The role of public libraries in constructing knowledge

Great changes are behind us, but they also await us.

Information has become the most important feature of the world economy and a target for trade. Computers and the Internet have made it a part of our lives, work, communication and leisure-time. The world has become a village where

people are able to communicate quickly, form new types of free communities to discuss just about anything, receive advice and immediate assistance with problems they may have, meet new people and new ways of living, and they are able to do this 24 hours a day on-line. Everyone knows how to google and it is not only easy and useful, it is also extremely fun.

People have become their own information specialists and autonomic consumers of information. They are unusually free to determine how much information they need and to get the information they want. They can search for information purposefully or drift through cyber space as a free explorer. Information search is a part of the normal workday in almost all fields; it is a part of the everyday life of both children and adults. We are, however, only at the beginning point of a huge change. The development of Internet search engines will revolutionize the entire field of media in the near future. Broad band and the increasing ability of new technology to process digital content are growing. People receive the content products they want via broad band to the terminal they want.

Young people in particular use the Internet for communication, as a leisuretime activity and for educating themselves. Why go to the library to use databases when you can get them right in front of you? People’s need for information has not decreased in any way, although satisfying that need via the library is not what it used to be. Just transferring printed content onto the Web is not enough. The Internet means participating and doing, a new type of community and way to take action. Examples include Linux and Wikipedia, blogs, groups, etc.

Where do libraries stand in this transition? Everybody is a producer of information in this new world. The production of information is a sign of being visible within society; being visible is a way of confirming our existence. The exponential increase of information causes confusion; our memory and ability to process things are limited. How do we create knowledge from the enormous, disorganized mass of information, how do we evaluate it? It is paradoxical that two professions, namely teachers and librarians, who put their trust in the accuracy of information and their own expertise, face extremely similar challenges.

The entire society, public administration announcements and services, can be managed with the push of a button. Being able to find the right information and utilizing it successfully is an absolute requirement for administering many jobs. The management of information and electronic documents is a new genre of skill.

Constant lack of funds and new operations models
Vantaa is a part of the metropolitan area where 1/4 of Finland’s entire population lives. Cooperation between various fields is sensible and libraries are pioneers in this area. Libraries are visibly on the Web and the services they produce are first-rate. A joint library system has made a breakthrough as a branded product.

However, the amount of borrowing, a factor that affects the amount of funding received, is on the downslide. Libraries must search for new ways of operating; the old ones are no longer feasible. In Vantaa, the only realistic starting point in planning is the narrow path of scanty resources; there are no funds, but more value for work and notability for the library must be attained. Plausible partners would be producers of services on the municipal level and the educational system. More than ever, public libraries must emphasize the skills and professionalism important to an information society. They must present themselves to the world and offer services actively. They must justify the significance of library services. It seems to be tremendously difficult for us to really understand our own expertise and to market it.What constitutes our core knowhow? What is the impact of libraries in society? How can libraries participate in municipal development?

The focus of Vantaa’s library strategy lies in cooperation with schools.We have a long history of working together and we have offered user training in the past as well. However, library services have been directed more towards answering patrons’ questions and providing materials Cooperation with schools has focused chiefly on the promotion of reading as a hobby, something that has belonged to the realm of duties of librarians in children’s libraries. A new, up-to-date model for these duties has been developed.

The significance of the Internet is immense and there is no going back to the old way of doing things. The changes in the ways of doing things, prompted by technology, are inevitable. For example, a teacher needs to know what the Web has to offer and what types of search tools and information channels are used. There is no screening of the information found on the Web and therefore knowing who produced the information found there is extremely important.

Content and significance of information literacy
In Finland, the new view on learning, based on constructivism, is radically changing the way teachers are teaching. The teacher is no longer the only authority on information; rather, it is assumed that the student will also search for and choose the information (s)he needs. Previously, all the teaching material was carefully selected and revised. Now it is being sought from the Web. It is the teacher’s duty to pose questions which develop thinking skills, direct the learning process and provide feedback. Information in and of itself is not enough; the construction of information, the ability to interpret it and screen it is also needed.

According to pedagogues, decentralized cognition promotes learning. This means that our knowledge is not all in one place in our heads or in books; rather it is “scattered” throughout many different media. It cannot be found in the same place; it can be found via the knowledge of various producers of knowledge and other information sources. Teachers are not usually able to monitor the information obtained from the Web and its authenticity in any way. Moreover, the definitions of the origin of the information, i.e. who produced it, who is responsible for it, are not very clear in the world of the Internet.

Indeed we need tools and guidance on how to use the Internet, but we also need a different type of literacy, the ability to understand signs and symbols, because the screen is the site of the image.We must know how to read many different types of data, pictures and sounds, and we must learn how to utilize what we have learned and to build something new based on that learned information. For this purpose, we need both conceptual and practical tools.

Literacy, that age-old approach to measuring how educated people are, is a popular word in some of the most interesting contexts. There is talk of computer literacy, information literacy, media literacy and picture literacy. One hundred years ago, the significance of general literacy was emphasized as a civil skill. There was talk of education and culture; the economy needed efficient, skilled people. Libraries and schools worked together to achieve this goal. However, this new literacy involves much more the idea of it involves human empowerment. It is culture-sensitive, socially indispensable know-how.

