Monthly Archives: May 2022

Library ICTs for seniors and healthy ageing

This year’s World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, an annual event led by the International Telecommunications Union, focuses on the theme of ‘Digital technologies for older persons and healthy ageing’. This is a good occasion to reflect on some of the lessons and ways to maximise the impacts of library ICT-based services and initiatives aiming to help build an age-friendly and age-responsive environment.


Ensuring a meaningful and equal participation in the digital society by older persons is a pressing priority – particularly in light of global population trends around ageing. As the World Population Prospects 2019 pointed out, people over 65 are the fastest-growing age group in the world – and are expected to make up one-sixth of the global population by 2050. This highlights the urgency of building a digital environment which is designed and well-suited to meet their information needs and support their wellbeing, rather than retrofitting existing solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stark illustration of both the potential of ICTs for this age group, and the unique difficulties faced, and which must be kept in mind. As panellists in an opening session of this year’s dedicated WSIS Forum track pointed out, the past 2 years have seen an accelerated uptake of digital services and resources by older persons, spurred on by a growing appreciation of their value proposition. On the other hand, many in this age group remain digitally excluded, struggle with loneliness and social isolation, evolving health risks and needs.

Today’s event also comes after the end of the first year of the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing. From telehealth to assistive technologies to lifelong learning, ICTs are a key element for delivery on the goals of this Decade. This is a good occasion to take stock of some of the insights, questions and lessons these policy dialogues can already offer – to help inform libraries’ continued work to meet the needs of their senior users.


Breaking the stereotypes

Ageism – from stereotypes, prejudices and a failure to take account of older people when designing products, all the way to outright discrimination – is an incredibly widespread problem. Earlier research estimated that 50% of the global population held moderately or highly ageist beliefs. Much like in other areas, this can significantly impact older persons’ interactions with ICTs – as a matter of self-confidence, trust, or feeling like this simply “isn’t something for me”, even dissuading them from engaging with tech.

While there cannot be a single solution to an issue as complex as this, some measures libraries are taking can come a long way to gently challenge such beliefs. As a study based on an Ontario library digital literacy training for seniors illustrates, the library can be really effective in creating a safe space for tech learning and exploration for older users. This can help with facing their own fears and anxieties around breaking a device or making a mistake, boosting their self-confidence and comfort with tech – including through supportive relationships with the instructor and fellow learners. Perceptions of comfort and safety of a library digital skills training can therefore be really valuable in helping bypass ageist beliefs, whether societal or even internalised.


A different approach to learning

A related argument is that digital skills training may not be optimal when simply replicated for different target age groups, without sensitivity to their unique learning needs. For older users, this can manifest in different ways: exclusionary technical language, generation-specific tech terminology, or even the (in)ability of a younger instructor to fully identify to a perspective of an older learner, their tech needs, and the ways they approach learning.

When outlining these considerations, one of the speakers at the WSIS session brought up the term androgogy, emphasising the differences between how children and young adults and older persons learn and acquire knowledge.

For the countless libraries offering learning opportunities tailored for seniors (and adult learners), it is of course immensely valuable to keep track of the latest insights and findings in this field. In the meantime, the idea that peers from similar age groups may be better-positioned to understand each other’s learning approaches and tech skill needs is of course not new to libraries.

This reflects the thinking behind such initiatives as, for example, the Cambridgeshire Libraries’ “Tea and Tablets”. As a follow up to a more formal course on using tablets, this social hour format let participants in their 70s and 80s regularly meet up and exchange tips and experiences amongst each other as they continue to explore ICTs.

At the same time, another key point – as self-evident as it is crucial to remember – is that, as any other age cohort, ‘seniors’ cannot and should not be viewed as a monolithic group. Gender and geographic location are just a few of the factors shaping the ways people experience their senior years – and digital inclusion solutions should reflect this diversity.

There are of course great examples of this from the library field. In New South Wales, the Tech Savvy Seniors programme for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) older Australians employed bilingual trainers, language guides and training materials adapted to be culturally and linguistically suitable for 9 languages apart from English.


