Lifelong learning, libraries and living a good life

Information literacy can be seen as one of the basic skills in achieving a ‘civilised people’
In a speech at a seminar organised by the Ministry of Health in Finland last year, the legendary Hilkka Orava, the newly retired library director of Salo City Library, stated that “the goal of the public library is to help its users to live a good life, or at least as good a life as possible.” She went on to say that “this definition covers all the goals of library service: searching information for learning, work and other spheres of life, hobbies, cultural experiences and recreation. The player, the subject, at the library is always the individual and his or her needs.” Her definition comes close to lifelong learning – or the Nordic concept of ‘folkbildning’, educating and cultivating the people, which is not easily translated into English. It stems from the 19th century and even today, the term is often used when referring to the popular non-formal and voluntary educational systems in the Nordic countries: adult education institutes, folk high schools, study circles and public libraries.

It is no coincidence that the Finnish Library Journal was first published by the Library and Adult Education Associations who both saw it as the basic task of the public libraries to inform, to civilise, to cultivate, and to help the citizens in their personal growth. The modern electronic network is one of the tools for cultivating one’s mind, and information literacy can be seen as one of the basic skills in achieving a ‘civilised people’.

At the same seminar Hilkka Orava said “that people are being classified according to age even when there are no grounds for that. At least, from the library’s point of view the middle-aged or the elderly are not a specific target group who need their own special services. Ageing can bring with itself physical constraints which affect one’s use of the library. But other than that, the aged are like the young, individuals with their individual needs.” Some information needs lead to the library, while others may not. A case in point are a couple who at 65 and 69 would probably be branded ‘aged’.

The 65-year-old wife has visited her local library at least once a week ever since she was a child. Libraries have changed, their range of services has become wider, but for her, the most important service is still borrowing books.

Serendipity has always helped her find books she didn’t know existed – or books she never knew she wanted to find – but just as often, she looks for a specific book or author or something on an interesting topic. Searching for books at her familiar local library is easy for her, as was the use of the card catalogue. Since the catalogue cards disappeared, she’s rather tended to ask the helpful staff. She reads detective stories, the latest fiction, books on relativity theory as well as travel stories. When her mother died, she found comforting books on the subject from the library. On the other hand, she often looks for background information on topical world events. And she is certainly not the only working class woman without much formal education to have looked for and found not only access to information but also tools for personal growth and self-development, recreation and leisure at her local library, tools for living a good life.

The 69-year-old husband faced a new information need when he bought his first PC, scanner, colour printer and internet connection a year ago. The need to understand the workings of the newly purchased equipment led him to the local library. For a year, he borrowed and read books on ICT and boldly ploughed his way through new applications. Today he surfs on the internet, downloads freeware games (for his wife), sends e-mail with attachments, makes his own compilation CDs, prints out photographs and pays his bills on the net.

The services and collection of his local library have backed up his informal and independent studies and the development of his information literacy skills. The internet services of the library offer an additional way of using the library which suits him: making reservations, searching information, renewing loans.

Before his computer hobby, his wife would regularly visit the library and bring back books for him, too. Now he also visits the library every week, although he also uses the internet services. In addition to fiction, he now borrows music, CD-ROMs, language courses and literature on ICT.

The real-life couple, who are my parents, have definitely not seen themselves as model examples of lifelong learning or informal adult education. They have simply used the library according to their own individual information and cultural needs which have varied at different stages of their lives. While my mother wants to speak and interact with the staff, my father likes to search on the internet first. As long as the different needs of users are catered for, the ideal of ‘cultivating and civilising the people’ and the philosophy of lifelong learning will live on.

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös OY

Freelance Library Specialist