The role of public librries in adult learning

Parallel projects and research assignments

A project consists of three stages; the verification of project funding, the realisation of the project by the project owner and finally the evaluation of the project and the writing of the report.

When the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs secured funding for six three-year projects assessing the role public libraries play in adult learning (initial start 2002), another two components were added; a project coordinator at the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs and a research assignment.

The research assignment is to be carried out by the Swedish School of Library and Information Science (SSLIS) at Göteborg University and Högskolan i Borås. On their web site the following account is given:

“Expectations are that by applying a research assignment to deduce longterm experiences and enabling these and other knowledge to be utilised on a national, regional and local level for further development and strategic, innovative changes to public libraries and their roles in the learning process. On the whole there are three theoretical approaches that have been deemed particularly interesting: an organisational approach, aim on profession and aim on educational work methods in the library. Furthermore, the user perspective is central.”

The research assignments would not only run parallel with the projects, but they would also interact through queries during their process, queries that might affect the aim of the projects. As research libraries are financed using the grant to further adult learning via public libraries, the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs therefore considered research as a part of developing this service.

  • Our point of view is that research on the whole contributes to a higher quality in developmental work, says Birgitta Modigh at the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs.We therefore feel the need for a research assignment tied in with the projects, as a crucial part in the process of instigating change. Furthermore, the research assignment would contribute to increasing the status of the projects and increasing competence development.

An outside perspective

To have someone see the issues at hand from the outside, asking relevant questions and giving rise to new thoughts, was considered important.

  • The reason we chose the Swedish School of Library and Information Science (SSLIS) at Göteborg University and Högskolan i Borås, says Birgitta Modigh, is that the research assignment depends on their specialized knowledge, and the fact that these researchers can supply an invaluable outside perspective.

Aside from the research assignment, the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs also added another component. The council’s consultant took a more active part than is customary in focusing on the role of public libraries in adult learning. She arranged meetings for the project leaders twice every six months and functioned as a steadfast sounding-board during the project’s duration. Furthermore, there was the producing of their mutual web site: Vuxbib, and a web based discussion forum.What ensued was an uncommonly close collaboration between the National Council for Cultural Affairs and the various projects.

The consultant Ann Wiklund was recruited from what was then the Swedish National Agency for Education. She brought with her an assured involvement from previous projects affiliated to research assignments.

  • Evaluations are often produced in connection to reports at the end of a project’s duration, but Ann Wiklund notes that learning processes are ongoing and need to be catered to continuously. Having a research assignment running parallel to a project is a good learning process, even for government authorities.

Researchers ask questions of a different kind, even of an awkward kind, and see things that the National Council for Cultural Affairs and the projects fail to see.

An awkward question might be whether the citizenry’s point of view has been clarified enough in the projects.

  • Ann Wiklund goes on to say that researchers queried whether the projects should not have initiated user surveys at an earlier stage and why this was not the case. This gave rise to a satisfactory discussion as to the implication of user surveys and to what practical uses they can be applied in everyday work like situations.

Inexperienced and uncertain

Project leaders felt inexperienced in being part of a close collaborative effort with the addition of another two participants, the researcher and the consultant. They already had libraries and a number of other participants such as educational coordinators and learning centres to relate to.

  • It was not an easy situation for the project leaders, explains Ann Wiklund, as they had to give considerable thought to their own roles. The expectations of libraries as to what project leaders would do varied. At times it was expected that project leaders would actually work at the libraries. And then there is my position, which involves a denser form of dialogue, and then the researchers came along asking their questions. They were clever and competent project leaders with a lot of experience, which was essential in such complex projects.

Even the project owners – the county libraries and the public libraries – became increasingly uncertain.

  • As a project owner one tends to be on the periphery of things, we would invariably be questioned as to what the intentions of the National Council for Cultural Affairs were regarding the projects. There was also concern that the projects, under the auspices of the National Council for Cultural Affairs, would become streamlined, says Ann Wiklund.

Ann Wiklund took another position during the third year of the project in 2005. She has yet to read the final project reports and of course, the research assignment’s third report, which has yet to be published. Nevertheless, she feels confident that on the whole it has received positive effects for the projects and their close collaboration and with the research assignment.

  • The research assignment induced more reflection than is customary in a project. I would like to believe that the research assignment contributed to an increase in standards, along with the dialogue between projects, and between the projects and the National Council for Cultural Affairs. There is a synergy effect when project leaders meet.

Free scope

One of the project leaders, Anne Hederén, at the county library, feels the research assignment has been very conducive to the projects. She is also very appreciative of the active role taken by the National Council for Cultural Affairs in bringing together the projects. The research trail has been given free scope. Initially, the project meetings spent much time answering questions from researchers. It was only when half the assigned project time had been cleared that we began to receive feedback and when we made it clear that we had asked for them in their capacity as sounding boards, explains Anne Hederén. She also pondered whether the researchers themselves perhaps were uncertain if they were to interact or merely to observe.

  • Yes, the research assignment was initially given much time to answer queries, says Ann Wiklund. The intention was to, at an early stage, instigate reflections on attitudes and approaches.

Research can be performed in numerous ways.With hindsight it is possible to see what has taken place in a process, or as in this case follow the process along a parallel path. In the immediate case the researchers were faced with several considerations.

  • We gave a lot of thought as to what role we were to assume, says university lecturer Anette Eliasson, who was a part of the assignment’s research group. There were a number of difficult considerations, and no doubt there were those who felt that other paths should have been taken. I don’t feel that we have piloted the projects, but there are project leaders who feel that we should have taken a more active part in the processes.We would provide questions of a reflective kind; something appreciated by project leaders and project owners, but as to how this has influenced the projects is hard to say.