Seniors as co-creators and drivers of innovation, not simply users

In the digital ecosystem, agency is a very pertinent question – and another point which has been raised in this policy discussion focuses on the agency of seniors in particular. To properly meet the needs of older users, technology should not be retrofitted but designed with matters such as accessibility in mind – and, of course, one of the best ways to do so is designing and co-creating tech solutions directly in consultation with older people themselves.

This can be particularly relevant for discussions around emerging and transformative tech such as AI, and robotics. While there is a lot of excitement for their potential for long-term and integrated care, it is important to make sure that seniors are not just passive users of such tech, but active drivers of innovation.

This can be seen in evolving library services as well. Advanced digital skills learning opportunities and “tech petting zoos” may not be new to libraries, but their value for senior users may be particularly relevant here. In Singapore, for example, the National Library Board’s approach to digital upskilling for older users is multifaceted, encompassing digital skills for both life and work. It includes, inter alia, deep-dive examinations of emerging and advances in tech like AI and cloud computing, as well as hands-on workshops where learners unleash their creativity in such fields as coding and 3D printing. All of these offers have proved very popular with their target audiences, supporting seniors’ engagement with tech innovation.


Age-friendly environments

Finally, it is always worth taking a step back and reflecting on the ways ICTs help build all-encompassing age-friendly environments. The latter is one of the main goals of the Healthy Ageing Decade, focusing on the full range of factors influencing the well-being and quality-of-life for people as they age: continued growth and development, health, safety, participation, autonomy.

The World Health Organisation’s Age Friendly World platform includes a database of age-responsive practices and initiatives taking place on local and community levels. From Chile to Poland to Japan, it contains references to the many ways libraries, too, help build an age-friendly environment in different areas – such as culture, digital inclusion, combating isolation, or even civic engagement.

ICTs, of course, play a key role in some of these library initiatives: from free audiobooks delivered for seniors with disabilities to different forms of digital literacy upskilling – e.g. walk-in, pre-booked one-on-one consultations, or formal classes.


All in all, ICTs can be a powerful tool for building an empowering age-friendly environment for all. However, digital inclusion, equitable access to information and services, age-responsive tech design and tailored ICT-based services are all necessary to make this environment work for all seniors.

Libraries around the world are already actively introducing services and initiatives leveraging ICTs to meet the needs of their older community members – and we look forward to seeing their further engagement with overarching and comprehensive strategies for healthy ageing and quality of life!

World Press Freedom Day 2022 – freedom of expression under (digital) siege

Particularly in times of crisis, reliable and verified information is urgently needed – and is itself in need of safeguarding. World Press Freedom Day 2022 highlights the evolution and acceleration of challenges to media freedom, independence, pluralism, and safety of journalists in a digital world. How do these relate to libraries’ own experiences as information professionals – and what lessons can we learn from these, to work together towards a stronger and freer media landscape?

A call to action in a time of need

The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day is journalism under digital siege. The aim is to draw attention to the evolution, and acceleration, of challenges to journalism in today’s digital and hyperconnected information environment: the viability of digital business models; surveillance (both large-scale and targeted); data collection; access to information; and the need for more transparency.

An accompanying message by the Director-General of UNESCO also reflects on the approaching 1-year anniversary of the Windhoek+30 Declaration, which further elaborates on the role of information as a public good. Online platform transparency principles, an emphasis on media and information literacy, research into new sustainable business models are among the activities UNESCO has been spearheading to help deliver on the Declaration’s ambitions.

Vitally, the note closes with a call for all stakeholders – from Member States to civil society to technology companies and beyond – to play their part in building a new journalism and media configuration, one that simultaneously tackles the risks and seizes the opportunities of digital.

This call, of course, comes at a crucial time. The latest UNESCO World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development report highlights that, over the past five years, around 85% of the world’s population saw a decline in press freedom in places where they live. In the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders also noted a marked two-fold polarisation – within and between countries – as an effect of a chaotic and globalised information space.

Echoing experiences in journalism and librarianship: lessons learned and moving forward

To chart the path towards a revitalised and fairer media landscape, it’s worth looking at some of the key trends and lessons learned set out in the latest flagship report, and see how they are echoed in different media in information sectors – including, of course, the library field.

