A basic condition
No other place in the community is better equipped and motivated to help people of all ages find information, develop knowledge and explore their creative talents, than the public library. At least, that is the impression one gets when reading policy documents and manifestos. The UNESCO Public Library Manifesto, first adopted in 1949 and last amended in 1994, states: "The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups."
Support under scrutiny
There is certainly a case to be made that with their balanced collections of non-fiction as well as fiction books open to all who walk in, public libraries provide ample resources for those engaged in self-education, be it out of leisure pursuits or for professional purposes.
Yet it seems to me that since the turn of the century European public libraries have shifted away from special programs geared at lifelong learners. True, in many communities across Europe adults can follow courses in their libraries, with a focus on computer, Internet and social media skills. Also, second language learners are welcomed and introduced to collections of easy reading materials.
But amidst doubts about their continued relevance in the digital era, many libraries have had to bow their heads for pressure from local authorities to focus on what most policy makers now see as the library's core business: lending out as many books as possible, and supporting primary and (to a lesser extent) secondary schools in language and reading development. One gets the impression that lifelong learning has been falling off both the educational and social policy agenda in the last decade, and hence off the library agenda as well.
Volksbibliotheken and beyond
It has not always been like that. Pioneers of the idea of a public library in the 19th century criticised the then prominent 'people's libraries' ('Volksbibliotheken' in German and Dutch). These libraries, in the words of one proponent, erect a fatal schism between 'the people' and 'the more developed', forcing the former on a 'barren island' of popular reading material and hindering them in taking note of what else there is to learn.
Public libraries, in contrast, would offer books and periodicals for self-study and self-development to those who did not find themselves in a financial position to access these otherwise. The struggle lasted roughly from the 1830s to World War II before public libraries had at last been firmly established and secured sufficient and structural public funding.
Shifting away from lifelong learning
After the war, the focus of public libraries gradually shifted away from self-learning and personal development. With the establishment of the human rights, public libraries were seen as guarantors of fundamental information rights: freedom of access, freedom of expression and protection of the private sphere.
In the second half of the 20th century, other functions gained in political prominence: securing and maintaining the (local) cultural heritage; the promotion of a 'culture of reading' and stimulating literary climate; and most recently stimulating cognitive development of preschoolers and learners in primary school. Especially this last function is currently in vogue since research has recommended that language and reading disadvantages be tackled as early as possible. In times of economical backlash, public money should be put where social benefits can be maximised, new public management reasons.
Bridging formal and informal learning
Nobody will doubt that giving kids a solid start in life is a good thing. However, we also know that what we learn in the first 15-25 years of our lives will all but outlast us. Both privately and professionally, we need to continue to learn and educate ourselves. Public libraries can be a bridge between formal education and more informal schooling and development after we have left the school system. In spite of a widespread misconception, public libraries have the potential to prosper in the digital era, provided that they succeed in making their physical and digital services complement each other.
Librarians are more than willing to support people of all ages, especially those in deprived social circumstances, in their learning efforts with specialized programs for e.g. low literate, employment seekers, immigrants, elderly people, and persons with visual or other impairments. But they also support reading circles, family historians and local heritage groups. But in supporting their communities, they in turn need support from policy makers. Perhaps they even deserve it.
Prof. dr. Frank Huysmans is professor of library science, faculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam, and research & policy advisor at WareKennis, The Hague.