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

Global Greying: Successful Strategies for Bridging Information Gaps with the Elderly Population

Allan M. Kleiman
Director, Cranbury Public Library
Cranbury, New Jersey


The United States has seen a dramatic increase in the elderly population over the last decade. This growth is projected to continue well into the next century. The United States is not alone! Different strategies are needed to accommodate library services for older adults who are aged 65, 75, 85 and older. Some countries have a long tradition of serving the elderly while others are just beginning to formulate policies and develop services. In addition, new technology and the INTERNET have become a mechanism to connect the world's elderly by providing information and resources as well as global interaction. This paper will include model library programs that can assist in meeting the challenges in serving older adults in the 21th century.


For the past fifty years libraries have been actively involved in providing service to older adults. Now with the aging revolution expected in the next century libraries need to be ready to build upon past accomplishments and develop new strategies to serve this ever changing complex segment of our society. Library service to older adults begins as a exciting journey; one that will force us not only to be observers but to be participants as well. Through the use of technology and the INTERNET libraries can bring together the global aging community and bridge information gaps in the 21th century.

We are all aware of the changes in population growth taking place throughout the world. The population on the globe is "greying" as some care to call it. Eradication of disease, better nutrition, and medical breakthroughs have all played a part in this growth. With the emerging "age wave," as defined by Ken Dyckwald there will be a ripple effect that will change us and therefore our libraries dramatically in the next decade. In addition, in the United States, with that "wave" also come changes in the multicultural nature of the population.

Although libraries have a long history in serving older adults only a handful of librarians were actually engaged in promoting and researching in the field. The profession did not view library services to older adults as sexy or exciting or even controversial. But now librarians are beginning to discover that the aging revolution is upon us! Based on calls and e-mail to me there is now a greater interest in our profession from around the world in meeting these new challenges in the 21th century. This is now no longer just a challenge facing libraries in the United States or Canada, or the United Kingdom; it is now a global movement.

For those of us who have been involved in this field for the last decade or two this interests in serving older adults is even more of a challenge. It is up to us to mobilize the profession to succeed. But it is now different, much different, since technology has made us now approach the idea of library service to older adults on a global and international basis.

Library services to older adults presents some complex challenges that make it of interest and appealing to me. After having spent a decade providing library service to older adults the Brooklyn way, how does one develop strategies that can be useful in Indonesia, Israel, Brazil or Canada? How can we begin to look at library services to older adults on a global basis. Is it possible? Are there some commonalities or are there differences based on county, culture or language? Of course, you must know that I think that the answer is yes! I believe that library service to older adults is something that can cross boarders, defy language barriers and become core library service in every library in the world. Library service to older adults can be if we choose as easily recognizable as children's services.

We are most familiar with traditional methods in serving older adults. In many instances these services revolve around homebound book deliveries, large print books and programs in senior facilities (such as nursing homes). In the past decade changes have been made to engage the well elderly in the library through programming and lectures, discussions and intergenerational activities. These activities seem almost to be basic and universal and global. These are activities that every library in the world can and should do. Also basic to serve older adults who are visually impaired and blind is the highly developed global network of talking books and books-on-tape.

The American Library Association's Library Service to an Aging Population Committee has developed several documents including The Library's Responsibility to the Aging which can provide a global context that libraries can use in developing their own programs and services. (Adopted January 1964, and revised 1970 and October 1971).

Aging has daily personal implications for every person in our society. The social, economic and biologic problems resulting from the process of aging place responsibilities on all types of libraries, especially the public library.

Libraries serve their communities by:

  1. CONTRIBUTING to a positive attitude toward aging and the aged;

  2. PROVIDING information and education on aging and its problems for older adults as well as professionals and laypersons who work with this group;

  3. FACILITATING the use of libraries by the aged through improved library design and access to transportation;

  4. PROVIDING library service appropriate to the special needs of all the aged, including the minority who may be homebound and institutionalized;

  5. UTILIZING the potential of older adults as liaisons to reach their peers and as a resource in intergenerational programming;

  6. EMPLOYING older adults in the provision of library services;

  7. INVOLVING older adults in the planning process when designing services and programs for the entire community;

  8. DEVELOPING working relationships with other agencies and groups concerned with these needs and problems;

  9. PROVIDING programs, services and information for those preparing for retirement;

  10. CONTINUALLY exploring ways of making these services more effective, aggressively seeking sources of funding, and assigning a portion of the regular budget to meet the needs of older adults.

These basic principles are in some ways the philosophical core of what library service to older adults should be. It is almost a "charter" of sorts; the pillar of what it's all about.

Library services to older adults in the 21th century will include traditional programs and services and a whole lot more! Most recently the new technology has brought seniors into the library to "surf" the net, attend classes on computer technology and assist others in becoming computer literate. The East Brunswick Public Library (New Jersey) is an award winner example of getting seniors "hooked-up" to the new technology. The emphasis has changed from library service to older adults taking place outside the library to it taking place within the library's space. While there has been some success to date in this area there is still far to travel. The use of this technology in the library is one strategy to bring the global aging community together to share common experiences, learn from each other, explore cultures and encourage the discussion of issues and policies.