So many questions

If you turn it around, has the reality of the projects influenced the direction research has taken?

  • We have yet to revise our points of departure, says Anette Eliasson, but in the process we learn from the projects. In our first report we speculated that some of our areas of study would be focused upon, and there is nothing new that has been added to this in the meantime as we have followed the projects, but the questions have become more detailed.With some of the aspects we have had much research to relate with, whilst other areas have remained less explored.

As a non-researcher one is struck by the fact that report number two contains several questions but few answers. Can we expect the answers in report number three?

  • Research is not always about answers, it is also about formulating questions, says Anette Eliasson. Certain questions are not yet ready to be answered and some cannot be given tangible answers because surveys weren’t done before the projects were initiated. It is not part of the research group’s assignment to evaluate the affects of the projects. Surveys and evaluations is something the projects themselves are answerable for.We have not spoken to the end-users, which would have been beneficial but there was no financial backing for this. Instead we have interviewed other participants, produced a questionnaire, made observations etc.

Anne Hederén expresses a certain surprise as to the direction of the assignment and somewhat critical against what she considers being generalisations.

I was under the impression that it was going to be more action research, but it has mainly taken other kinds of research as its staring-point and from interviews with project leaders. As it stands now the project leaders are the interpreters of reality – will researchers get to find out the whole truth? They have chosen to study three projects at close range, yet they comment all projects in a sweeping manner, which in turn might lead to erroneous generalisations.

In the final report number three, available during this summer at the research assignment’s web site, there will be a summary as to what has taken place in the projects from the projects own accounts and relating to other research.

Influencing attitudes

An interesting aspect discussed in report number two is the possibility to change attitudes and the role of the project leaders in that particular area. In a number of projects this is exactly what is strived for, but in report number two other research makes plain how difficult it is to attain everlasting change in attitudes. The report reflects upon the assignment set by the National Council for Cultural Affairs “it is not required that project leaders should influence staff attitudes or create changes in the work routines. Those expectations are possibly created by and aimed to highly by the project leaders themselves?”

There is no one else who can achieve a change in attitudes, neither is it in the project leaders assignment specification, says Anette Eliasson. One may inspire but is that a permanent change?

  • Admittedly I didn’t specify the assignment but you can’t have development without changing people’s outlooks and attitudes, says Ann Wiklund. It’s not for the project leaders to change the attitudes of the participants but to create impulses and possibilities to change one’s way of thinking. One must try all avenues of possibilities, which is tiring grind and seldom worthwhile.

Research perspectives

When you hand a research assignment to an institution, which is so in sync with a particular profession, you are bound to see certain questions raised to the fore more than others, says Ann Wiklund. It would perhaps have been beneficial if the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs had given an assignment to yet another institution for the sole purpose too see if other angles and perspectives could be attained, for example to see what benefits the users have gained from all the ventures invested in and what this has meant for the studies.

For instance, in the Östergötland Project there have been collaborations with two other research institutes. Anette Hallberg, researcher at the Centre for Studies of Humans, Technology and Organization (CMTO) at Linköping University, has followed the project and made a case study where she examines if so-called Idea Stores, as seen in London, can function as a model to how an activity can be developed and aimed at other target groups.

A participant’s study of library staff and teacher’s experiences of support related to adult learning has been done by the county libraries in Östergötland and Jönköping together with Filippa Eckeby and Katarina Sipos Zackrisson at the Institute of Behavioural Sciences (IBV) at Linköping University.

It was also interesting to collaborate with the IBV, who are knowledgeable about adult learning processes, says Anne Hederén. The study does not evaluate our project, but the researchers say that the effects of competence development can be distinguished.

The evaluation of the Östergötland Project was done as a consulting assignment by the journalist Eva Bergstedt with the aim of gaining yet another outside perspective.

Central dilemmas

At a press conference in 2005, following the publication of report number two, the National Council for Cultural Affairs gathered researchers, project leaders and project owners. The chief librarians felt it constructive to be able to discuss with all those involved at the same time.

The research group chose four dilemmas after identifying them as central to the projects. These were discussed in mixed groups. Some of their conclusions are accounted for here.

  • Centrally controlled or local flexibility?

The collisions between the central attitudes and the local reality may vary; in some instances they were quite forceful. Local meetings are required to enable dialogue and to learn how to listen to other perceptions of reality.

We were hoping to get people in to act as catalysts, but there was no reaction other than that they thought we were very clever. They always say that, said the chief librarian, about the collaboration with educational organizer.

  • Professional autonomy or user’s needs?

There might be conflicts between various users’ needs. It might also be that library staff is not that keen on sharing their knowledge and that they may consider themselves to be user orientated but have yet to find out what the user really want.

One takes so much for granted, said a chief librarian. Perhaps this needs to develop in its own time, more so than the allotted time the project has been allowed.

  • Adult education or education?

Is it at all interesting or even possible to make a division between formal and informal learning? On a pragmatic level it affects the guidelines for the purchasing of course books, reading space and special opening hours, i.e. for local adult education.

A chief librarian felt it to be advantageous for libraries once politicians grasped the importance of adult education for the survival of small municipalities.

If it had not been for my college students, there wouldn’t have been any competence development to speak of, added another chief librarian.

  • Method development and related problems

Many libraries plan their purchases from recommended purchasing lists; this can lead to less fortunate groups having to do without.

Group presentations as opposed to individual reference dialogue – many feel they learn more on an individual level.

It’s better to take authentic questions as your starting point, but behind the information counter there is seldom time.We should have that quality time to provide a better service, wished a chief librarian.


The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs,
Adult Learning

Under the heading Project there are links to the web sites of the six projects

Research Assignment at the Högskolan i Borås

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Consultant Spiralum Kommunikation.