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Lifelong learning environments in libraries and adult education centres - a 21st century approach

In an increasingly fast-changing and digital world, both adult education organizations and libraries are exploring new roles, methods and services in lifelong learning. We are constantly looking for ways to better reach our customers and make our services more easily accessible to learners. Since the promotion of lifelong learning is at the core of both educational organizations and libraries, crossing organizational boundaries and increasing cooperation to enhance borderless service and guidance seems a natural direction to take.

The Erasmus+ KA2 partnership Hand in Hand consisted of five European lifelong learning organisations (libraries and adult education centres) who wanted to exchange practices among each other and learn to offer better and more easily accessible services to customers. The idea of the partnership was to study and analyse the steps libraries and adult education organisations can take to become multi-purpose learning centres. The objective was to find ways to complement each other’s expertise in order to create synergies in providing services to the public.

Our study visits and workshops in Italy, Finland, Denmark and Poland provided us with a good understanding of the changing world of lifelong learning provided by libraries and adult education centres both in cities and smaller rural communities. One of the highlights of the project was a visit and presentation of Oodi, the new central library in Helsinki, Finland, at its construction stage. The finished Oodi library was voted the world’s best new public library in 2019, so we were lucky to see it in its early stages.

The library and lifelong learning centre of the future, whether large or small, is an open, public space where people not only get and share information and develop their skills but also come together to meet, work and create. It provides a platform for both non-formal and informal education, courses, lectures, events and self-directed learning. Residents are no longer passive users of services but active planners and producers of activities who benefit from self-service spaces and the possibility to use the premises independently. Peer-to-peer learning, openness, transparency, confidence and equality are key concepts, and listening to residents and asking for their input every step of the way from planning to implementing services increases the feeling of belonging and encourages active citizenship.

Planning, organizing and providing a wide spectrum of activities requires the cooperation of several actors such as libraries, youth centres, adult education centres and cultural services. In this project, we asked our customers through surveys and focus interviews for their input, and designed activities based on those ideas, our study visits and sharing our own ideas and experiences.

What we shared in terms of good practice

New methods: collaboration, learning circles

Randers public library in Denmark is an experienced provider of different forms of training courses and workshops, and integration of lifelong learning services into the everyday activities of the library was not a new idea. In fact, the library employs pedagogic staff whose duties include planning lifelong learning activities for the town residents. Within the project, they collected ideas and feedback from their customers and built some new forms of training based on those ideas. They  had positive experiences with the “Learning Circle” teaching method, which they used to teach short courses on using digital services. The courses consisted of three 90-minute workshops in which participants first watched short instruction videos and then worked together on the chosen themes. Participants were given the opportunity to help shape the contents and focus of the sessions as they unfolded. Special emphasis was put on fostering interpersonal relationships, a relaxed and casual atmosphere and time for comfort and socializing.

New approaches, new contents

Rapid development of modern technologies deepens the marginalization of seniors. The necessity of using a smartphone or computer in everyday life is an increasing problem for people who used a slide rule in schools. At the same time, typical ICT courses are too difficult for them and often deepen the belief that they cannot master these technologies. This is why an individual approach is so important, asking "what is your problem" and coping with the difficulties individually, step by step. Several partners addressed this problem and designed interventions using a “clinic” type approach where individuals can approach an instructor or peer tutor with specific problems.

The Polish partners experimented with a holistic approach to activities geared to seniors: sessions on a selected theme with varied topics and methods. Their workshop aiming at developing active citizenship among seniors, was based on an approach integrating the state of the body, spirit and mind. Sessions ran in three blocks:

  • body (physical activities, rules of nutrition for seniors, first aid)
  • mind (concentration, memory, learning new things)
  • soul (coping with difficult situations, meeting with a lawyer, participation in culture events).

When libraries and adult education centres plan activities in cooperation, it is possible to use the strengths of both in order to provide as varied and flexible ways of training as possible: from individual advice sessions and short, one-evening courses with flexible short-term scheduling to larger lectures and longer, more traditional courses requiring expert instructors and more advance planning.

