
    Highly inclusive and accessible organizations are committed to the proactive engagement and integration of the community in the development, implementation, and evaluation of programs, services, collections, and strategies.

    The information received from the community provides necessary information and feedback so that the library can adapt its strategies and practices to remove barriers to inclusion that have been experienced by the local community group.
      The community needs to be a partner
  3. Inclusion is “owned” by a select few
    When the focus of the work to remove barriers to inclusion is “owned” by a select few, these efforts are more subject to fail than when both management and non-management staff members and board trustees feel a sense of ownership over the success of creating a more inclusive organization.
      Social inclusion requires the participation and ownership of all staff – management and non-management as well as the board of trustees
  4. Insufficient financial or human resources
    Becoming an inclusive organization requires dedicated resources. Initiatives such as training, professional development, targeted community outreach and marketing initiatives, require that sufficient financial and human resources are allocated to the effective implementation of the initiatives to remove barriers to inclusion.
      If social inclusion is a priority, the resources to support this work will be properly allocated
  5. The audit tool is seen as the “heart” and not the “pulse.”
    Upon completion of a social inclusion audit library and other non-profit organizations should use the results to enhance the capacity of the library to remove barriers to inclusion. Often times an organization views the audit tool as the heart of social inclusion work instead of viewing the audit tool as the pulse.
      Social inclusion is both a process and an outcome. The audit tool captures the status and progress, it does not do the rest of the work for you!