Public libraries: A hidden key to the success of the Digital Single Market

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Stockholm public library

Stockholm public library [Wojtek Gurak/Flickr]

Public libraries are a neglected resource when it comes to devising policies on skills, growth and jobs, writes Ilona Kish.

By Ilona Kish, Public Libraries 2020 Programme Director, Reading & Writing Foundation

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words “public library”? A childhood memory of the first book you borrowed; a feeling of an overwhelming silence; or maybe a recollection of the mysterious smell of thousands of books gathered in one place holding the key to all the great stories and wisdoms of this world?

Whatever it might be, it’s fair to say that your first thought was probably not the Digital Single Market, right?

Public libraries have had an impact on most of our lives. However, some of our memories might not reflect reality anymore. In fact, public libraries have been expanding their role enormously in recent years. While they continue to act as hubs for social inclusion, they are also reinventing themselves as an increasingly critical resource for digital skills and literacy.

These basic skills are crucial if we want to achieve a true Digital Single Market. While we can put all necessary measures in place to make this ambitious project work, it will not materialise unless people are able to take advantage of it.

Broadly speaking, that is not the case for the time being. The reality is that nearly one out of every two European citizens has insufficient digital skills, and almost one in four has none at all. The lack of digital literacy is the second most important reason for households not to have internet access according to the European Commission.

At the same time, 100 million Europeans visit public libraries at least once a year. It is estimated that 250,000 Europeans found a job using the internet at a public library and 24 million adults participated in trainings organised by libraries in 2013.

Yet, despite their potentially life changing role, public libraries are one of Europe’s most under-used resources when it comes to bridging the digital literacy gap.

It is true libraries have come up in recent discussions around the Reda report on copyright in the European Parliament. However, their broader role in achieving the Digital Single Market is widely underestimated. 

Due to outdated perceptions they remain largely undervalued and, as a consequence, underfunded.

We can still reverse this trend. What European policy makers can do is quite simple. They need to recognise public libraries as a key pillar of non-formal education and to support them through EU policy frameworks and related programmes.

For the moment, this is not being done enough. Public libraries do not appear as an indicator in monitoring of member states policies on education, training and lifelong learning; they are rarely, if at all, mentioned in country-specific recommendations relating to education and skills.

The danger of inaccurately labelling libraries as quaint relics of the past is that we risk shutting down opportunities for a significant proportion of the Europe population, leaving them behind while the rest of us embark on our great digital journey. Policymakers on the EU and national level must prevent that from happening and put libraries at the heart of future strategies on skills, jobs and growth.

Last but not least, we all need to update our personal perceptions of public libraries beyond simply a place where you go to borrow a book.

Let’s keep our fondest memories of libraries, while celebrating their changing role. So now, let’s do this again: What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words “public library”?

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