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Active, engaged, valued: older people and public Libraries in New South Wales.

Libraries face an imminent age wave as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age. Retirees and older people have traditionally been an important target market for libraries. The impact of a greatly increased proportion of them in local communities will be an important consideration in library planning, facility design, resourcing, marketing strategies, the development of strategic partnerships and staffing. Trends, current research, stakeholders and recommendations to support strategic planning within the NSW public library network are identified. Highlights of a June 2006 issues paper available from the State Library of NSW at valued.pdf


Active, engaged, valued, older people and NSW public libraries is a deliberately ambiguous title, because both public libraries and older people are active and engaged in their communities, and are valued by them.

It is widely accepted that Australia faces an age wave as the baby boomers move through their life cycle. The impact of a greatly increased proportion of older people in local communities will be an important consideration in library planning, facility design, resourcing, marketing strategies, the development of strategic partnerships and library staffing.

The age wave

Retirees and older people have always been an important target market for public libraries. The age wave is going to be felt by them around the nation, particularly because
 Older people read more and are more frequent
 visitors to public libraries, with people over 65
 visiting libraries five times more a year than
 younger people. (1)

What is older?

In developing strategic plans and other documents it is important to be aware of the specific age groupings that are in use in other areas of community development and government policy. The age ranges identified by the NSW Department of Local Government for compulsory social and community plans include

* older people--over 55 years

* Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander--over 45 years

* 'old' old--over 85 years

In many other research and policy documents, the key age groups are 65 years and over, for example Dr Jackson's work for the Local Government and Shires Association which provides a unique ageing profile for each local government area in NSW. (2)

The NSW public library network serving older people

In NSW there are 363 library service points and public libraries have a high level of recognition in local communities. (3) Forty eight per cent of people are members of a public library. (4) Any snapshot of the current service provision for older people across the NSW public library network must begin with an acknowledgment of the variation in library services across the state. Libraries are a key council service provided for local communities and tailored to the local environment and the needs of the community.

Despite the variation between local government areas there is a great deal that public libraries have in common. Across NSW, they typically deliver the following services of particular interest to older clients

* Recreational reading--fiction, hobbies and interests

* Information--including council information, health and legal information in plain English

* Community information--directories and databases highlighting services available in the local community, many of them available online

* Genealogy / family history resources

* Local history information

* Homebound library services--90 library services in NSW provide targeted services to homebound residents (5)

* Large print resources

* Spoken wordbooks

* Community language materials

* Newspapers and magazines

* Reader assistance--personalised assistance in locating information and resources

So with such an array of services and resources in place what are the additional challenges facing public libraries due to the imminent age wave?

Languages other than English

The Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (Fecca) has developed a policy focusing on the issues of ageing as they affect migrants and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (Cald).
 The older population from culturally and
 linguistically diverse backgrounds is not only
 increasing more quickly than the Australian born
 in terms of size but it is also ageing more rapidly
 such that by 2026 it is projected that one in four
 people aged 80 and over will be from culturally
 and linguistically diverse backgrounds. (6)

Particular issues they face include

* difficulties for members of the community who do not speak English fluently, in accessing appropriate services and information eg community information, library membership forms and information

* spoken English skills can deteriorate as people age

* services such as home library deliveries, large print and talking books may not be available in appropriate languages

* literacy levels in their mother tongue may vary


In 2003 there were 2.6 million carers in the Australian community who provided assistance to those who needed help because of disability or age. The age wave is likely to greatly swell the ranks of this silent army in our community. When we think about these people--who are often isolated at home, ageing (24% over 65 yrs) and more likely to have a disability themselves--the first service that comes to mind is home library service. (7)

There are several other services that may benefit carers

* local community information about support services

* health information in plain English

* support groups eg facilitating groups via meeting venues, publicity, listing in community information directories

* homebound library services

* online access to library services

Grandparents as carers

A significant number of older people are primary carers raising their grandchildren. This family situation can arise for reasons including parental disability, death, imprisonment, substance abuse and child neglect, abuse or abandonment. (8)
 Grandparents are the guardians in around 1% of all
 families with children aged 0-17 (22,500 families).
 This represents a total of 31,100 children; in two
 thirds of these families the natural parent(s) are
 living elsewhere. (9)

While many services are offered by public libraries for families it may be appropriate to consider marketing existing children's services to grandparents in the community.