Reach outside your own four walls

For reaching disadvantaged target groups, it is of absolute importance that we leave our own premises and make our specialized services as easily accessible as possible. For example, both Valkeakoski library in Finland and Randers library in Denmark arranged “pop up” libraries in connection with events, workshops and lectures but also during visits to associations or other events outside their own premises, which made it possible to check out materials on the spot, or easily access them through digital means.  

Leaving the premises can also be a motivating way to conduct lectures and courses. For example, an experiment by the Italian partners showed that short field excursions proved to be very positive and motivating experiences for participants in a local history workshop. This format consisted of a short theoretical brief at the library and then an exploration of the territory guided by the expert together with peers. This methodology involved the participants in a better way than a traditional lecture would have, and kept their motivation to learn about local history on a high level. 


It is very important for the library and adult education centre to take a proactive role in seeking out new target audiences and our cooperation with local authorities and other operators has proven highly effective for this purpose. We had positive experiences with networking on both local, regional and national levels. The Finnish and Polish partners established contacts with local and regional authorities, libraries and adult education centres to promote the idea of cooperation.

It is equally important to nurture existing networks and dedicate time to the improvement of personal relations. To this purpose, Training 2000 and Mediateca Montanari in Italy gained positive experiences with the library assuming the role of facilitator of networks, making communication in the periods between activities and meeting a particular priority. Making alliances with other associations to join national or international projects increases networks as well in order to recruit volunteers to work as peer tutors, or to share their expertise to others in small informal workshops.  

The Italian partners found that a public survey and a call to action to discover customer needs and trainers were efficient ways to gather information, ideas and to get new participants. These methods worked for them and helped them to build a rich and various calendar of events. 

The Danish partner found effective networks which helped them to determine how and when we are best able to meet the special needs of dementia sufferers and their next of kin. They learned how to advertise their services to this target audience as part of a joint municipality-wide communications effort.  They also participated in information meetings and other locations where they made direct contact with the target audience. 

Joint planning

In order to take advantage of the strengths of both libraries and adult education centres as lifelong learning providers, it is vital to create a forum where events, lectures, courses and workshops can be planned in cooperation. In Finland, Valkeakoski library and lifelong learning centre established a joint planning group and devised tools such as joint checklists to ease the joint planning process. The planning group meets 1-2 times annually, and the staff of both organizations come together for brainstorming sessions once every 2-3 years. The organizations also collaborate on projects and strive to extend the cooperation methods to other libraries in the area.

Cooperation in planning and advertising leads to a broader view of lifelong learning services among staff. We have begun to see beyond our own organizations and their limits. Through joint brainstorming and planning activities, the staff of the library and the lifelong learning centre get to know and trust each other. The results of the planning activities are new and varied ideas for events as well as organized, systematic event production.

Joint use of premises enables flexible planning and makes it easier to find suitable spaces for different activities. Joint marketing at its simplest means promoting each other’s activities through distribution of course catalogues and information leaflets. The ultimate goal is that the staff can inform and assist customers of both organizations to a sufficient degree.

Events and activities that have worked well in terms of cooperation in planning and execution include jointly arranged lectures and events, theme days and various peer-to-peer events such as book talks.


Pedagogic skills and materials

If involved in lifelong learning activities, librarians need to strengthen their pedagogical skills. Another option for libraries would be to increase cooperation with adult education organization in terms of pedagogical exchanges. Staff working with groups of people in workshops or other activities need to have a “pedagogic toolkit” of collaborative methods.  For example, the learning circle method requires both good pedagogic and interpersonal skills, since the internal dynamics of such a group can are dependent on the individual participants, and as such can be vulnerable. In the Hand in Hand project we conducted workshops in which adult educators introduced some effective methods for this purpose. 

