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Public Libraries and the Information Society - a study


Back to the Public library and the information society page
Updated 25 SEP 1997

Table of content
Background, context, objectives : the Information Society needs libraries
State of the art : European public libraries are developing at different speeds
The vision : the public library as a key player in local implementation of the Information Society
Key roles of the public library
Barriers : insufficient political awareness, inadequate funding, lack of professional training and unchanging attitudes
Conclusions and recommendations : What should be done?


Public libraries and the information society . J. Thorhauge, G. Larsen, H.-P. Thun, H. Albrechtsen, M. Segbert (ed.). Luxembourg, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, (1997). EUR 17648 EN, ISDN 92-828-0505-0.


1. Background, context, objectives: the Information Society needs libraries

Knowledge is the crucial competitive factor in the information society. The way in which we deal with information will therefore be increasingly important as the digital revolution affects our jobs and daily lives.

We shall have to cope with these changes on the broadest possible basis for economic, democratic and social reasons. The Information Society will offer new opportunities for prosperity and will allow citizens to take a more active role in society. However, a widening gap between the information rich and the information poor could well result in social tension.

Strategies are therefore needed :

  • to provide access, in a spirit of democracy, to all published information;
  • to offer lifelong learning opportunities;
  • to ensure that citizens can cope with computers and have access to the equipment and systems they need;
  • to safeguard cultural identity in a rapidly changing world.

Traditionally public libraries have provided the answers. And there are more than 40,000 of them in the European Union. But are they up to these new challenges?

In their favour, we have:

  • their users which in some countries amount to over half the population,
  • their strong tradition as local information centres, and
  • the potential of information technology for libraries.

Indeed, Europe's more enterprising public libraries have already convinced local citizens and politicians that they can offer efficient services in answer to the demands of the information society.

But most public libraries are still lagging behind. To take up the challenge, they must redefine their role and establish strategies for today's changing requirements.

The ultimate goal in the context of the information society is to provide access to any type of information for anyone, at any time, anywhere. Technology can already provide the answers but we need to overcome widespread dependence on traditional media. And we shall have to open up the possibilities offered by networked libraries.

Even if, for years to come, the book will remain the most important vehicle for information, libraries limiting themselves to printed material will find they are increasingly lagging behind those providing modern networked services, often with astonishing success.

1.1 The updated library

In thes study, the term updated library is used to describe public libraries dealing with traditional services as well as with new services and technologies - as most European libraries do.

The study is based on eleven country studies, six case studies describing inspiring examples of good libraries and regional cooperation, and on desk research.

The objectives are to analyse what public libraries should do to adapt their traditional services and offer new ones in order to respond to the needs of their users in the context of the Information Society.

2. State of the art: European public libraries are developing at different speeds

The state of the art is described in three stages:

  1. automation of housekeeping routines aimed at giving public online access to the catalogue;
  2. access to online databases for staff and users, including Internet access, leading to:
  3. server-based Internet services on the library's homepage which can be accessed remotely.

There is considerable diversity in the Member States in regard to Stage 1, varying from 20% to 100 % of libraries which have automated. A clear movement towards Stage 2 can be observed in some countries, where up to half the libraries have some kind of Internet access. In others this is exceptional, as is access to CD-ROMs. At the European level, a small minority of public libraries offer remote access to their catalogues. Similarly, only very few provide electronic document delivery services. To accelerate change here, the study describes a vision based on inspiring examples of public libraries which have modernised.

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3. The vision: the public library as a key player in local implementation of the Information Society

Our updated public library offers

  • access to the human record in whatever form it might be stored,
  • a lending collection of printed materials and multimedia,
  • access to networks and support for net navigation and information searching,
  • workstations for customers,
  • open learning and training opportunities,
  • a physical place offering various meeting facilities,
  • electronic document delivery services.

The updated public library will

  • have access to union catalogues for interlibrary loan and, in time,
  • be part of a worldwide library network;
  • co-operate closely with other memory institutions, schools and other educational institutions,
  • be a community information provider; and
  • offer special services to various target groups - from business information to service for ethnic minorities and the visually impaired.


The local public library will develop according to local needs. There will be quite different libraries within a given region, but - as a result of coordination - they will be able to establish a full range of library services in their area.

