Public libraries

Where does information literacy fit in within public libraries?

50p coin celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Public Libraries Act - photo by Bryan Burke
50p coin celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Public Libraries Act – photo by Bryan Burke

The term “information literacy” is not currently as widely used or as familiar to staff in public libraries, as it is in other professional sectors. Information literacy activity is happening, but the language used to describe it is different, and this is probably largely due to the many different types of service provided. In public libraries, comparable terminology that crosses over with information literacy includes: “cyber-wareness”; net-safety”; “audience development”; “life skills” within lifelong learning and even “reader development” and “audience development”.

Diverse customers

Public libraries are primarily driven bottom up, by the customers’ agenda and far less by top down curricula. Public library service provision is by definition very broad, as it is driven by the information and cultural requirements of the general public. This has a number of challenges for developing information literacy programmes for customers, which need to be considered when deciding approaches to information literacy.

The biggest challenge in the public library sector is that customers’ requirements are very diverse and content may only be required by small numbers of people affecting economy of scale. The age range is all ages from cradle to grave, previous learning experience and ability is not homogenous and attitudes to learning are very diverse. For a significant number of people learning may also be seen as a negative thing to be avoided. Customers can have no qualifications or be post graduate or higher.

Identifying market segments for information literacy in public libraries

Research indicates that information literacy programmes related to specific tasks or topics can be very effective. However, in public libraries there is no set curriculum framework to base information literacy development work within. The closest to a curriculum are national generic library missions and specific local targets for serving customers within each local authority.

A practical approach to resolving these tensions is to apply marketing principles to the development of information literacy programmes. Who are the markets that are most in need? Who are the customers most likely to take up such programmes? What hook can the programmes hang off when customers are free to come, or not come, as they please?

Similarly, to use scarce resources effectively, producing generic materials or promotions that will reach a large number of people will provide the best return on investment of precious staff time. However, to target the customers most in need of help may mean that identifying large enough groups of people can be difficult.

Boston Public Library, Massachusetts, USA.
Boston Public Library, Massachusetts, USA. Image from

Examples of promotional projects that tackle the issue of ecomony of scale and return on investement exist in public libraries, including adoption of national campaigns such as BBC’s RAW, and the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge. It is likely that a similar business model for information literacy promotion could be found through collaborative schemes.

Some market segments for developing information literacy in public libraries

Lifelong learning

One key area for work are in supportive work for the large number of people who left the education world before the explosion of networked information that came about with the Internet. Surprisingly large numbers of people have never used a computer the web or email, and just do not know how to function within this world.

Child Development

Just as libraries play a key role in early years literacy and reading development, they must also do the same for developing the skills to handle information for future generations whether they are going onto further and higher education or directly to work (bryan). Public libraries preventative role lies in developing children’s ability to make sense of, and survive in, an information-saturated world, acting as a bridge between the safety and comfort of school and parent controlled worlds and the wider, wilder world of friends or advertising and simply trying know who to trust, and how to know.

Measuring impact

As there is no curriculum with which to measure progress against, one approach would be to measure general learning objectives. The MLA’s Inspiring Learning for All Framework is an obvious choice as it was specifically developed for such a purpose. It also has the advantage that it applies to learning in related museum and archive sectors.

Inspiring Learning for All website

What can you do?

If you are already developing information literacy programmes in a public library, then we want to hear from you. The literature and evidence in this sector is less developed than in other sectors. Similarly, if you are thinking of developing a programme, then we may be able to put you in touch with others who have experience that can help you. This site collects and makes available information literacy practise that can help you, including practitioner research. Much of this is from other sectors, but there are common lessons.

Read this Public Library Case Study 2006 for how information literacy skills can be further enhanced in public libraries.

Written by Andrew Lewis.