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The Social Role of Libraries in the Development of the Information Society and National Education Policy in Latvia

Andris Vilks, director, Latvian National Library

Over the course of the last decade, Latvian libraries have received considerable investments for the development of their ICT infrastructure. All parish libraries in Latvia now have Internet connections (256 Kb/s on a separate workstation). They have sufficient numbers of computers for reader use, as well as computers for staff members. Training has been available for staff. These technological processes are now realised in an electronic environment. E-publications and E-services are more widely available. The time has come to put this environment to use in a purposeful and segmented way. This is based not only on the dynamic, so-called Web 2.0 philosophy, but also on the social and educational requirements which prevail. The functions and roles of libraries are changing. The development of so-called hybrid libraries is still not fully understood or implemented. This refers to the synergy of remote and physical services, making use of traditional library resources, but also those of digital libraries, as well as Web information. This eliminates strict definitions of public and research library clients. Content and knowledge management are the key issues now. Librarians must develop into knowledge librarians. Libraries must provide specific services for various target audiences elementary education, higher education, research and development, distance learning, lifelong education, socially vulnerable groups (the unemployed, street children, poor families, differently abled persons, pensioners), etc., and this must be done irrespective of the individuals place of residence and social role.

Over the course of the last decade, Latvian libraries have received considerable investments in the development of their IT infrastructure.  Investments have come from the national government, local governments, as well as overseas sources such as the Soros Foundation, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Initially these were joint projects for specific libraries a consortium project for libraries of national significance, for instance, or a pilot project for the network of public libraries.  In 2001, the Cabinet of Ministers approved the creation of the National Integrated Library Information System, which was part of the new Latvian National Library, or Castle of Light project.  The associated Network of Light covers the entire network of research, public and school libraries.
One very special grant was received at the end of 2006.  Latvia was the first country outside of the Americas to receive a massive grant from the Gates Foundation USD 16.2 million for all of our 874 public libraries.  Thanks to this grant, every library in Latvia now has Internet connections, sufficient numbers of computers for patrons, and technologies for staff members, as well.  There has been training of staff at special training centres, and the IT skills of library employees have improved.  The entire technological process of libraries is now part of an electronic environment, and E-publications and E-services have become more widely available.  There has also been training for the people of Latvia at libraries and elsewhere.  This has been thanks to projects such as Latvia@World, E-Inclusive, etc.  Larger libraries and archives have also begun storing electronic documents and digitising analogous materials.

The results of all of this have been obvious.  The number of library visitors in Latvia has not declined despite a low birth rate, migration from the countryside to cities or to other countries, etc.  The availability of remote services has increased substantially.  If we compare our goals and achievements here with the theses that were presented at the Geneva World Information Summit at the end of 2003, we can say in general terms that Latvia is one of those countries in which the library programme has been implemented successfully.  Libraries now offer support for the knowledge-based national economy, they are a means for narrowing the digital divide, and they are institutions which can preserve and make accessible our countrys documental heritage.
More specific achievements in relation to the goals which were identified at the summit are that libraries now are Internet access points (with open code), that there is ongoing digitisation or all kinds of audio, photo, manuscript and print materials so as to preserve Latvias cultural heritage, professionals have been trained to select, analyse, search for, manage and evaluate information, library users have been trained to use IT, and homepages have been created.

During a summit in Tunis where the so-called Alexandria Manifesto was made public, the International Federation of Library Associations defined the role of libraries, focusing more intensively on the accessibility of content and on various aspects of responsibility.  According to the manifesto:
The unique feature of libraries and information services is that they respond to the particular questions and needs of individuals.  They complement the general transmission of knowledge by the media and other means.  They build capacity by promoting information literacy and providing support and training for effective use of digital and other information resources.  Because of the centrality of knowledge to economic progress, libraries are critical to the development agenda and help to realise the Millennium Development Goals.  IFLA is also vitally concerned to promote multilingual content, cultural diversity and the special needs of indigenous peoples, minorities and those with disabilities.  The greatest possible benefits for citizens and communities by upgrading and extending existing library networks and recognising the importance of information literacy and vigorously support strategies to create a literate and skilled populace which can advance and benefit from the global Information Society.
The tasks for libraries, as proposed in the manifesto, are these:

  • Internet access facilities, with appropriate advice and training;
  • Appropriate supply of information in a relevant format and language;
  • Development of knowledge and skills;
  • Support for health and education;
  • Support for women;
  • Possibilities and choice for children, including lifelong learning;
  • Support for innovations and economic development;
  • Preservation of cultural heritage by fostering its versatility;
  • Strengthening mutual respect and understanding among people.

Latvias government has approved guidelines for cultural policy through the year 2015, and these are quite inspiring.  The task, according to the document, is to develop a new vision in planning and advancing cultural policy, in which it is important not to answer the question of what is culture and how a separate branch of culture develops, but rather to focus on how the presence of culture influences the quality of peoples standard of living, the well-being of the country and its society, and their competitiveness.  It must be integrated into a united development policy, including social security, integration of society, and education.
One of the strategic goals is to develop and make full use of the potential of culture in lifelong learning, fostering the formation of a knowledge society which is based on human values.
There are new emphases: When culture and education enrich each other, this creates favourable conditions for the full-fledged development of individuals and society from lifelong competitiveness.  Culture enhances the process of education and its content with new values and with new possibilities for learning.  Education is the most significant means for fostering continuity of national cultural processes and enhancing excellence.
In the area of social responsibility, the conclusions are programmatic:  The potential and resources of culture have not been sufficiently studied or used so as to create equal development possibilities for socially unprotected strata in society differently abled persons, the unemployed, the poor, people in care centres and in detention.  Co-operation is weakly developed among the branches of culture and social welfare.

The development of technologies and communications has led to the convergence of content, and this ensures study processes and knowledge.  Content and its users must be joined together in a standardised information environment.  There have to be search engines, compatibility, navigation, integration, stable accessibility, metadata, convenient interfaces, and searchable information areas.  Texts and other information resources must be placed into this context, and that means that the content will be valuable for any reader.
We must also take into account the influence of the so-called Google generation.  The significant of audiovisual perception has increased, there is greater fragmentation, language is becoming simplified (SMS), and there are informal communications environments such as blogs and dating portals.  Internet-related activities such as E-banking are becoming more important than comprehension and understanding.  The copy-paste syndrome is often seen in educational situations.  This leads to a deficiency in information, knowledge, and analytic thinking.

The results of a study conducted by Dr Ian Rowlands, a lecturer at the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at the University College London, were released early in 2008.  The focus in the study was on how people seek out and use Web-based information.  According to an article in The Guardian by Natasha Gilbert, Intellectual Literacy Hour, older and younger respondents in the study exhibited erratic browsing behaviour, visiting only a few pages and spending little time in reading the content.  This behaviour can be attributed to the complex and unintuitive design of library information systems, as well as to poor information seeking skills, the study suggests.
Contrary to popular belief, the ability of young people to seek out and evaluate information on the Web has not improved due to the more widespread availability of technology, according to the study.  Young people often use search engines such as Google and Yahoo as their first and only port of call in searching for information.  They have a poor understanding of their information needs, and they find it difficult to develop effective search strategies.  They also spend little time n evaluating information for relevance, accuracy and authority.
Children (especially) tend to make very narrow relevance judgments by considering the presence or absence of words exactly describing the search topic, reports Natasha Gilbert.  As a result, they miss many relevant documents and end up repeating searches.  Information seeking tends to stop at the point of document content.  Many young people do not find library-sponsored resources intuitive, and therefore prefer to use Google or Yahoo instead.  These offer a familiar, if simplistic, solution for their study needs.
She continues:  Today there is a real danger that kids are losing a mental map of the information landscape.  Their awareness of the premium content that libraries have licensed electronically is in many cases very limited.  They naturally gravitate towards Google because it is easy and predictable.  But they rarely view the search results beyond the second page, and there is little evaluation of the different sorts of information it throws up.  The concern is that people may not be able to distinguish a credible information source from one that is not credible.
And finally:  Rowlands calls on the government to push information literacy up its agenda.  He says intervention to improve information skills is urgently needed at school level.
A flurry of activity is underway at the British Library to digitise collections of newspapers and books and to train staff in Web-based skills so as to improve electronic content, including Webcasts, blogs and online debates.  Libraries must play a key role in helping to teach information literacy skills.  One expert says that the younger generation is technologically more literate, but not more information literate.  This is a challenge that must be tackled by libraries and educators more widely.  Students who simply want to use Google and take its content as gospel do a real disservice to the skills which people will increasingly need to survive in the digital economy.