The teaching of information literacy has become central territory for academic libraries. It seems rather peculiar that students learn about information retrieval, the organization of information and its evaluation at this stage when all of their learning up to this point has been based on the command of these skills. In Vantaa, we feel it is important to build a foundation right from the beginning of the learning process.

Policies in Vantaa
1. School curricula and cooperation with schools
In Vantaa, the library has approached schools in various ways, both on the administrative and the practical level, i.e. through individual librarians and teachers. As representatives of the library, we have partaken in numerous occasions, directed towards teachers, speaking and training. As representatives of the Vantaa City Library, we have partaken in the drafting of a new municipality-specific curriculum for basic education as well as a curriculum involving information literacy skills and communications technology. In addition, we took part in compiling a separate curriculum for information management, the general objectives of which are based on international Information Literacy standards.

Programs for developing information literacy are continuous beginning from the elementary school; a process which builds new knowledge onto the old. The programs are discussed twice a year in planning meetings together with representatives of the Education Department. Important issues include specifying individual information needs, defining the topic, skills in utilizing various information resources and finding important, relevant information, the ability to evaluate gathered information critically, and processing selected information. The programs may include instruction on how to use search engines effectively, analyzing concepts, the meaning of key words and how to use them, evaluation exercises and the consideration of the suitability of various information channels in performing various tasks.

The responsible and ethical use of the Internet, netiquette, and respecting copyrights are extremely important as well. These programs also emphasize the significance of literature as a supporter of literacy, in learning and as a source of information.

Learning how to find information is not an independent skill that can be reached all at once. Indeed it is important that a student/pupil finds the answer to his/her questions and attains factual information (s)he has sought. Information retrieval must be viewed in a broader manner within the realm of concepts of learning. Problem solving, argumentation and critique form its core. It must be viewed as a process, as part of significant activity, which is analytical and clearly purposeful. For this reason, all teaching must be integrated into real learning assignments.

A crucial, practical issue in information retrieval and teaching information management concerns the distribution of assignments. If the teacher does not possess a clear understanding of the process involved in information retrieval, (s)he may set an assignment that is too general, extensive and unanalyzed. The more the teacher knows about information retrievalprocess, the better are the expected learning results. Training teachers is especially important.

2. Library visits
The teacher may bring the students to the library or the librarian may go to the school. Elementary students utilize these services frequently, but there is a problem with the secondary school of getting students away from school for a couple of hours because it interferes with the lessons of another teacher.

Each grade has its own program, which guides students in using various information networks and the media as well. The elementary level may have e.g. fairytales, stories, computer games, basic search elements, music, etc. The program is always discussed with the teacher beforehand.

3. School libraries
Good school libraries are few and far between in Finland.We cannot help every school, but in Vantaa we work with partnership schools. A joint program between the school and library is carried out and it is modified according to the mode of instruction.

One model involves the purchasing of services from the library, which hires a librarian, assists in new acquisitions, provides teaching and instructs in finding information. Teaching information retrieval is taught integrally, as a part of related teaching, and the library functions are considered to be a learning environment.

The other model functions so that the library and school operate in the same building. Plans for active interaction begin before the construction phase and the fact that the library is the learning environment has been considered in the planning of space. In this particular model, the library is first and foremost a public library open to everyone, but some of its staff specialises in teaching and contribute in education programmes.

So-called “floating school libraries” are also being developed. These refer to virtual libraries placed on the respective school Intranet with involved user training and information search options.

4.Cooperation with other educational institutions
We cooperate with the university’s department of further education on a regular basis.We give lectures and training in using information networks and we assist students in constructing knowledge on various specilised areas. A new project is starting up with the area’s vocational institute where modern information services are being set up and the Vantaa City Library is functioning as consultant.We can state proudly that there is quite a demand for our professional skills and expertise.

In honour of professional knowledge
More and more, instruction in information retrieval and teaching have become a routine job. Instruction and courses for various target groups in the use of the Internet have also been provided to the general public. However, the alteration of information expert’s duties has not occurred painlessly.We must emphasize that the basis of the job lies in the highly educated individual and an excellent collection work.

As institutions of public service, libraries are responsible for guiding various user groups in utilizing information, services and opportunities for participation distributed on the Web. This requires knowledge in pedagogy, command of concepts and methods, and teaching and training skills. Knowledge of educational theory and its vocabulary, as well as continuous further education in one’s own field are also absolutely necessary.

Public libraries are not able to offer very diverse, licensed Web material, at least at the moment, and their competitiveness is rather weak.When borrowing decreases, panic strikes. The library cannot compete on the information market, but it can compete with professional skill.We attempt to create new practices, enhance our profile and market that part of our professional knowledge which is in demand. Information is not only a commodity, it has got certain attraction too.

One way to refresh our looks is to return to the grassroots, back to the realm of education and teaching. This profession could contribute various public services because its core lies in the filtration of information and quality ranking.We possibly could even partake in that other part of information retrieval process meaning documentation and keywords to improve the accessibility of municipal information. Let´s find new paths in information society.

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös SPLQ:3 2006 19 Marjatta Hemming More than ever, public libraries must emphasize the skills and professionalism important to an information society Marjatta Hemming, Information Specialist, Vantaa City Library Teacher: Helia, University of Applied Sciences marjatta.hemming AT helia.fi Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Information Specialist, Vantaa City Library. Teacher: Helia, University of Applied Sciences.