Perhaps the greatest challenge communities will face is the impact of dementia.
 In Australia, dementia is the second largest cause
 of disability burden for all people but for older
 people causes the highest levels of severe or
 profound disability. By 2016 it will be the largest
 disability burden, surpassing depression and all
 other chronic illness. (10)

Clearly there will be some impact on libraries, both in serving clients in the early stages of dementia and in supplying the information needs of families and carers affected by the illness. Examples of appropriate resources may include plain English health information, music recordings and reminiscence therapy kits with material from local history collections.

Grey nomads

People aged 50 years and over who travel independently for an extended period of time within Australia--at least 3 months--are known as grey nomads. Some regional areas, particularly those on popular routes for travelling around Australia, may find increasing numbers of grey nomads visiting their libraries. (11)

The lure of free internet access may appeal as they seek to keep in touch with families and friends at home. Lending library materials to itinerant members may also require substantial revision of lending policies. Some library services have paperback collections specifically set up for this purpose and grey nomads may also utilise their reciprocal borrowing rights within New South Wales if they are NSW residents.

Some typical services grey nomads may require include

* tourist information

* community information

* reciprocal borrowing

* digital poste restante for email

* internet access / wireless access

* itinerant lending collections eg paperback collections

Maintaining a place in the wired world

The ability to access library information and services online will be a priority for busy seniors who are technologically knowledgeable. A study conducted in 2005 by Charles Sturt University and Monash University in cooperation with Upper Murray Regional Library and Public Libraries Australia considered the impact of the retirement of the baby boomers on public libraries. The study indicated that
 ... amongst other roles for the public library, baby
 boomers would like it to be a vibrant social hub, to
 assist them to maintain their place in the wired world,
 and to provide them with continuing education as well
 as a range of culturally related activities. (12)

The same study stressed that public libraries will need to provide
 state of the art computer access especially because, as
 the years pass after retirement, home equipment will
 become obsolescent. Economy rather than speed and
 capacity will become the basis for choosing a home
 Internet service provider.

Silver surfers will be looking for

* access to up to date technology as their home equipment will rapidly become obsolete and they have to pay for technological support for home equipment

* free access to the internet

* internet tutorials and computer clubs to develop and maintain their skills

There is a number of assistive technologies that may also be provided for use in the library

* voice output eg Jaws software, speech synthesisers

* screen enlargement software eg Zoomtext

* document reading software eg Poet reader / Kurzweil

* equipment to assist clients with a physical disability eg modified keyboards for stroke victims


In semi or full retirement, older people may have the time, energy and skills to participate in volunteering and recreational pursuits. Others may choose to continue to work full time. However it is anticipated that baby boomers will seek to contribute to their communities through volunteering in some way.

The status of volunteers at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006 has raised the collective awareness of volunteerism whilst also creating high expectations that volunteer programs will be well managed.

Volunteer roles in a library service should be clearly defined and complementary to the roles of paid staff. (13) Volunteers cannot be asked to take on roles which risk their safety, council assets, user safety, or roles which represent council to the community. The importance of developing policies, position descriptions and ensuring that all areas of risk management are considered in line with council policies should be addressed to ensure volunteering at the library is a positive and mutually beneficial experience.

There are several major resources for organisations wishing to maximise the effectiveness of volunteering. They include

* Volunteering Australia which provides a national volunteers skills centre offering training to build the knowledge and skills of managers of volunteers and to build the capacity of not for profit organisations to involve volunteers effectively

* Volunteering NSW which provides training as well as other resources for organisations through its School of Volunteer Management


The only way for libraries to adequately meet the demands of the age wave will be to develop strategic partnerships at a local government level, for example through

* community development as social and cultural planning

* Meals on wheels which has over 20,000 clients and 35,000 volunteers in NSW

* aged services

At a national level there are many significant interest groups including the Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association with over 20,000 members, Cota National Seniors, the University of the Third Age. Another important organisation is Vision Australia, because
 It is estimated there are currently approximately
 380,000 people living in Australia with legal blindness
 or low vision. By 2030 this number is expected to
 double, as the baby boomer generation ages coupled
 with the fact that people are living longer. (14)


Libraries need to beware of stereotypes when marketing to older people. They are not an homogenous group and include active aged, frail aged, semi retired and retired people, as well as those still working full time, small business owners and carers.

