Public libraries: Community hubs responding to the needs of older adults

“The Bottom Line

  • Public libraries are community hubs providing a central access point to a range of programs and services designed to meet the needs of the community.
  • Public libraries play a significant role in meeting the educational, informational, cultural, recreational, health and social-care needs of older adults.
  • Guidelines exist to specifically design library programs and services for older adults and people with disabilities.

Public libraries play a vital role in the life of their community. They are community hubs, meaning that they provide a central access point for a range of cultural and recreational programs and services, along with health and social programs and services to nurture community life.(1)

Over the years, public libraries have developed a diversity of programs and services to meet the evolving needs of older adults. Such programs and services often aim to offer lifelong learning opportunities. A systematic review examining the evolution of public libraries in the United States showed that older adults are quite eager to participate in lifelong learning activities.(2) This review revealed a wide range of topics of interest among older adults, including hobbies, leisure pursuits, humanities, social and international issues, religion, philosophy, arts, technology and health-related issues (such as common health problems, nutrition and stress management).

It’s no wonder we see so many older adults going to public libraries to access books, watch movies, listen to music, read newspapers, take classes (for example, language, cooking or computer), and attend workshops and lectures. Older adults who do not have computer equipment at home often go to the library to use what they need – a computer, Wi-Fi, an iPad – and sometimes even access recording studios and 3-D printers. Public libraries often host events where people can discuss with authors and discover local emerging artists. Some libraries also lend, sometimes free of charge, musical instruments, and even passes to visit museums.(3; 4) Many people with a library card can also enjoy a wide range of digital services, including the capacity to access e-books and audiobooks, but also to stream movies.(5)

Older adults with mobility issues or lack of access to transportation can also benefit from public libraries. Over the years, innovative outreach programs have been developed by public libraries. For instance, bookmobiles are hitting the streets to serve as mobile libraries to communities without a library branch in their area. These bookmobiles often stop at nursing homes and senior day-care centres.(6)

The evolving role of public libraries is also illustrated by the wide range of programs and services to meet the health and social-care needs of older adults and their caregivers. While some public libraries act as one-stop shops for information about health-related topics and existing community services (7), others have individuals on site providing counselling and referrals to community services.(8) Those requiring support and guidance on housing, food, employment, finances, or mental health and addiction can sometimes find help at their public libraries.

Guidelines for Canadian public libraries

But of course, not all public libraries have been created equal. Over the years, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations has developed guidelines to support public libraries to design programs and services for older adults and people with disabilities.(9; 10) These guidelines offer some tips for adapting programs and services for this clientele.

1) Get current data on their needs and expectations, and integrate them into the planning and budgeting of activities offered, by setting up a committee of older adults, for example.

2) Make sure their specific needs and interests are reflected in the collections, programs and services offered. Offer ongoing educational programs, including computer and internet classes.

3) Make the facilities accessible, safe and inviting. Ensure that collections dedicated to older adults are easy to access and use visible signage. Plan voice-detection programs, audiobooks or alternative formats, wheelchair ramps and elevators to facilitate access.

4) Make the library a hotspot to access news and information related to aging. Group information about government or community programs and services for older adults and caregivers, for example, or create a dedicated website for this clientele.

5) Plan intergenerational programs, whether in collaboration with local schools or day-care centres. Promote your activities in newspapers, community centres and residences, and engage older adults as volunteers.

6) Some older adults may have mobility and transportation issues, so offer programs outside the library, such as a home-delivery service.

7) Train staff to serve older adults and people with disabilities with politeness and respect.

So, having a library card is not just having access to a library collection. It’s having access to a community hub where you can quench your thirst for knowledge, make social connections, and get the help you need!