IFLANET home - International Federation of Library Associations and InstitutionsAnnual ConferenceSearchContacts

63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Public libraries and life-long learning - A southern European perspective

José Ant¢nio Calixto
Biblioteca Municipal de Setubal,
Setubal, Portugal


The idea that modern societies have changed dramatically during the last few decades is presently commonly accepted and became even a mode. The aim of this paper is not to analyse these changes, but I would spend just a few minutes reminding the more important changes related to the subject I’m bringing to discussion.

The fact that computers became a common tool in our daily life tends to make us forget how things were just a few years ago when even the simple act of writing meant some hard work and the constant fear of making mistakes. Or the not very distant times of “snail mail”, or fax, or telephone for everything. Computers have definitely changed - are changing - our lives, the way we work, the way we communicate, perhaps the ways we are. And libraries are of course among the greatest benificiaries of changes brought by computers. (1)

Economy and society are also changing at a speed never before experienced. Globalization is the most common word when economy is the matter, being uncertainty among the following. Iniquality comes next.

The most dramatic feature of social changes in last few years in Europe is clearly high rates of unemployment, the highest since before World War II. Millions have been made redundant by technical and economic changes and the idea of a job for life belongs to the past.

Education is accompanying this changes and nowadays the ability to learn is becoming more and more important. Life-long learning is presently perhaps the central idea of education, precisely because what is to be learnt is in constant transformation.

Public libraries in Europe are following this trend and trying to take the best possible advantages of these changes, also adapting themselves to new technologies, new demands, nem customers, often in the middle of new and strong constraints. (2)

Libraries and learning

Libraries have always played an important role in supporting education. Since the very beggining public library was seen as a means of educating and of keeping workers away from such places as pubs. ”The validity of the public library’s function as a support for formal education, particularly adult education, is also indisputable”. (3) Another perspective is that of the public library “as everyperson’s university, providing a complement to the formal education system and a major support to part-time education” .(4)

Anyway public libaries that in the past have supported education didn’t do it in the same sense that we use today and certainly not in the sense of life-long learning. They supported (and some of them are still supporting) mainly students and other learners enroled in the general education system, both in secondary school and in the University. Also some suggestions indicate that local erudites are using public libraries to foster their studies and to complement and deepen other information. “People are more and more interested in discovering their roots, in finding it’s own identity.” (5)

Public libraries are supporting learning since they support formal education as an information resource, they support schools by supporting (or providing) school library service, they include libraries for children and young people, they give a special contribution to user education and development of information skills, they have study rooms and homework centres. They play an important role in the support to independent and life-long learning.

Life-long learning and the public library

The idea of life-long learning is relatively new in Europe and this may be still more the case in Portugal and other southern european countries.

One of it’s more important implications is the “dissolution of the traditional barriers between ‘education’ and ‘life”; (6) actually learning is increasingly taking place out of school and much beyond the ages traditionally considered appropriate to study. The individualization of learning is another major characteristic; learners can learn the way that best suits them, when and how they want, at their own pace, with maximum autonomy and minimum support.

The idea of life-long learning has some individual and social implications that must be considered. One, very important, is that the individual needs to develop a set of learning skills, preferably during “school age”, in order to be able to identify his or her’s learning needs, to search and find the appropriate study materials, to use and take the most advantage of them. This is much alike what librarians use to call “user education” and brings the matter of learning much to the ground of public library activity.

Other important issue is that learning materials have to be made available to the potential learners, and many have suggested that the most suitable place for that may well be the library although this has been much ignored by decision-makers.

Life-long learning has also some strong implications for public library service and means changes in space and equipment, materials, technologies and skills and competencies of the staff.

Public libraries in Portugal

Portugal is experiencing an exciting and deep change in the public library service, what has been already called, not very imaginatively I’m afraid, a “silent revolution”. Portugal has never had a strong public library system. There is strong evidence of general shortage of resources and poor service up to the late 1980’s. (7)

However, since 1987 the Ministry of Culture is fostering public libraries by funding the municipalities that apply to build a new library or renew one already existing. (8) The Portuguese Institute for Books and Libraries (IPLB) has had a key role in this movement and is generally considered an essential piece for the development of public libraries in Portugal. Since 1987, 56 libraries (most of them new ones) have already open from a total of 126 with a contract. Many more are due to open shortly.

All these libraries must follow a general pattern if they are to be funded. They must have a certain size varying accordingly to the size of the population to be served. Paralleling with the size they must have a certain amount of information resources and be properly staffed. All the libraries must have at least one chartered librarian. The Minister of Culture has recently announced that all the municipalities in Portugal will have a public library within the next 8 years.

These libraries have all the core spaces of a public library, including a separate room for the children’s library and another one for the storytelling hour; an audivisual sector, an auditorium and an exhibition room. They deliver all the main services, including lending books and other materials and reference and information services. Most of them will have a local studies sector and are developing community information, open learning and information technology. All of them are very active in promoting the services and regular activities aim to reach new users, specially children and young people.