Stereotypes can easily creep into communication through the images, font and style used and of course the name of a program. There are some very cleverly marketed programs, for example the Growing old living dangerously Gold program in Joondalup, Western Australia.

Effective communication

A well considered marketing strategy will also consider the following aspects of communicating with an older audience

* style guides using appropriate font sizes and styles

* readability, including font colour, contrasts and the international large print standard

* accessible websites meeting the international web content accessibility guidelines

Library staffing

Finally we come to perhaps the most critical effect of the age wave on public libraries--the ageing workforce of libraries themselves. In October 2005 the industrial relations adviser of the Australian Library and Information Association Phil Teece reported that 60 per cent of the library workforce is 45 years and older. (15)

Creative and flexible solutions to job design and work practices may be needed in the immediate future to stem the brain drain and ensure that libraries have staff with the skills, enthusiasm and experience to meet the challenges of the age wave.

Public libraries face the challenge of retaining baby boomers in the workforce. Some of the strategies needed to be explored may include

* attractive part time options

* job sizing to suit job sharing and part time work

* smart solutions to manual handling issues

The profession also faces a very serious recruitment shortfall. At present 14 per cent of the library workforce is under 35 years of age compared to 42 per cent in the Australian workforce. (16)

Public libraries need to give serious attention to

* recruitment of new graduates, including marketing the profession to students

* succession planning, including knowledge management strategies for critical areas such as reference, local studies, senior management

* mentoring younger staff

* providing support for young managers supervising older workers


Older people have always been a substantial user group for public libraries. Their ability to access library services is affected by access to transport, familiarity with technology, computer skills and awareness of available services. The NSW public library network operates within the policy framework set down by state and local government. Local and state governments in NSW have adopted policies that acknowledge older people as a group with distinct needs.

Rather than wait for the inevitable age wave to reach communities, public libraries have the opportunity to position themselves as focal points for older people, providing

* a community meeting place

* information for life matters and leisure

* recreational reading

* internet access and skill development

* stimulating and appealing programs

Libraries also fulfil a vital role in building social capital in communities by providing meaningful volunteer roles, opportunities to engage in community consultation and breaking down some of the barriers of social exclusion.

As a vital link enabling people to maintain their place in the wired world and as a social hub, the future holds many opportunities for local government authorities to develop their public libraries to meet the needs of the age wave in their communities.


(1) Evans, H and Kelly J Analytical report for the national strategy for an ageing Australia: time use in later life: employment, family leisure, adult education, charity and arts among older Australians Melbourne 1999

(2) Jackson, N Population ageing in New South Wales and its local government areas 2004 /233-the-impact-of-population-ageing-on-nsw-local-government.asp

(3) State Library of NSW Public Libraries in New South Wales directory 2005

(4) NSW Public library statistics 2003/04

(5) MPLA Home Library Service Working Group (2001) NSW Home library service network survey 2001

(6) Fecca Ageing and aged services

(7) Australian Bureau of Statistics Disability, ageing and carers, Australia: summary of findings ABS publication 4430.0 2003

(8) Centrelink: Grandparents and carers who raise and care for children /pg_grandparents.btm

(9) Scott, J Mythbuster--grandparents as carers Cota National Seniors 2004

(10) Access Economics The dementia epidemic: economic impact and positive solutions fro Australia Prepared for Alzheimer's Australia, March 2003 piv

(11) Onyx, J, Leonard, R and Dean, S The grey nomad phenomena--a research report UTS Centre for Australian Community Organisations & Management 2005

(12) Williamson, K et al 'Wanting it now': baby boomers and the public library of the future Australian library journal 55(1) 2006 pp54-71

(13) see the policy statement of the Australian Library and Information Association on volunteers in libraries

(14) National Information Library Service

(15) Teece, P Workwatch inCite October 2005

(16) ibid

Mylee Joseph Young people and older persons consultant Public Library Services State Library of New South Wales

Mylee Joseph BA Lib&InfoSc GradDip BusAdmin AALIA is the consultant, young people and older persons, Public Library Services at the State Library of NSW. This team provides advice and support to public libraries throughout New South Wales. Mylee joined Public Library Services in 2005 after working as a library manager, outreach team leader and children's librarian in a range of NSW public libraries. Address: State Library of NSW Macquarie Street Sydney NSW 2000 tel(02)92731521
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Author:Joseph, Mylee
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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