What do people lose when they have to stay at home?
- Social connections, leisure activities?
- A sense of accomplishment, purpose, mental well-being?
- Livelihoods, jobs, the security of a regular income?
Losing any combination of these things is deeply personal experience, varying from individual to individual, but also reflect a larger picture of social welfare. This sort of upheaval shows how our societies work and what happens when the status quo that holds our societies together is strained.
For libraries to continue bringing value to their communities, we must explore what opportunities for growth can be found among these challenges.
How can libraries use their function as providers of information, culture, and knowledge to address the losses that our communities are experiencing?
- Can a distance learning programme bring social connections and fulfilling leisure time?
- Can discovering a new skill deliver a sense of accomplishment, purpose and mental well-being?
- Can undertaking a training course help open doors to future employment?
Libraries are champions for learning at every age. Let’s explore what this means in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the world that will come after.
As countries work to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, UNESCO has estimated that there are more than 1.5 billion learners – over 90% of the world student population – out of school.
However, when you count every person, at every age, as a potential learner, the actual number of learners affected by stay-at-home measures is much higher.
IFLA has long been an advocate for expanding recognition of the role of libraries at the heart of lifelong learning. At the core of their mission, libraries provide information to all, including those not registered in formal education.
IFLA’s Public Libraries Section affirms that libraries play a role of fundamental importance in creating a society of lifelong learners, through connecting both formal and informal learning environments with global resources of information and knowledge.
As doors are shut and formal learning spaces are closed, libraries can help ensure that this connection is not broken.
Learning from home during COVID-19
Over the past month, there has been a rallying of library associations and representation bodies, IFLA included, to provide platforms for exchanging information and sharing stories of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are stories to be found in every corner of the world where libraries are using creativity, technology and their position within communities to provide resources for learning to continue, at all levels.
Learning for All
It is widely accepted that providing education for all, and opportunities to continue learning throughout one’s life, is an indicator of a healthy, sustainable society.
As vulnerable groups are often the worst affected by global challenges, providing accessible, inclusive and equitable learning opportunities becomes especially challenging. Reaching these communities is the first hurtle, but one that libraries are helping overcome.
For example, in some locations in the United States, WiFi hotspots have been made available to those in rural locations, as has library laptops to the local homeless shelters. This is an especially pertinent service as the loss of jobs due to COVID-19 has brought with it a rise in the number of people losing their homes.
Across the world, libraries are providing online access to their collections, where copyright allows. Despite being hit first by the virus, the Hubei Provincial Library in the city of Wuhan launched an online library, with 80,000 digital books, 420,000 audio clips and 8,482 videos, providing access to information to those in hospitals and quarantine hotels, as well as at home.
However, inclusive lifelong learning is more than providing physical or digital access to materials.
21st Century Skills
The Public Library Association (PLA) surveyed over 2,500 unique library systems in the United States, and found 21% are providing non-COVID online resources, such as activities to do at home and unemployment resources. They found an equal number are expanding access to services, including deaf/blind/disabled expanded options, and online assistance to access resources.
Many libraries are finding online alternatives to continue providing access to resources and online material for skill-sharing, language learning, test preparation, and more. For example, the Los Angeles Public Library is offering daily access to online tutors, both for students and adult learners, in English and Spanish language.
Even if libraries are unable to offer such programming directly, there is the need for awareness-raising around programmes and opportunities available to communities. Libraries can act as an aggregator for links to educational, skill-sharing, and tutoring opportunities offered through other providers – connecting their communities to resources that can benefit them.
Across the world, library associations and institutions have been helping to provide their members with tools that will equip libraries to not only train themselves, but to support teachers and formal education providers for a future that involves distance learning.
AFLIA (African Library and Information Associations and Institutions) has compiled an exhaustive list of resources for libraries, including access to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) platforms. Knowledge of these platforms can be delivered to their communities to help them gain professional skills and qualifications while staying at home.
They also provide links to teaching tools to help libraries create digital content for learners, and train teachers to do the same.
Digital literacy in the 21st Century also requires the ability to vet sources and identify “fake news”. The Latin American LIS platform Infotecarios has been discussing the role of libraries in their region in educating communities on stopping disinformation related to COVID-19.
The World After COVID-19
The ability to navigate digital resources is key to better job opportunities, better quality of life and greater ability to learn.
Online learning and the need for online resources won’t go away after physical spaces open once again.
The PLA Survey of Libraries in the United States found that many libraries plan to continue offering virtual programs, outreach and remote services developed to reach their communities during social distancing measures.
Looking to the future, a discussion among UNESCO Learning Cities in response to COVID-19 has identified the need to further expand understanding of the social impact of online learning, including the well-being of vulnerable people and the psychological effects of self-isolation.
A 2019 study on social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and symptoms of depression and anxiety found social disconnectedness to be the catalyst of a negative spiral among older adults, leading to perceived isolation, and in some cases, depression and anxiety. It suggests that making opportunities for social connection among older adults accessible and structurally optimised are greatly needed.
Providing access for people in this situation to opportunities to connect, engage and learn is critical, not only now, but into the future. It could be beneficial for libraries to think about how their lifelong learning activities could respond to these changing realities. What programming could libraries provide to better support their local teachers, schools, and learners of all ages use and benefit from online learning resources?
We should reflect on the things we have lost while at home during COVID-19 – social connections, leisure, sense of accomplishment and purpose – and remember for some people, this is a reality that won’t end when restrictions are lifted.
Access to learning opportunities and the social interaction that comes with them can help build a fulfilling life at all ages.
When social distancing ends, and we leave home and return to our busy daily lives, libraries can help keep the door to lifelong learning wide open to all.