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Australia in the 21st century needs to build a culture of learning. The nation's 1600 public libraries need to be in the vanguard of a new flexible approach to lifelong learning because although most people like the idea of learning, they do not want institutionalised learning, Public libraries are critical to Australia's future as a learning society. Edited version of a speech at the Learning Environment Technology Australia (LETA 2000) conference, Adelaide 19 September 2000

At the Sydney Olympics, Australia continued its love affair with sport. The successful countries of the coming century will have a love affair with lifelong learning.

Their national events will be based on innovation and technology, rather than tourism and sport. Their currencies will ride on the back of the new economy, rather than farming and mining. Their public infrastructure will be based on education investments, rather than sporting arenas.

Australia needs to build a culture of learning. We need to be obsessed with education.

This paper outlines the role Australia's 1600 public libraries might play in this process. They need to be in the vanguard of a new approach to lifelong learning. They are critical to our nation's future as a learning society.

A learning society

Learning is a complex process which cannot be understood simply in terms of formal education and training. Most people go about their daily lives committed to self improvement and informal ways of learning. They develop new insights and skills from practical experiences and changed circumstances.

Indeed, one of society's trends is towards informal modes of learning. Under the time pressures of modern work and home life, people are looking for more flexible and casual ways of improving their skills.

In their rhetoric, politicians often talk about helping people to balance the competing demands of work and family. In fact, we should be talking about a third demand--the time demands of lifelong learning. We need to get the balance right between work, family and education.

These issues are reflected in the Australian National Training Authority's (Anta) lifelong learning project, based on a nationwide survey of attitudes to adult education. It has identified an enormous gap between public preferences and public policy.

While governments talk up the importance of qualifications and the formal institutions of education, the public is reluctant to go down this path. Most people like the idea of learning, but not through a process which resembles the classroom.

Generally, Australians recognise the need for continuous learning and the self improvement it produces. Over 80 per cent of those surveyed agreed that `the more Australians learn, the better off they will be' and that `learning anything is valuable, even if it doesn't lead to a better job'. They are reticent, however, about the method of learning delivery.

A large number of people do not want to be bogged down in institutionalised education. In the words of the project
 People have told us how much they like on the job and informal learning
 experiences, learning from mentors and learning through practical
 experience, but they feel they've had enough of classrooms and exams to
 last a lifetime. The problem comes when you try and translate their passion
 for learning into a similar enthusiasm for the products and experiences of
 formal education and training.[1]

Time has become the chief enemy of lifelong learning. For most Australians, educational opportunities fade away as they move further into the adult years. Learning loses out to the demands of work, family and social life. Education starts to look less relevant and more threatening.

One in four Australian adults do not return to any form of education after they leave school. They feel lost and even intimidated by the formality of the education system.

Learning beyond the classroom

Australians are in search of learning opportunities of a more casual kind. They want the potential for education and self improvement to be realised in everyday situations: in the home, in pubs and clubs, in community settings, in the places where they feel comfortable.

People have a stronger motivation to learn in places where they feel at ease. This gives them their best chance for turning positive attitudes to learning into practical results.

In many cases, it helps them to build the confidence to pursue further studies in vocational and higher education. Community based learning has a critical role to play in the creation of educational pathways. It has a habit of opening the door to formal qualifications.

These conclusions demand a major change in government policies. The creation of a learning society requires much more than a focus on the traditional institutions of education. It means going beyond the incremental reform of schools, Tafe and higher education.

The key to a learning society is to make good use of the learning potential of everyday situations. The learning process can take place at any time, in any circumstances. Lifelong learning needs to flourish in the civic institutions of everyday life: in homes, in workplaces, in shopping centres, in libraries, in the places where people commonly come together.

This is what the British author Tom Bentley calls `learning beyond the class-room'.[2] It is the big idea in education policy.

Public libraries

This agenda relies on a new way of delivering learning services. These changes can be grouped into ten areas of policy reform. In each case, public libraries need to adapt their culture and services to the demands of community based learning.

In the past learning institutions were structured around a rigid format, with fixed timetables and fixed curricula. In the future, they will need to be more flexible, by catering for the needs of a time poor society. Their guiding principle needs to be convenience.

For several years, libraries have been trying to meet this demand, particularly through flexible opening and closing times. Instances of best practice now need to be convened into standard practice.

Recently the Sydney media reported on Fairfield City Library.[3] It has introduced Australia's first `drive through' library service. Library users can order their learning materials in advance and then pick them up without leaving their cars. This is an example of innovative thinking. It places a premium on user convenience.

Similar principles apply to the development of virtual libraries, allowing users to access and download materials online. The technology is available for public libraries to become 24 hour facilities. This is the best way of broadening their user population and satisfying the demands of lifelong learning.

In the past learning institutions were based on economies of scale--a belief that big is beautiful. The education system has replicated the methods of mass production.

In the future, they will need to function on a smaller, more virtual scale. More things need to be done in public education. They are not likely to be achieved, however, through the traditional institutional format.

Libraries need to establish a service profile across the community. They cannot afford to be tucked away in intimidating buildings or on obscure sites. They need to increase the visibility and accessibility of their services. For instance, library information kiosks need to become a regular feature in shopping centres, licensed clubs and community facilities.

In the past learning institutions were designed to disperse information and knowledge. Educators assumed that students were like an empty vessel. Rote learning simply had to be poured into them.

In the future, learning institutions will need to help people to manage information. The vessel is, in fact, already full. The challenge for the education system is to draw out and develop the learning interests and capabilities of its students. Information management is critical to this task.

It is possible to conceptualise two types of knowledge: the subjects we already know well; and the ones we know how to find out about. This reflects the true meaning of the information age: information access is power.

Libraries are well suited to this challenge. They offer a range of learning resources, rather than formal courses. They have the capacity to act as learning brokers--building their services around individual users; customising the delivery of materials to suit the information needs of particular clients. This is also a revenue opportunity for libraries. In the new economy, a growing proportion of disposable income is being spent on information services. Libraries need to tap into this market, particularly among knowledge workers and information based corporations.

In the past learning institutions were positioned within a strict educational hierarchy. Universities were at the top of this pecking order, with a monopoly on research functions and funding. Community education providers such as libraries were often positioned at the bottom of the hierarchy.

In the future, all learning institutions will need to develop research capabilities. This is one of the consequences of the information age--it is flattening the traditional hierarchy and opening up new sources of knowledge creation.

Higher education has lost its 900 year monopoly on the development and distribution of knowledge. It faces intense competition from entrepreneurs in both the business and social sectors. The internet and digital TV are making the tools of research widely available.

Libraries can play a creative role in this process. They can provide a venue and resources for self starting researchers, offering a range of information management services. Partnerships of this kind have tremendous commercial possibilities.

Libraries should no longer restrict their role to the dispersal of information. In the information age, they need to be part of the creation of knowledge.

In the past learning institutions were organised around a single use. In the future, they will need to function on a multipurpose basis.

Libraries are a logical focal point for the delivery of municipal, state and Commonwealth services, especially in regional and remote Australia. They also have enormous potential as a service provider in adult and community education.

The adult community education (Ace) sector has been underresourced and undervalued in Australia. Lifelong learning will never achieve universality unless this problem is corrected. Libraries, with their impressive resources and information management skills, can usefully add to the delivery of Ace services. They should position themselves at the centre of community based learning.

In the past learning institutions were designed as standalone organisations. The education system, as with much of the public sector, has functioned like a series of silos, with little collaboration between service providers.

In the future, learning institutions will need to be heavily networked. This is the nature of the new technology. Advanced IT allows the centre of an organisation to communicate directly with its component parts. It flattens organisational hierarchies and facilitates the creation of new alliances and partnerships.

Libraries need to join the network revolution by forming a series of alliances with community groups committed to lifelong learning. This is an opportunity for creative policy making--identifying fresh opportunities for the extension of library services. Let me provide two examples of what this might mean in practice.

First, the NSW Clubs Association, cashed up with poker machine revenue, is moving into the provision of community education. As a first step, licensed clubs are establishing internet cafes for the benefit of their members.

Libraries should be part of this initiative, offering information management services. As new learners join the program, they can then be introduced to the advantages of library use. This is an effective way of breaking down the attitudinal barriers to lifelong learning among adult Australians. It is a good example of a partnership model.

Secondly, the NSW motoring organisation, the NRMA, is planning to introduce road safety and motor mechanic courses in some of Sydney's disadvantaged suburbs. This is an opportunity to excite the learning interests of people who do not normally participate in education programs. Initiatives of this kind have a snowballing effect: once learning is stimulated in one area, it can open the door to many more opportunities.

The benefit of community education lies in the relevance of its curriculum, plus its use of informal settings. Libraries need to be part of this experience. They need to be proactive in forming collaborative partnerships across the community.

In the past learning institutions were quite insular, working on the premise that students and clients would come to them. In the future, they will need to develop a range of outreach programs, bringing disadvantaged groups into contact with the learning process.

Libraries need to become agents of this socially inclusive approach. They need to further develop their housebound services, teaching people with disabilities how to use the internet and access library materials online. They need to become more user friendly for Nesb populations, again harnessing the potential of the net.

There is, of course, no easy path to social inclusion. The failure of past practices makes policy innovation a necessity. Community partnerships should be at the forefront of creative practices in the library sector. So, too, governments need to develop new, inclusive strategies for lifelong learning.

This should include the establishment of Learning Accounts--a bank of learning resources targeted at the 25 per cent of adults who do not return to the education system. This public entitlement would be available for workplace training and community based learning, including library programs. Account holders would have to either use these funds or face the prospect of losing them.

Community based providers would have an incentive to attract account holders to their services. This is an excellent way of encouraging outreach programs and leveraging higher participation in lifelong learning. It gives the public sector its best chance of developing a universal education system.

In the past learning institutions delivered their services within built facilities--books, bricks and mortar. Obviously in the future, the supply of online services will increase. Public libraries cannot afford to be left behind in this process.

The federal government has missed several opportunities to play a leading role in the online networking of Australia's libraries. In the early 1990s the Department of Primary Industry and Energy established a number of standalone telecentres in rural Australia. This was a first rate flop. They should have been provided as a part of the library services in country towns.

In the last months of the Keating Labor government, $11.4 million was allocated to an Online Public Access Initiative. In 1996 the Howard government cut this amount to $2.2 million. Unfortunately the program has not been able to fulfil its potential for the electronic networking of public libraries.

Australia is still without a public access network for the nation's libraries. Many facilities are frustrated by Telstra's substandard provision of broadband telecommunications. Governments at all levels--local, state and federal--need to overcome these inadequacies and lift the quality of library internet services.

In the past learning institutions had to scramble and compete for scarce public resources. Left wing politics has argued for the primacy of public funding. Right wing politics has argued for funding deregulation and greater reliance on the private sector.

In the future, learning institutions will need to leverage additional resources from all parts of society. This is the logic of lifelong learning. It is such a huge task--all citizens learning through all parts of their lives--that it cannot be achieved from a single resource base. All sections of a learning society--governments, corporations, households and communities--need to do more.

The challenge for public policy is to mobilise these resources in an equitable fashion. This is why the partnerships model is so important. Through seed funding and other pilot programs, governments can bring organisations closer together, establishing synergies of educational effort.

For libraries, this is the critical agenda. They need to think the unthinkable: forming alliances with licensed clubs, shopping centres, sporting organisations, community groups, business mentors and other learning institutions. They can no longer rely solely on public sector budgets.

Every level of government needs to do more for the creation of a learning society. In the past, public libraries had to rely on varying amounts of local and state funding. In the future, the federal government will need to take greater responsibility for the resourcing of libraries. Libraries are a victim of Australia's complex and overlapping federal system of government. The quality of service differs greatly across the country. This reflects wide variations in the level of state and local funding support.

In New South Wales, for instance, the state government provides 15 per cent of public library resources, compared with approximately 40 per cent in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. The difference in local authority expenditure ranges from 0.4 per cent of council budgets in Tasmania up to 11 per cent in rural South Australia.[4]

Municipal libraries are no less important to the prospects of lifelong learning in Australia than colleges and campuses. Just as the national government plays a role in funding these services and establishing acceptable national standards, it should bring all libraries up to a decent level of service.

This can be achieved through three initiatives

* dedicating a proportion of municipal financial assistance grants to library capital works and information technology provision. This program should be funded through the abolition of guaranteed per capita funding for affluent local government areas

* restoring the full level of funding for the Online Public Access Initiative from the Federal Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts

* establishing a new program of partnership funding, designed to encourage the networking of adult and community education services, including libraries

The Fraser government put the 1975 national Horton report on public libraries on the shelf. The Hawke, Keating and Howard governments left it there. A Beazley Labor government will need to read it and act on its recommendations. In a knowledge nation, the national government needs to take responsibility--if not fully, then at least in part--for the resourcing and quality of the nation's learning institutions.


This is a fantastic time to be involved in the learning sector. Change brings with it opportunities as well as threats. The opportunities for creative policy making in education are immense.

We are entering a new phase in education policy. The focus is moving beyond the classroom and into the learning institutions of civil society. This is the natural terrain of public libraries. In Australian politics, we need to move beyond motherhood statements and slogans about lifelong learning and give this concept real policy grunt. We need to face up to the shortcomings of the current system.

Many educators and institutions say that they are already engaged in lifelong learning. For their students, this is undoubtedly true. The challenge is to reach those Australians who are outside the silos of learning--the one in four who never go back. This is the bottom line for lifelong learning: policies and programs which reach out to nonlearners and make education an engaging part of their lives.

If public libraries do not succeed in this task, then it is difficult to conceive of a universal system of learning. For those of us who believe in an inclusive and just society, libraries are at the vanguard of our hopes and policy plans.


[1] Stewart-Weeks, M and Dickie, M National marketing strategy for skills and lifelong learning Australian National Training Authority paper, Training update seminar November 1999 p5

[2] Bentley, T Learning beyond the classroom London, Routledge 1998

[3] `Drive-thru library' Daily telegraph 23 August 2000 p31

[4] Bundy, A How far they have come, how far they must go: Australia's public libraries at century's end How far have we come ... how far can we go? Proceedings of the public libraries national conference Perth 14-17 November 1999 Adelaide, Auslib Press 2000 pp245-259

Mark Latham MP Member of federal parliament for Werriwa NSW

Received September 2000

Mark Latham has been the federal member for Werriwa in NSW since January 1994. Prior to entering parliament he was a political adviser and mayor of Liverpool (1991-94). He is the author of Civilising global capital (1998) and a regular contributor to journals and newspapers. His latest book What did you learn today? Policies for an education revolution will be published early in 2001. Mark's key policy interests include welfare reform, social capital, education, health and international economic governance. Address: Electorate Office PO Box 609 Campbelltown NSW 2560 tel(02)46283377 fax(02)46283610; Parliament House Canberra ACT 2500 tel(02)62774606 fax(02)62778460
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Title Annotation:lifelong learning
Author:Latham, Mark
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Previous Article:Into the 21st century ... what are the needs?

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