Public Libraries and Adult Learning

Earlier this month I wrote an article for Adults Learning, a journal published by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). They’ve kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.

Resources of hope

Across the country, public libraries are under threat of closure and with them vital community spaces in which adults can take their first steps back into learning. The impact of these cuts will be devastating, says Lauren Smith.

Since their inception, free public libraries have been a source of information, knowledge and culture for all. They are spaces where anyone can go, for as long as they like, without feeling pressure to buy anything, and without feeling judged for what items they want to read. For these reasons, library services are crucial to adults who wish to engage in learning at whatever level, be it to improve their literacy or embark on a research project, through formal schemes or simply for the pleasure of learning something new.

Through the public library network, any individual can borrow any item they need, at no (or very little) immediate cost. This is an increasingly important service, which has been demonstrated by an increase in library usage over the past few years. Many people rely on public libraries for expensive textbooks and other resources such as language cds and technical manuals. As the economic situation worsens, people will have less disposable income and learning resources will be less affordable. Furthermore, with the introduction of increased levels of tuition fees, fewer people will be able to afford to enrol on higher education courses.

Libraries are crucial for functioning democracies. The public need (and have a statutory right to) equitable access to independent, authoritative sources in order to make informed choices. Libraries provide these resources, and importantly, qualified staff who provide impartial support and advice to enable people to develop critical thinking skills. Library staff also offer support with using computers, the internet and emerging technologies, which play an increasing role in learning for people of all ages. A survey for the Times Educational Supplement found that children who do not have access to the internet are at a severe disadvantage in education, and with more and more courses for adults making the most of online resources and virtual learning environments, it is safe to assume that adult learners are at a similar disadvantage.

In many ways, libraries are naturally suited to support adult learning in ways which schools are not – the Victorian idea of ‘self-improvement’ is a value which continues to permeate through library services. For many adult learners, schools are associated with negative learning experiences and do not encourage engagement. Libraries, on the other hand, are more often seen as neutral spaces that are not designed for education at only one age, and as a result, can be seen as more conducive to adult learning.

It has been on the horizon for some time, and now the reality of the cuts is staring the UK’s public libraries in the face. On the day of writing, 426 static library branches and 59 mobile library service are under threat of closure or have already been closed. The loss of so many important community learning spaces will have a devastating impact on adult learning, because library branches are often the only places available for community use. However, library closures are not the only manifestation of the disproportionate cuts to library services. Huge cuts are being made to local studies, archives and family history resources, for example, which will have a knock-on effect on both formal and informal adult learning. Thousands of qualified and trained members of staff face redundancy, which will have a detrimental impact on the level of support available to adult learners. Concerns about the ability of volunteers to offer expert advice in encouraging ways have been voiced – just how many volunteers will have the level of skill and ability needed to run an effective library service and support all library users with literacy, technology and information-seeking? It becomes more apparent day by day that the government has not thought its Big Society vision through.

On Saturday 5th February, campaign groups and members of the public up and down the country took part in a national day of action against library cuts and closures, supported by organisations such as Campaign for the Book and the national public libraries advocacy group Voices for the Library. Although this had a great impact and raised public awareness of the value of library services and the threats to them, the government still refuse to intervene on a national level, stating that library services are a local issue and must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Local campaign groups continue to raise awareness of the cuts in their areas and many are considering legal challenges because they believe the cuts will mean the library services are in breach of their statutory duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service.

Alan Gibbons has penned an open letter to government calling for a moratorium on library closures and the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) has issued a clear set of actions for Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt. There are also calls for an independent public library service inquiry to consider the “likely detrimental impact that the conduct of flawed and rushed local library review processes will have on our communities and culture”. 20 councils have already announced that they will not be closing libraries in the 2011 financial year. Some of these councils also appear to have considered sensible efficiency savings, rather than hiding damaging cuts in “back office” services away from public view and anger. There is a long way to go, but it is hoped that councils across the UK will reassess their hasty decisions to hit the “soft targets” of library services disproportionately. Pressure is being put on elected representatives to consider their actions more wisely and represent the views and needs of their citizens. People are asking what their councillors, portfolio holders and MPs are doing to save libraries – and it is hoped that this will have an impact on the decisions that are being made.

4 thoughts on “Public Libraries and Adult Learning

  1. I used to work in adult learning before getting involved with libraries so I agree 100% with every word, especially:

    “Libraries, on the other hand, are more often seen as neutral spaces that are not designed for education at only one age, and as a result, can be seen as more conducive to adult learning.”

    It’s worth pointing out as well that beginner computing classes and local history courses, to take 2 examples, are often run in libraries because this is where the people on the course will access their information after the course has finished. Therefore, the learning is more likely to be effective and long-lasting, as the learner is familiar with the environment and nature of the resources/technology used, and can simply continue using them, and hopefully improving on what they have learnt in their class.

    I can imagine that if libraries are shut down, people who do these classes may not be able to utilise the valuable skills they have learnt, which seems a terrible waste for all concerned. Another example of the short-sightedness of these so-called “reforms” – which actually end up costing more money/talent/skills long-term than they will save in the short-term.

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