What we currently see is that we are at the crossroads not only in our thinking but in the development of library services to older adults. This is due not only to the rapidly changing technology, the aging population but also the aging of the library profession. This development is further complicated by the multi-generations of older adults living today. In the United States for example, we currently see three generations of older adults. Older adults aged 55-65; 65-80; and 80-100. Each generation brings with it lifestyle opportunities as well as particular problems. Each generation demands a different "type" of library service for older adults. This is why homebound service is no longer enough! Older adult library service can no longer be lumped into one category. We need a variety of informational, recreational and educational programs developed to meed this challenge.

Today's seniors need ready access to library services that will ensure that this added 10 to 15 years of life continues to be healthy and productive. Like retirement communities, libraries are places where seniors can come together to grow, to share the good company of others, and enjoy the benefits of full and active services. What is currently happening in the growth of the aging population in the United States, Japan, Canada, and Europe has begun to occur throughout the world in many forms.

Despite all this interest in library services for older adults there continues be those are that still view library services to older adults as unimportant. But as the older adults population increases, leisure and retirement become a longer part of life; libraries have two choices. Provide active opportunities for older adults or older adults will seek comfort, information, library and INTERNET services elsewhere. We have seen this happen already in the United States; this is not what we really want!

While there is a need to interest seniors in technology the library has a important role and tradition in teaching older adults basic skills. A recently released study for the United States Department of Education indicates that: "seventy-one percent of adults age 60 and older, or approximately 28 million individuals nationwide, demonstrated limited prose skills, performing in the two lowest levels of prose literacy defined in the survey." This has worldwide implications that clearly indicate that if older adults are to fully utilize the benefits of the library and the new technology for many there needs to be basic literacy skills developed first. Otherwise one entire generation of older adults (those 60 and older) will not fully be able to utilize our resources.

Library service to older adults presents some unique challenges that are appealing to many in the profession. To some it is the tradition of large print books. To others it is helping older adults begin to learn to read for the first time in their lives. For others it is providing computer training and "surfing" the net. Library service to older adults is now a whole array of programs that need now and into the next century be developed for adults 65 years old and 75 years old and 85 years old and 95 years old and even for those 105 years old. We know that there are some similarities and generalizations that can be drawn but that older adults through the life cycle have different informational, recreational and programming needs.

To begin with we must prepare our profession, our libraries and ourselves to meet these challenges of aging. Library educators around the world can play a part in developing courses and continuing education programs that will prepare us to serve the aging populations. Library schools in the United States (St. John's, C.W. Post, University of Pittsburgh) have already taken the lead on this. But this education can be and needs to be global; to share ideas, exchange suggestions and to network. The creation of a global listserv on library service to older adults could serve the entire profession. The use of satellite communication or the INTERNET would also be a good means of bringing the librarians together to develop global strategies. Although much has been written on service to older adults much has not. It is still difficult if not impossible to research and locate model programs from throughout the world. Perhaps utilizing the means of electronic journalism and research will enable us to share this type of information in the future.

The INTERNET has provided a means to collect, store and disseminate information for older adults in a way that was not possible even five years ago. Unlike services to other groups, information for seniors is often culled from a variety of non-print sources. These sources of information can be from directories, telephone conversations, brochures and flyers. Through the use of hypertext and links libraries can now collect and display this information in a more readable manner. By doing this gathering libraries can now share this information rather than keeping it hidden on a Rolodex.

The Baltimore County Public Library's Senior Center page (URL http://www.bcpl.lib.md.us/ centers/seniors/senior.html) is an outstanding example of bridging the information gap. The page includes local, state and federal information on senior services and activities as well as links to important sites like the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) and the Social Security System. This information is now available for other libraries who can now link with BCPL.

What is the global future of library services to older adults in the 21th century?

We will need to introduce our seniors to our OPACs, utilize them as volunteers in the afternoon to help students surf the net. We will plan links to nursing homes, senior centers, senior retirement facilties, and the homebound--and get them on the net.

Homebound seniors will be using online catalogs that they can access from their bedsides no longer using a printed catalog that is out of date. Libraries will put computers in the homes of homebound persons and develop video conferencing around the block and around the world.

Instead of presenting programming at one senior center or nursing home utilizing cable or satellite or the INTERNET we could be presenting continuing education and lifelong learning throughout the community of nations.

How do we get seniors to use the library now and in the future? I think that it starts with us. We must challenge ourselves and challenge our seniors.

What we need to do is to create new ways to stimulate our current patrons to explore what we have to offer and keep them coming back. We must teach older adults to read. Remember adults now 45 will be our older adults in the aging society of the 21th century. What will we have to offer them? Another best seller? I think that we should and can do more than that.

Here is my challenge for you! The future development of library services for older adults begins with you! Each and every person in the profession has a stake in it succeeding. We should all in the profession be committeed to serving older adults and making our libraries senior-friendly!

Library tradition has shown that libraries and older adults are perfect partners. We need to continue to build on that tradition and continue to bridge information gaps for older adults in the 21th century.