The time has come to use the library environment to meet the needs of society in a purposeful and segmented manner.  This is influenced by the dynamic Web 2.0 philosophy, as well as by specific requirements in the branch of education and the social sphere.  Libraries have joined in the environment of blogs, Wiki, social tagging, podcasts, RSS, facebooks, SMS, GPRS, etc.  A library today must be interactive.  Its contents and metadata must be social and just as convenient as Google or Wiki, but more reliable and with long-term access to the contents.
The 3.0 library is not far off, it is the 2.0 library plus a semantic Web.  The National Language Commission recently heard a report on a survey related to the language corps.  The two elements are approaching each other.  The text corps is becoming a joint container or hive for multifunctional search, preservation and usage.
These matters are changing the functions and role of libraries.  So-called hybrid library modules are to be introduced, with synergy from remote and physical services, from traditional resources at the library.  Digital libraries and Web information are being created, and the focused definitions of the clients of public and research libraries are disappearing.  As noted, content, knowledge management and the user are coming into the foreground.
Librarians must become knowledge librarians.  Libraries must provide specific services for various target audiences elementary education, higher education, research and development, distance learning, lifelong education, socially vulnerable groups (the unemployed, street children, poor families, differently abled persons, pensioners), etc., and this must be done irrespective of the individuals place of residence and social role.

Another aspect of the aforementioned cultural policy guidelines in Latvia is that co-operation among heritage and memory institutions is not sufficient, and much remains to be done in terms of co-ordinated action in providing high-quality and convenient user services in a digital environment.
Since 2006, the Latvian National Library has been developing a national digital library project, Lettonica.  A system of digital object management has been created, and it will be available to libraries museums and archives alike.  Methodological and technological co-ordination of the project are ensured by the European Digital Library, which is known as Europeana.  Initiated by the EU, it is one of the priorities of the i2010 strategy.  Negotiations are ongoing about the objectives in the versatile use of content, and an agreement is going to be concluded among the developers of teaching aids at the Ministry of Education, the University of Latvia and other educational establishments which foster technology-driven research, teaching and learning.  An agreement with the University of Latvia envisages a wide range of co-operation not only in the retrieval and usage of information, but also in the development of training courses in subject areas such as computer linguistics.  There will also be other directions for research and development.
A major international conference, Digital Library for Learning, was held in Rga in November 2007.[1]  It was organised by the Latvian Ministry of Culture as part of a cycle of conferences known as the Seven Sisters.  Representatives from 16 countries attended the one-day event.  Culture Minister Helna Demakova delivered the introductory address.  A second conference under the same name will be organised by the Latvian National Library in November 2008.  The aim is to examine the contributions made by libraries, museums and archives in the teaching process, marking out the movement from information to knowledge.
In conclusion, one can cite the mission statement of the Gates Foundations library programme:  It is helping to transform public libraries into vital tools that can advance the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.  Any life irrespective of the place of residence is equally valuable.

[1]   For more information about the conference, see and

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