Libraries in Portugal have always been an important support to education. Actually may be too important... There is strong evidence to support the idea that due to the general lack of school libraries, (9) public libraries have tended to play their role; this is considered by some as a real danger because, it is claimed, public libraries may be transformed in school libraries.

Portuguese public libraries and life-long learning

Portuguese public libraries are well aware of their roles in support of life-long learning, although some dificulties have to be overcome.

Promoting reading and literacy

Public libraries are a basic pre-requisite for the development of a culture based on reading, (10) and reading is of course the base for education, al least in our western culture. By strongly emphasizing lending services, promoting literature and reading, working in close connection with schools since kindergarten, public libraries in Portugal are decisive in the ever ongoing fight for literacy. (11) Other important feature of these libraries is the provision of local and national newspapers and magazines. By doing this they allow an increased number of people, some of them with social and economic dificulties, to have acess to common information about the country and the world.The audiovisual sectors have also made good proof in making the bridge between reading and the modern times of audiovisual. (12) For example many libraries promote their books refering them to the cinematographic versions. Others are making and circultaing packages two in one: book and VHS cassette.

Supporting schools

Public libraries have been a major support as an information resource for schools and are cooperating closely with (sometimes providing) school libraries.(13) In some cases, public libraries located near to universities or other upper education schools have also been providing resources to their students. Some public libraries have special conditions for lending books for schools, others make special boxes with some hundreds of books and circulate them by small primary schools. Many public libraries have what may be considered as the embryo of a structered School Library Service. They support and give technical advice to school libraries (where they exist), seminars and inservice training is taking place, cooperation and sharing of resources between school libraries is fostered, special promotional programmes are organized in cooperation. (14)

Fostering local identity

Public libraries provide and promote information resources for local researchers interested in studying local life and local history. They may well be called the memory of the local community. (15) They store most of the local authors, local newspapers, pictures, maps, pamphlets, films and videos, post-cards and many other materials very important for the local knowledge of the community. These called “local funds” are very much used and apreciated by local cultural elites and also as a support to project work for schools.

Providing access to arts

Since all these libraries have an auditorium and an exhibition room, or alternatively a polyvalent room, they are heavily used for many different purposes some of them related to formal or informal education. Conferences, seminars, exhibitions are a permanent feature. Meetings with authors take place on a regular and permanent base relating to literature promotion. Some libraries have an all year program of conferences, inviting teachers from universities, in many diverse subjects, from medicine to sociology, from history to biology. Art exhibitions, poetry readings, music concerts, dance and other performances make strong contributions to the fruition of arts and an esthetic education in many cases only available via the public library. These events are always open to the community, strongly promoted and free of charge. There is a strong evidence of the number and success of these events in the amount of programs and leaflets published and in articles both in national and local press.

Informing and refering

These libraries are developing comunity information and reference services. By doing so they create oportunities for people to know more about their comunities and help them to solve concrete problems; there is undoubtly a learning process going on with the special carachteristic of having imediate use and application in people’s daily lives. On the other hand reference services put people in contact with national and international networks what, linked to the interlibrary lending services, virtually gives people access to all the information they need.

Giving access to IT

Although it has to be said that portuguese public libraries are only now starting to make use of IT, some of them have already an important experience in the automation of housekeeping routines and offer online public access to the catalogue. Much of this work is beeing carried out by RILP (Public Libraries Informatics Network). (16) Some of them are a step ahead and also store and deliver information in CD/ROM’s and allow acess online to databases, namely using the Internet. Very important for what is now concerned, a trend is developing to have computers available for the use of custumors and there are even courses in computers for customers free of charge. By fostering computer skills, public libraries give to many the oportunity to develop crucial competencies for the information society, and are beyond any doubt playing an important role in life-long learning.

Open Learning

This is another important new issue for portuguese public libraries. It can be said that for some years now public libraries in Portugal are providing some aspects of an open learning service but not using the concept, and of course not exploiting all the oportunities or structuring it in the best convenient way. But our public libraries do have for some time now materials using diferent media, and delivering language courses, computer courses, basic information for example on how to write a CV, or how to look for a job, just to give a few exemples of some more common subjects in open learning. Portuguese participation in Eurpean funded projects such as PLAIL or LISTED was crucial to develop awareness of how we can foster these bases and make the best use of it. We are still short of courses specially designed for open learning in our language and our staff needs to develop skills to deliver the service in a more efficient way. But there is no doubt that open learning is already and will be even more in the future one of the most important features for public libraries to play their role in helping customers in life-long learning. (17)


Some barriers to the development of these services can be easily identified. Most of these are new libraries in municipalities that had never had one. So they are fragile organizations sometimes with poor funding specially for renewal of materials, which as mentioned are scarce. Our librarians and assistant librarians are young and strongly motivated, but the libraries are understaffed and most of them have only one librarian. The training, although recent and long - librarians in Portugal have a two year’s post-graduation course - is not very adequate to public library service. So inservice training in order to keep up with new developments is absolutely necessary. (18) Beeing new organizations it has also to be said that political and social awareness of their potential in the field of life-long learning has still much to grow.


