Life in an information society … Is it easy, fun and free, and what does the library have to do with it?

The concept of an “information society for all” is no longer a hot and trendy topic. The information society has become a part of everyone’s everyday life and it is everywhere. However, the challenges it poses have not been resolved; the problems have not gone away. The everyday, the people’s information society, needs advocates, builders, critics and helpers. Could the library take on the challenge?

Seemingly, everything is okay.

The “information society for all” of the people in the Nordic countries is, in many ways, a good example. More than 80 percent of the people use the Internet in some way; nearly 100 percent of the young people and half of the older generations use it.

We here in the Nordic countries have many factors that foster the use of the Internet.We have a long tradition of free education. Many adults feel that people should engage in learning throughout their entire life. “How else are you going to survive?,” say the 70- year-olds who take part in free Internet courses at the library. People’s attitude toward technology is positive and it is interesting to them. Public authorities have supported the spread of technology and education in using it.

In the Nordic countries, libraries have added their mite to the pile and taken an active role in building the information society. For a long time now, patrons have been able to use the Internet in libraries for free, and libraries have offered courses on how to use the Internet. People use libraries’ Internet services extensively, and the concept of social media is making its way into library services. Is everything thus okay in the domain?

The digital divide is changing, but it still exists

When information technology began to prevail, the gap between information technology and the everyday, i.e. digital divide, were discussed to a great extent. As information technology became a more significant part of people’s everyday lives, the discussion died down. However, the divide has by no means disappeared.

Dutch professor, Jan van Dijk, opens up the depths of new digital divides in his book The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society. This article reflects the message in van Dijk’s book as to what has been learned in Netti-Nysse, the Internet bus of the Tampere City Library, during the past eight years and more.

In the Western World, the digital divide is no longer a question of technology; instruments abound. It is a question of skills, social networks, cultural factors and life situations. The current information society and its instru-ments require more knowledge and skills than any other previous communication devices. It also requires more types of instruments that are more in number and more versatile than ever before. Moreover, the concept of information society has permeated nearly all areas of life. It changes, replaces and supplements traditional services.

The digital divide would no longer seem to be expanding in the Nordic countries. More and more, people are grasping command of basic computer skills. However, basic skills are not enough; people must be able to utilize applications diversely and creatively. Extensive networks and a new type of expertise are needed in the information society.

According to van Dijk, the development of the information society has created a “broadband elite”. Representatives of this elite use the network daily, including an abundance of different applications. They also create, choose and make decisions pertaining to the information society. Approxi-mately 15 percent of the population in the Western World is considered part of the broadband elite. Fifty to sixty-five percent of the population use the Internet and different applications to some extent, and twenty-five to thirtyfive percent are not involved in the development at all. The distance between the elite and those who are not involved with the Internet at all is growing. The digital divide is expanding.

Information society and expertise

Van Dijk divides the skills needed in an information society into technological skills (Operational Skills), literacy skills (Information Skills) and skills to search for, choose and process information (Strategic Skills). Skills to use numbers, graphics and sound are contained within these skills. People in an information society also need language skills and digital literacy. They need skills to use information according to their own well-defined needs in very complex environments that are full of information. Interactivity and integration are also new, challenging concepts associated with the information society. They make the Internet a more exciting place to be, but they also place new challenges on the need for skills.

The afore-mentioned skills are a tremendous development compared to traditional reading and writing skills. Formal education can no longer guarantee that everyone will acquire skills – even the traditional skills in reading and writing seem to be in danger. Traditionally, the promotion of reading has been the work of the library and this work must be furthered and reinforced. The role of the library is ‘new’ in the area of reading and writing and still unclear. It is also a question of freedom of speech, equality with regard to the right to knowledge and information, and, above all, added value in our everyday lives.

In Tampere, the Information Plaza and the Netti-Nysse Internet bus are places where people can always ask for advice, practice their skills, wonder or discuss issues pertaining to everyday life in the information society. People really appreciate it. Broad-minded, skillful young people have done tremendous work in building the information society in the Nordic countries. However, today the language of the youth and their ways of using infor-mation technology do not touch upon the questions adults may have. There is a need for new interpreters. The library has become a place with a low threshold to inquire, learn, and have fun in the networks.

The library is not a school.We must foster the spirit of free education for alland be evident in our pedagogical solutions. Distinct language, humour, patience, time, and good personal guidance have proved to be an infallible remedy for computer aversion and frustration with the information society. The information society should provide adults with joy and/or advantage for their own everyday routine. Usually, people muster up motivation by asking themselves, “How can I keep in touch with my grand-children who are living abroad better?” That is a good place to start.