4. Key roles of the public library
This forms part of a broader vision of the public library as an institution playing a number of key roles in the local implementation of the information society, including:

  • an active partner in safeguarding democracy, providing uninhibited access to all published materials,
  • a supporter of education and learning at many levels, delivering the raw material of knowledge,
  • a local IT centre, providing access to hardware, software and networks, giving the citizens an opportunity to deal with a new and completely pervasive technology, and
  • a cultural institution.


If the importance of the updated public library is so fundamental, why has it not been implemented more widely? What are the barriers? Can they be overcome?

5. Barriers: insufficient political awareness, inadequate funding, lack of professional training and unchanging attitudes
The barriers between the state of the art and this vision are of two types. From an external point of view, there is a lack of political awareness or confidence in the potential of the public library in the move towards the Information Society. There is an obvious difference in the efficiency, range and technological development between public libraries in countries or regions which have political planning and those in regions which do not. Similarly, there may be a lack of concrete plans for networking, lack of funding and inadequate technical support to implement new technologies.

Internally, the barriers are related to professional development. Skills are inadequate as a result of old-fashioned education or the lack of continuing education and training opportunities. A professional strategy for development is also needed at national, regional and institutional levels. Sometimes it is missing as a result of inadequate managerial skills, reluctance to come to grips with the new media, fear of change, and a very low rate of newly recruited staff with up-to-date IT skills.

6. Conclusions and recommendations - What should be done?

To fulfil its potential, each public library must therefore have strategic plans for establishing new skills and attitudes and new and enhanced services for the citizen. There is a need for considerable support in training, education and implementation.

6.1 General recommendations - mainly for implementation at a national or regional level
We recommend actions within two areas:

  1. 6.1.1 Policies and strategies
    • National policies should be formulated for public libraries, linked closely with a specific policy on public library services in key areas such as interlending and inter-library networking.
    • National information policies should ensure that the role of public libraries is recognised.
    • Local, regional or national strategies for implementation should be developed for new services and technical support.
  2. 6.1.2 Improving skills: urgent need for modern training programmes
    • The availability and take-up of an appropriate range of possibilities for professional continuing education and training should be ensured;
    • Closer cooperation between different types of library - in particular between public and academic libraries - and with other institutions should strongly be encouraged.

6.2 Specific recommendations to be implemented at a European level

The responsibility for the local public library is at the level of the local community. At the European level, initiatives in support of national, regional and local policies might be helpful. We recommend actions within four areas such as concerted actions and studies on policies and planning, initiatives to improve skills and competence; studies and projects developing new tools.

  1. 6.2.1 Concerted actions, studies on policies and planning, implementation of new services

We recommend actions within the following areas:

  • Concerted actions to develop plans to change political priorities, develop national policies and as a consequence attract increased funding so that all libraries can begin to achieve adequate levels of telematic development;
  • inspiring case studies on the development from visions to policies to new services;
  • studies or projects on the relation between new technology, new services and changing organisational patterns and administrative structures;
  • study on the impact of the public library in its various functions and roles;
  • initiation of pilot projects dealing with “new services”;
  • dissemination of knowledge on new IT developments.
  1. 6.2.2 Development of or support for training and continued education
    • Distance learning programmes;
    • self instruction programmes;
    • training of trainers at a European level;
    • a European Training Centre.
  1. 6.2.3 Studies and projects developing new tools and services
    • A study on further development of administration and organisational structures;
    • a study on charges;
    • a study on adequate levels of services for different types of public libraries;
    • projects on new models for small public libraries based on networked services;
    • projects to develop new services and tools to be implemented according to local needs: tools for user instruction, for information consultancy, for IT-based marketing;
    • universal design providing access for different types of users;
    • librarian's workbench - organisation and presentation of multimedia-based information for the network.
  1. 6.2.4 Stimulating the market for telematic products
    • Establishment of a concerted action in support of a platform to strengthen the dialogue between public libraries and system vendors.

To these concrete suggestions we add the need for funding. A European source for funding is highly desirable and would be helpful in accelerating change in public libraries.

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European Commission
DG XIII Telematics for Libraries
Contact: Concha Fernandez de la Puente
e-mail: (email removed)


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