Public libraries in Portugal are developing fast and steadily, although attention has to be paid to some details if the system is to grow and develop. Much has already been achieved in many different aspects during the past few years, and support to life-long learning is surely one of them. These public libraries develop work that one way or another can be considered as support to life-long learning. This work includes the promotion of reading and literacy, the support to schools, the fostering of local identity via local funds, access to arts, informing and refering, giving access to IT and delivering open learning. Nevertheless much effort has to be done in order to, parting from the work already done, develop services, obtain materials, train staff, for the full acomplishement of public libraries aims and objectives.


  1. Batt, Chris - Information technology in public libraries. 5th ed. London : Library Association, 1994, p. 58

  2. See theEuropean Union publication Summary of the report “Public libraries and the information Society”. Available in www.echo.lu/libraries/en/libraries

  3. Surges, Paul - “Conceptualizing the public library : 1850-1919”. In Continuity and innovation in the public library. London : Library Association, 1996, p. 44

  4. Usherwood, Bob - Public library as public knowledge. London : Library Association, 1989, p. 9

  5. Nunes, Henrique Barreto - “A biblioteca e a memória da vida local”. In Nunes, Henrique Barreto - Da biblioteca ao leitor. Braga : Autores de Braga, 1996

  6. Greenhalgh, Liz ; Worpole, Ken - Libraries in a world of cultural change. London : UCL, 1995, p. 102

  7. Parker, Stephen - “Bibliotecas públicas em Portugal : resultados de um levantamento realizado em 1982 e 1983”. Revista de Biblioteconomia de Brasília, Brasília, 14 (1), 1986, p.16-17 Portilheiro, Joaquim - “A leitura pública : uma batalha urgente e necessária” . Cadernos BAD, Lisboa (2) 1983, p. 13-19

  8. Moura, Maria José (edit.) - Leitura pública : rede de bibliotecas municipais : relatório. Lisboa : Secretaria de Estado da Cultura, 1987

  9. This too is changing. The Minister of Education is launching a new program - paralleling the one in public libraries - to develop school library service.

  10. Usherwood, Op. Cit., p. 10

  11. Monteiro, Ana Cristina - “Biblioteca viva : um projecto de animação”. In CONGRESSO NACIONAL DE BIBLIOTECÁRIOS ARQUIVISTAS E DOCUMENTALISTAS, 4 Braga, 1992 - “Informação, ciência, cultura : bibliotecas e arquivos para o ano 2000 : actas”. Braga : BAD, 1992, vol. 2, p437-450

  12. Neves, Rui - “O desenvolvimento de secções de audiovisuais em bibliotecas de leitura pública”. In CONGRESSO NACIONAL DE BIBLIOTECÁRIOS, ARQUIVISTAS E DOCUMENTALISTAS, 5, Lisboa, 1994 - “Multiculturalismo : comunicações”, Lisboa : BAD, 1994, vol.1, p. 147-151

  13. Figueiredo, Fernanda Eunice ; Sousa, Maria Augusta - “A biblioteca pública e a escola : que cooperação”. In CONGRESSO NACIONAL DE BIBLIOTECÁRIOS ARQUIVISTAS E DOCUMENTALISTAS, 4 Braga, 1992 - “Informação, ciência, cultura : bibliotecas e arquivos para o ano 2000 : actas”. Braga : BAD, 1992, vol. 1, p. 589-597

  14. Calixto, José António - A biblioteca escolar e a sociedade da informação. Lisboa : Caminho, 1996, p. 125-133

  15. Nunes, Henrique Barreto, Op. Cit.

  16. Machado, Luis Oliveira - “Rede Informática de Leitura Pública”. Cadernos BAD, Lisboa (3) 1994, p.123-131

  17. Calixto, José António ; Dias, Zélia ; Pinto, Eunice Silva - “Projecto Bibliotecas Públicas e Apoio aos Adultos em regime de Aprendizagem não Formal (PLAIL)”. In CONGRESSO NACIONAL DE BIBLIOTECÁRIOS, ARQUIVISTAS E DOCUMENTALISTAS, 5, Lisboa, 1994 - “Multiculturalismo : comunicações”, Lisboa : BAD, 1994, vol.1, p. 319-333

  18. MOURA, Maria José (coord.) - Relatório sobre as bibliotecas públicas em Portugal. Lisboa : Ministério da Cultura, 1996