Finding useable, high-quality teaching materials for special target groups is another challenge. For digital skills workshops, the challenge is to find suitable brief online instruction videos in national languages.

In the case of seniors, Randers library in Denmark and Valkeakoski library in Finland tested “memory capsules” or,” suitcases” which proved in both cases to be a particularly stellar success. The memory capsules contain books, music and assorted materials from a particular decade. These capsules can be checked out and have proven to be an excellent starting point for further dialogue. We have found that our memory capsules have been highly sought after by both next of kin and professional caregivers.

Time and resources

The primary challenge with networking is the considerable time it requires, combined with the difficulty of measuring a direct effect. A further challenge arise from the fact that networking, in general, is highly dependent on individual personal relations.

Resources are also a problem for organizations that do not have a strong public financing base. For instance, the Polish partner of the Hand in Hand project, The "Aktywni XXI" Foundation, is a non-governmental organization with no institutional financial support. In its activities it must be based on the work of volunteers and grants obtained in various projects. It is often difficult to match the needs of seniors for whom you want to implement some activities with the requirements set by the projects.

Although we are eager to try new things and easily become enthusiastic about new ideas and want to put them into practice immediately, we need to practice caution and be realistic about what can be implemented within the time and the resources we have. It takes time to plan activities in collaboration with other organizations.

It is also very important to be aware of the planning schedules of the partner organization. In the case of Finland, the lifelong learning centre plans most of its courses, lectures and other events well ahead, and the planning for any academic year starts already in January or February, whereas the partner libraries can plan their events at much shorter notice. In order to ease cooperation, both need to be aware of this and be able to plan how to make compromises in terms of scheduling.

Resistance may arise when librarians and adult educators are asked to put in major new efforts for the organisation, hosting and promotion of events and workshops which are not considered to be normal daily duties. If the staff feel that they are given more work than they can handle, they may lose motivation for any kind of cooperation. The challenge here is to demonstrate the benefits of these activities, not only to the organization, but to the individual in question, in terms of improved job satisfaction, increased contacts and work opportunities and professional development.


Staff collaborating in projects are in regular contact with each other. So are the members of joint planning teams. The challenge is to inform the other staff members about cooperation, and convincing them that despite the time constraints and the lack of resources it really is a good idea to keep working together. The lack of joint premises presents challenges to effective communication, but those challenges can be overcome with careful planning and using several avenues of communication to reach all staff members. Personal contacts in the form of joint staff brainstorming workshops help as they bring people together physically.

It is also vital to assign tasks and roles. We found that when a library and an adult education centre work together, it is important to name the people who are responsible for event planning, organization and marketing, and to also name substitutes in case of emergencies. This ensures that the process does not suffer from personnel changes, sick leaves or other unexpected circumstances.

Another challenge is to have a complete annual calendar of activities at the beginning of the year.  Internal checklists can prevent gaps and overlap. It takes time to learn to cooperate with new people with different ways of working and different personalities, in new environments with different approaches to the issues at hand.

Where do we go from here?

Experimenting with new kinds of activities, seeing new kinds of lifelong learning environments and sharing experiences has given us a wealth of ideas for new activities from different kinds of peer-to-peer events, projects, exhibits and clubs.

All the partners have indicated that they will continue to experiment with new collaborative learning and teaching methods and new approaches such as learning circles with a blended learning approach for both youth and seniors. There will be an increase the use of digital technologies during workshops and classes. The partners experimented with free online tools such as Padlet and Kahoot and will continue to find new ways to ease digital participation in their activities.

We will also continue to broaden our networks among local, regional and national operators such as associations, volunteer groups and universities in order to create new kinds of learning opportunities and promote the culture of LLL. The partners have adopted the idea of developing their services in cooperation with customers and peer organizations. Customer surveys, focus groups and brainstorming sessions have become an integrated part of our activities. After the Hand in Hand project, we have an understanding of what lifelong learning can be in our organizations in the 21st century and will develop our activities with that vision in mind.


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