Threats to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists: this remains a top priority. Violence, crimes and threats against journalists are a most egregious example – and, as the report points out, awareness of threats to their digital safety and (online) hostility, including gender-based violence, is growing in recent years. Such violence can stifle or silence voices, reducing the variety of ideas and works available to library users, impoverishing the information environment.

In addition to the ‘private’ censorship enforced by individuals or groups, a related key element lies in the broader policy environment. The report notes that more than 50 laws and regulations introduced around the world since 2016 contain vague language or heavy penalties which impact freedom of expression and of media online. These regulations can range from targeting cybercrime to ‘rumors’ or ‘fake news’.

In the library field, a parallel could be pointed out to a chilling impact of a threat of possible legal action for reading material or curation choices. It is a threat which, as the New York times reported, even if entirely lacking a basis for a criminal investigation, can have a chilling effect and encourage self-censorship.

Financial viability continues to be a pressing concern in the news media field, only growing in urgency. The ways this plays out in commercial media – e.g. advertisement or subscription-based revenue models – are well-documented of course.

However, it is not aways the case that alternative funding sources are necessarily better. Indeed, the report offers valuable insights into the viability considerations around two other models of journalism – public broadcasting and community-based media.

For public service media, vulnerability in the face of political pressure (including through their financing) remains an important concern. In some parts of the world, public broadcasting enjoys relatively high trust among audiences, but it may in some cases struggle to reach more diverse demographics.

The situation for community media viability also seems to be mixed; as increasing polarisation can raise concerns around licensing and financial fragility, as well as a possibility of capture by private, economic or religious interests.

In light of these financial concerns, many journalists feel less secure in their jobs today, as employment figures in this field see a substantial decline. There are similar concerns in the library field in some parts of the world, of course, especially in light of austerity measures – also prompting a discussion about the possible impacts on access to trustworthy information and the health of a democratic public dialogue without the support that librarians can provide for it.

Finally, it is of course worth revisiting the discussion on trustworthy information as a public good. On the supply side, the report makes a note of both algorithmic curation and the saturation of the information field with a multitude of competing content producers.

On the demand side, there are nonetheless factors which can limit the public’s access to vital journalism, news media, and information at large – from internet shutdowns and takedown requests to the costs of digital subscriptions, internet connectivity and access devices, which can be prohibitive for some users. This continues to raise concerns about unequal access to information, and a cause for action.

At the same time, some data – e.g. the Edelman Trust Barometer and the Reuters Institute Digital News Report – suggests that trust in different sources of information, while varying per source (e.g. with traditional media enjoying more user confidence than social media), is overall quite fragile, and sees a long-term negative trend over the past few years.

All these are familiar concerns and consideration for libraries, of course. Whether it is providing no-cost access to computers and the internet, championing media literacy, or speaking out against opaque search algorithms and curation practices of third-party providers – boosting both supply and demand for information as a public good lies at the heart of the profession.

Together for access to information and freedom of expression

Naturally, it is important to also mark and celebrate progress where we see it. The report notes, for example, that in less than 20 years the number of countries with access to information (ATI) laws has tripled. This progress can be attributed to both public sector commitments and civil society initiatives, showing what can be achieved with dedicated efforts and collaboration.

As we mark this year’s Press Freedom Day, librarians of course feel a lot of empathy towards our journalist colleagues working to make vital and high-quality information available to all. Here, librarians are both allies who can help raise awareness about the value of free press and the challenges it faces – and a synergetic partner whose core function is to make information and knowledge accessible to all.

At the same time, we see more conversations about the possible ways to democratise and reinvent the way news media is produced and distributed – especially at the local level. Some of these discussions focus on innovative business models, others – on ways to build an inclusive ecosystem and a thriving civic journalistic infrastructure.

These discussion reference libraries – as information hubs (especially for the most vulnerable community members), verifiers of community information, and one of the community infrastructures offering an alternative to the commercial media system. We look forward to seeing these exploratory dialogues continue, and to work together to realise the promise of information as a public good!