Implications for Libraries

Participants doing group work in a writing workshop.
Creative aging participants doing group work in a writing workshop at a public library. (Photo credit: Herb Scher)

Impediments to Institutional Change

America’s cultural and educational institutions, including libraries, must overcome a range of impediments to older adult participation and continuous learning if they are to fulfill their missions to enhance the quality of life in their communities.

Following are some of the current challenges for library professionals.

Ageism

First and foremost, libraries must confront the agism that is so deeply embedded in our individual, institutional and social psyches.

Faced with aging communities, libraries need to find strategies for confronting agism, whether through professional development, highlighting wider awareness of local leaders and contributors who are over 50, encouraging older librarians to recognize themselves as mid-lifers or Boomers; organizing consciousness-raising conversations for staff and other peers, or encouraging programming partnerships between library staff and others who work with mid-life and older adults.

Any and all of these strategies can help to offset the widespread tendency to lump all older adults into one omnibus class of needy, dependent and isolated individuals, and to serve them in traditional ways.

Lack of Awareness of Aging Research

Many of the programs for “seniors” that are offered in our public libraries reflect not only inherent agism but also a lack of awareness about lifelong learning trends, brain health, the importance of social engagement and arts education, and other issues affecting the quality of life for older adults.

Well meaning efforts to entertain seniors, combined with this lack of awareness about the importance of mobility, participation and structured learning, result in weekly film programs, senior center performances and other relatively passive activities.

While appropriate in certain settings, traditional activities do not address diverse needs and interests of 50+ adults, including needs for structured learning, social engagement, exploration of latent talents and opportunities to contribute to the larger community.

Structural Isolation of Older Adults Services

For some decades older adults, or “seniors,” have been included in a category of library constituents who are perceived as marginalized and needy, such as homeless people, incarcerated people, and/or people requiring help with literacy and citizenship. The American Library Association’s placement of older adults in OLOS – Office for Literacy and Outreach Services – reflects the attitudes towards older adults that have prevailed until now across the profession. While these attitudes are not shared by all in the profession they are in large measure responsible for the isolation of older adults in separate “senior” services and or outreach departments, without complementary efforts to integrate them into adult programming or to create varied 50+ services. Unfortunately, the isolation of senior services through placement in outreach departments or services for the needy mirrors the isolation that many older adults face in the larger community.

As the number and proportion of older adults grows in our communities, it is likely that libraries will break down these boundaries and will find new ways to engage diverse older adults in services across the life-span, including adult services, Boomer programs and services for the frail elderly.  

Lack of Professional Advocacy for Older Adults

There are strong professional associations focusing on expanding services for special interest groups, such as teen-agers, families with very young children and small business owners. Library leaders and those who fund them recognize the need for line items in library budgets and for investments in space, collections, staff and programs that support these constituencies. However, until quite recently, older adults have not been afforded the same levels of attention and professional support.  This lack of an infrastructure for older adult programs and services can undermine the efforts of individual librarians or even far-sighted library directors.

Implications for Libraries

Public libraries are responding to the Aging Trends outlined above in multiple ways, although, as yet, there is no recognized framework for “50+” services.

This Toolkit focuses on responses in the form of creative aging (instructional arts) programming, however, other services and programs are emerging, from “Wise Walks” that encourage social engagement and physical movement, to intergenerational gaming and peer-lead discussions on public affairs.

The new programs and services offer instructive examples of how libraries can not only respond to the aging of America but can take the lead in their communities to develop centers for positive aging.

“The [creative aging] workshops [at the Brooklyn Public Library ] provided a great deal of insight on a new era of older adults and how to address their many needs especially their social aspect. Older adults need more than just medical care! Socialization is important for both physical health and mental health.” – Luz Acevedo, Brooklyn Public Library

While most libraries still face impediments to change, the number of experiments in older adult or “50+” programs, and the positive responses to these programs on the part of participants, community leaders and funders, suggest that positive aging services may become the next new thing on the library landscape.

Further Reading:

Guidelines for Library and Information Services to Older Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved June 21, 2013, from http://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines/libraryservices

Manheimer, R.J. & Kidhashi, M. Information-questing moments: Retirement-age americans at the library door. In P. Rothstein & D.D. Schull (Eds.), Boomers and beyond: Reconsidering the role of libraries (3-14). Chicago: American Library Association.

Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS). (n.d.). Retrieved June 21, 2013, from http://www.ala.org/offices/olos

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