High Time for an ICT-Lift Large queues to free library Internet study groups

”We never thought the Internet was something for us; now we think it’s great fun!” Pensioners Inga-Britt and Sven Andersson from the small municipality of Boxholm in the county of Östergötland are more than pleased that they took the library’s computer course for beginners. Now they send e-mails to their children, grandchildren, friends and relations and even use the web to search for information.

This unique initiative started a year ago with the objective of reducing the digital gap. The project offers study groups, free of charge, at a number of libraries in Östergötland and is run in partnership with the adult education organisation. There is quite an interest in the course and there is already a queue for the next course. The project is now to be extended so that more libraries in the county can participate.

One of the reasons for starting this project is the fact that many people turn to their local libraries looking for help with computers and the Internet. The library is often the only local public institution in a municipality that offers free access to computers and competent personnel. The ques-tions are many and varied – from help with paying bills on the Internet to scanning documents and attaching files, for example, residence permits.

Libraries must however find a suitable structure for affor-ding this kind of help. Partnership with adult education organisations is a natural option as these institutions have a state mandate to reduce the digital gap. The question is how can libraries and adult education organisations work together to achieve greater involvement in the digital society.

Digital alienation

In Sweden it is thought that every third Swedish adult finds himself excluded from the information society because they have little or no Internet competence. This is the equivalent of roughly two million Swedes according to a report published by the World Internet Institute in 2008. Half of this number were pensioners, but the remainder were of employable age. Factors such as unemployment, inadequate education, ethnic affiliation, handicaps, etc., have probably contributed to digital alienation. Another factor affecting results was the availability of broadband in each municipality.

Libraries as learning environments

Libraries in the county should be able to provide support for residents that do not have private access to the Internet and/or do not posses Internet competence. But the libraries themselves are not always able to cope with this task. Even though the technology is there, library personnel do not always have the time to provide necessary support. This is why the Östergötland County Library together with the Regional Municipal Association have initiated a project to see how libraries and adult education organisations can work together to reduce the digital gap. The initiative is part of a larger project called ‘Libraries as learning environ-ments’. The project which runs from 2009 to 2010, and is financed with Regional and State funds, is designed to develop libraries’ potential to support lifelong learning among county residents. The aim is to strengthen the role of libraries in the local community, to increase cooperation with adult education organisations and local associations and to contribute to integration and greater social and digital involvement.

Increased Interest in cost-free study groups

One initiative within the project has been to start study groups which are free of charge and focus on basic computer and Internet competence at a few libraries in the county. This has been done together with the adult education institution,Medborgarskolan. Target persons for these groups are individuals who have little or no computer and internet competence and who are not really prepared to pay fees for a traditional adult education study group.

The concept is only feasible if instructors are prepared to work gratis. In several instances local library networks have helped to find instructors, often active pensioners, and even unemployed workers and students who find satisfaction in this kind of idealistic situation. The libraries have provided free access to a locale, computers, broad-band and other technology while Medborgarskolan has trained instructors, organised the study groups and supplied instructional material. Since autumn 2008, 200 persons have joined study groups and over 100 persons are waiting to do so.

Reaching new groups

There are real advantages for libraries and adult education associations working together: both organisations increase their chances of reaching out to new user groups. The majority of participants in the cost-free study groups have not previously been library patrons which means that the library has come into contact with new users. The study groups have proved to be a worthwhile complement to traditional library services, especially for libraries that have seen the need for Internet courses but have not been able to marshal the necessary resources. Adult education organisations have been given free access to library locales and technology and have been able to offer activities that may have otherwise been difficult to carry out. They have also been able to promote their other courses. Once a person has taken the first step into the digital world he might want to expand his horizons with the help of other digital courses offered by the organisation.

E-campaigns at the library

Equal access to information has a real social value. To take advantage of this we must be able to offer admission to the information society free of charge to all who wish to enter. For this reason we have decided to launch an e-campaign during October 2009. The theme for the campaign is ‘Internet for everyone – purpose and pleasure for everyday use; digital involvement and e-service for Internet beginners’. The purpose of the campaign is to demonstrate that libraries are public learning arenas where visitors can get help with new technology so that they can access the content and services available on the web. The campaign has two main directions: basic computer and Internet knowledge taught by the library, and social e-services – where external organisations are invited to the library to talk about the e-services they provide.

An ICT-lift in Sweden

Libraries and adult education organisations should be given a political mandate to work for the reduction of digital alienation in Swedish society. In order to forcefully promote this idea , a number of county Libraries have initiated a national project ‘ICT-Lift – Libraries and Adult Education Organisations Working Together’. The goal is to find sustainable solutions for reducing the digital gap in Sweden. A national dialogue between the active partici-pants and politicians is needed. The main purpose of the project is the establishment of long-term systematic cooperation between libraries and adult education organisations in order to achieve a national ICT-lift. This project is a continuation of ‘Bildanätverk’ – a national project promoting the library’s role in lifelong learning.

Anne Hederén and
Birgitta Hellman Magnusson

Translated by Greg Church