Information society means tools

The information society involves technology, instruments and business. People in the society must know how to purchase computers and other devices, update them, make them compatible and use them. The devices have more features than the ordinary user needs or knows how to use.

For users, technology must be userfriendly, aesthetic, durable, ecological, and reliable. These features extensively facilitate everyday living and the development of citizens’ information society. For the time being, though, nothing indicates that attention is being given to consumers’ wishes. Developers of technology and business are not meeting the needs of the everyday.

The Information Plaza and computers at the Tampere City Library are used on a regular basis. Although people may have computers and Internet connections at home, they still come to the Information Plaza. The library’s computers work well and they are also fast. The most important thing, however, is that there is someone present whom patrons can ask for help if they have problems.

Information society means networking

The Internet has opened up an incredible opportunity for people to keep in touch; time and place no longer pose an obstacle. To take advantage of the opportunities the Interent offers, you need to have a network. Van Dijk teaches that a network always needs a critical mass of people. He also states that an information society is always based on competition. The network comprises a centre, stars and weavers.

The Internet enriches and reinforces existing relationships and creates new relationships. It opens up new oppor-tunities requiring rather little expertise. However, for communication to work, there needs to be someone to whom a message/information can be sent and someone who knows how to receive the message/information. Adults and older users understand e-mail as an extension of the tradition of writing letters, and Skype is reminicent of the telephone. However, the latest trends in social media often seem strange and overwhelming to many adults.

Could the library aid people in networking, help people meet each other in not only the physical, but also the virtual library space? It is good that discussion about the issue has begun. Loneliness is perhaps one of the greatest problems in our society. The library has many strong ‘remedies’ for loneliness.We not only have fiction and knowledge of it, but we also have the physical and virtual spaces as well as security and familiarity.

The library and an information society for citizens?

For more than eight years now, our staff in the Netti-Nysse Internet bus has guided and encouraged people to use computers. In addition to Netti- Nysse, the Tampere City Library also has two Information Plazas, which offer support and guidance to deal with the challenges of everyday life in the information society. There is a total of 15 of us who work in the library on a full-time basis to build an easily approachable information society open to all.

Tampere has a population of 210,000 and in addition to the library there are adult education centres and organisations with which we work in close collaboration. Our patronage has changed from people of working age to more elderly patrons in the past ten years. The problems our patrons encounter have, for the most part, re-mained related to basic issues. Devices that are difficult to understand and services that demand perseverence of learners. Using a mouse is often difficult for elderly people and reading the display is challenging. On the other hand, seeing patrons learn and the joy of finding something new is a part of our everyday work.

The most important thing in this work is the opportunity to meet people. All you need is a good sense of humor, skills in customer service, common sense and patience. Clear language and apposite recommendation of various website contents are highly appreciated. Our patrons are often surprised by the abundant quality content of the Internet. They cannot imagine the amount of fascinating and useful information that can be found there. Although the need for courses on how to use the Internet is decreasing, it still exists.

In addition to basic courses, we also offer various thematic courses free of charge.We introduce what the Internet has to offer by providing opportunities for patrons to learn about websites that offer map and route services, infor-mation on travel, or online communities. We guide patrons in image processing and encourage them to produce their own digital stories.

Netti-Nysse’s own interpretation of social media involves explorations into the Internet world. During our explo-rations, we venture out into the Internet’s fascinating pages with the group and we share our thoughts and experiences about what we found with each other. We meet with an age-old storyteller on a large silver screen, examine common family names, travel around the world, and challenge each other to a quiz show. The theme of our latest exploration is astronomy.We have worked in collaboration with amateur atronomists to put together a travel package, the purpose of which is to arouse interest in related issues. This year we are giving out prepared exploration travel packages for elderly people to use during the day, and we are teaching our day instructors about the idea of the explorations and how to carry them out.

Networks are also important to those who are building the information society.Multi-professional collaboration requires extremely persistent work. The library could be an active, critical network trend-setter. There is a lot of experience and perspective in libraries, but there could perhaps be more courage and contacts from many different fields.When an esteemed researcher enthusi-astically states that social media are ‘easy, fun and free’, someone must have the courage to take a stand. Even the researcher may not be aware that that courage does not exist in everyday life.

It would be good to remind the members of the Nordic paradises within the information society of the global digital divides that are expanding and becoming deeper. Van Dijk writes: “The difference between broadband elite and complete digital illiterates is about as big as the gap between the highly educated in the First World and the traditional illiterates in the Third World.” Perhaps the library would have something to say about this?

Elina Harju
Project Co-ordinator
Tampere City Library

elina.harju AT

Coordinator of Netti-Nysse Tampere City Library.