On the whole, public libraries share the same set of values that characterize adult education organisations, namely belief in the individual’s desire and ability to develop personal interests and skills. This includes an emphasis on the importance, for individuals and society as a whole, to be able to freely search for information. And it includes the realization that free access to information and the free exchange of thoughts and ideas is a necessary condition of the democratic process.
The 1990s saw considerable change in the economic and political arenas. Altered social structures and increasing international competition, globalization, created new conditions on the labour market. New demands were placed on learning and educational experience. During the same period Swedish universities and university colleges expanded dramatically. The concept flexible teaching was introduced to adapt teaching methods as far as possible to individual needs. This flexibility could consist of adapting localities, duration, tempo, pedagogical methods and the offering the choice of group or individual tutoring. Flexible teaching bridged the gap between formal and informal education and even facilitated lifelong learning. The concept of lifelong learning was seen as a way for society and citizens to cope with the social changes of the period.
Many public libraries initiated active cooperation with local learning centres, university colleges and adult education organisations. The possibility of pooled library collections was introduced and municipal and regional library strategies were created. It is evident that public libraries cater to a broad spectrum of students, perhaps because the local library is closest and they feel most at home there. However, their needs can only be fulfilled if there is a working dialogue with other libraries including basic logistical solutions. Public libraries see themselves as part of a larger infrastructure able to deliver a variety of services for lifelong learning to people of different backgrounds with different needs and goals. Public libraries are always looking for dialogue and partners to extend their role as intermediaries in the lifelong learning process.
One of the key components in lifelong learning is digital competence. The three elementary skills – reading, writing, counting – have now been complemented with ICT as a fourth basic skill. The ability to use the internet to search and retrieve information, acquire knowledge and carry on a dialogue will, in the future, have an increasingly important role in the development of democracy and the participation of citizens in community affairs.
In recent years attention within the EU has been drawn to the fact that there is an increasing digital gap. New groups are slow to adopt ICT despite an overall increase in Internet usage. 40% of European inhabitants don’t use the Internet and in the Nordic countries 15-20% of the population still don’t use the Internet on a daily basis.
The digital gap is a growing problem. In 2006 EU member countries agreed to reduce the digital gap and in November 2007 the European Commission advocated stronger measures to come to terms with alienation in today’s information society. Information and communication technology has become more and more important, and limited access and usage of this technology can lead to serious forms of social and economic exclusion. Factors that affect the digital gap in regard to access and usage are the generation gap, income and educational differences as well as handicaps of different kinds.
Internet-usage has become a question of class. Roughly 40 per cent of lowincome groups don’t have access to the Internet on a daily basis. Community information and social services in digital form is increasing. The gap between those that can use the Internet and those that can’t is becoming increasingly large. Developing infrastructures so that that everyone has access to broadband isn’t the answer. The real need is a considerable push to increase peoples’ skills in the use of information technology.
This is the main challenge for public libraries in the Nordic countries and the European Union.
Swedish Arts Council
mats.hansson AT kulturradet.se
Translated by Greg Church