Public libraries as learning spaces

The role of public libraries is changing rapidly and the rise of open education creates opportunities for them to be hubs for lifelong learning. Alastair Creelman, blogger and e-learning analyst at Linnaeus University in Kalmar, examines some of the key current trends in net-based learning and discusses the future role of public libraries in this context.

In the last few years a vast range of educational material has been made freely available. Lectures from the world’s universities, instructional films, documentaries, guides, articles, scientific reports and podcasts can now be freely accessed from laptops or mobile devices making mobile learning a reality. Knowledge and instruction are no longer restricted to classrooms and libraries and students are able to take charge of their own learning in completely new ways. Flexible online collaborative learning challenges the traditional classroom model based on students coming to a school or college, following a set curriculum and sitting standardised examinations.

Changing student needs

The need for higher education in the world is growing rapidly, as part of a lifelong learning perspective. The students of the future will not be so tied to the university campus and will require help and advice wherever they are. Public libraries have a key role to play in supporting such students.

An ever-changing world

It’s not just the students’ needs that are changing. Educational technology and our relation to it are constantly shifting and the following trends will have a profound impact on how we learn in the future:


Increasing numbers of universities and colleges distribute learning resources freely on the net as open educational resources (OER). OER can be video, audio, texts, photos or animations that may be shared freely according to Creative Commons licensing. Channels such as Apple’s iTunes U and YouTube Edu mean that content is no longer exclusive and content sharing has become a marketing tool as well as a contribution to global lifelong learning. Context is now king and the teachers’ ability to inspire, facilitate and guide is now the university’s trump card.


This abundance of material has lead to an explosion in informal learning that is increasingly student-driven. Students are able to study courses from different institutions, form their own study groups and design their own learning paths. This puts pressure on universities to be able to examine and assess work that has been compiled at other institutions. The ability to validate informal learning acquired at work or online is another important future development.

Social media

A great deal of discussion, reflection and collaboration takes place outside the university’s learning management system on open social networks, blogs, wikis and YouTube. Students are creating their own personal learning environments using the tools and networks they prefer rather than the tools provided by the university. This makes the student’s work more public and can be compiled into e-portfolios to attract future employers.


Future students expect all course material and information to be accessible any place, any time and on any device. All course literature should be available on a tablet/iPad, laptop or mobile. The need to come to campus or classroom has to be re-examined.

These factors bring into question the role of the library in a world where all information is only a click away. When most of the bookshelves have been moved to the cellar the library becomes a learning space and information hub offering professional guidance in information retrieval, source criticism and information analysis. These services must be available both in the physical building and on the net and a library’s value will no longer be based on its physical collection but on the skill level of its staff.

New identity

The challenge for libraries is not only to redefine their role but also to com-municate it to the public. There is a clear mismatch between the library’s own view of its role and the perception of students, teachers and the public in general. Despite excellent efforts, library skills and services are still seldom fully integrated into the curriculum and everyday classroom activities. We cannot simply assume that all students are digital natives; they often lack basic information retrieval skills as well as source criticism and furthermore they seldom see this as the library’s core business. Instead they turn to the teacher who is often lacking in many aspects of digital literacy. It is vital that libraries clearly define themselves as information hubs and resource centres for digital media offering impartial, professional advice and guidance.

As the size of the book collection fades in importance the competence of the staff becomes crucial. Students visit the library (physical or virtual) to ask for advice and guidance on net-based resources or help with digital tools and services. Open access and open educational resources mean that public libraries have access to scientific publications and teaching material that was previously locked away in university libraries or behind expensive academic journal subscriptions. The previous boundaries between public and aca-demic libraries are already blurred and future students will expect help wherever they are.

The design and layout of future libraries will vary greatly and there are already many inspiring new examples both in Sweden and internationally. However the virtual space can be created through national cooperation, possibly a national virtual library with common resources and services but offering a more local profile once logged in. Increased cooperation between libraries, adult education, schools and universities is needed to avoid reinventing the wheel.

Future libraries will offer services such as career and study advice to a greater extent than today. As the range of study options multiply and become truly global students will increasingly need help to choose the right path. Here the library can have a central role as an impartial broker helping students choose from a multitude of options varying from local classroom-based courses to net-based studies at international universities or peer-based online learning with organisations such as Peer 2 Peer University.

Education is facing a major upheaval today. Traditional roles, structures and processes are being questioned and challenged by new opportunities for communication, collaboration and creation. The paradigm shifts that have taken place in the music and film industries are now affecting education. Ubiquitous access to open educational resources and the collaborative opportunities of social media will change the educational landscape in the next 10 years. Libraries have a crucial role to play in this shift but it is essential that they position themselves clearly as information professionals and provide services both face-to-face and online. Your local library could well be an app on your mobile – always available wherever you are.

Alastair Creelman
Coordinator of Distance Learning
Center for Educational Development
in Higher Education
Linnaeus University


Alastair Creelman Coordinator of Distance Learning Center for Educational Development in Higher Education Linnaeus University Born in Dundee, Scotland and has lived in Sweden since 1983. Alaister work with net-based learning at Linnaeus University, Kalmar in south-east Sweden with particular interest in social media and open educational resources.

Useful links

Alastair Creelman’s blogs on IT and learning: