In its “New Skills Agenda for Europe”, the European Commission outlines the need to spread digital skills and fight digital exclusion and acknowledges the important contribution of public libraries. In one year, 4.6 million Europeans accessed the internet for the first time at their public library and 2.3 million people attended digital literacy courses in libraries.
What does it mean to be digitally literate? The European Commission has its indicators: starting from browsing, searching and filtering information, to protecting personal data and coding. From the growing need for digital skills in the workplace, to benefiting from a range of services such as e-government and online banking, a baseline of digital skills is vital to full participation in modern society.
The danger is that with the digital revolution, we risk leaving many people behind. Nearly half of the EU has insufficient digital skills and nearly one in five people has never used the internet.
Older people and marginalised groups are especially at risk of digital exclusion. But the issue of digital illiteracy is also systemic in education; only 30% of students in the EU can be considered as digitally competent.
This is clearly a challenge for formal education systems. To meet this challenge, institutions like public libraries have an important role to play. There are 65,000 public libraries in the EU and 100 million people visit them every year.
Public libraries are not just a place to read and borrow books; they are a network of open spaces where people supplement their formal education, working on their digital skills and undertaking a huge range of other educational activities.
The data backs this up. In one year:
• 4.6 million Europeans accessed the internet for the first time at their public library
• 250,000 Europeans found a job thanks to internet access at a public library
• 2.3 million people attended digital literacy courses in libraries
The European Commission launched yesterday A New Skills Agenda for Europe, outlining how a boost in skills could help to tackle some of Europe’s greatest social and economic challenges. A “Skills Guarantee” has been announced to help people who are long-term unemployed get back to work, and a “Skills Tool Kit for Third Country Nationals” will be rolled out to help refugees and other migrants integrate into new communities.
An additional important element of the New Skills Agenda is the “Digital Skills for Europe” initiative, to boost the public’s competencies online and meet the objective of a European Digital Single Market.
We need to address digital skills in schools. However, in order to reach the widest group of people possible, we must also empower non-formal learning institutions. The vital role of public libraries as free-to-access community hubs comes into particular focus when it comes to the inclusion of hard-to-reach and vulnerable groups in policies to promote education and skills.
For example, Bozhidar Tchergarov, a blind Master’s student in Bulgaria, used his public library to learn how to use a computer and continues to attend library-run ICT training courses today. Or Filippo Gruni, a digital entrepreneur in Italy who has created a makerspace in his public library to improve the digital skills of his community.
As acknowledged by the Commission’s proposal to the Council on the Skills Guarantee, strengthening skills in Europe “should be encouraged to involve a broad range of actors, social partners, education and training providers, employers, intermediary and sectorial organisations, local and regional economic actors, employment, social and community services, libraries, civil society organisations.”
It is great to see the European Commission recognising the fantastic work being done to improve skills at public libraries across Europe. If you are interested in learning more about the role of libraries in digital skills development, visit us during the next EU Code Week (18-20 October) at the European Parliament, where Public Libraries 2020 will host an interactive exhibition on how Europe’s public libraries are meeting the digital age.
Picture credits: Eric Drost