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FEATURE STORY

Technology-enabled Public Libraries Can Help Improve the Quality of Life of the Rural Elderly

September 5, 2014


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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Advances in connectivity particularly the internet offers opportunities for greater development and participation in society of the rural elderly.
  • A World Bank study says that public libraries can make an important contribution in providing access to electronic information and training in digital literacy for elderly.
  • The study makes a number of policy recommendations for China to improve the services provided by public libraries to rural elderly

Over the past 40 years, China’s population has been aging at a rate that took more than 100 years in developed countries. In 2010, the number of people over 60 years old reached 178 million in China, accounting for almost a quarter of the world’s total. Many older citizens in China’s rural areas have found themselves increasingly isolated as their younger relatives migrated to the cities. Few older citizens in rural areas use the Internet. But advances in connectivity, including rapidly improving Internet services in rural areas, offer opportunities for greater development and participation in society of the rural elderly.

The World Bank in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been supporting Chinese government’s efforts to improve access to information and communication technologies (ICT) and related services for enhancing the lives of rural residents. As a part of the initiative, a study was recently undertaken to assess the potential of enhancing ICT usage among older people in China and examine the feasibility of leveraging public libraries and library-like institutions to serve as venues to foster digital and social inclusion of senior citizens and improve their well-being. Findings from the report were compiled into a report entitled Fostering a digitally inclusive aging society in China: the potential of public libraries

By the end of 2012, there were 3,076 public libraries (including children's libraries) in China at the county level and above, with almost 55,000 employees. All provincial, regional, and municipal centers have at least one library and 90 percent of county seats had a public library. Public libraries are free and available to everyone. Some libraries, for example in the Suzhou network, have started to develop specific programs supporting the particular needs of senior citizens.

  “China’s vast network of public libraries has the potential of becoming important hubs for the rural elderly to develop digital skills, stay connected with families and access online services—whether information about health, new skills, financial services, or practical advice,” said Natasha Beschorner, Senior ICT Policy Specialist for the World Bank.

“We are assisting the government in implementing its vision for accelerating the development of the aged care services. Community-based care is a key part of the a three-tiered system of social services for the aged that also envisages home-based family care as its bedrock and institutional care in a support function.  Public libraries can play an important role in supporting the development of the community-based delivery model allowing for learning about the needs of the elderly and offering them various digital services,” said Elena Glinskaya, World Bank’s Program Leader for Education, Health and Social Protection in China.

The study concludes that libraries can make an important contribution in providing access to electronic information and training in digital literacy. Public libraries have a well-established role and experience in these areas in the world and increasingly in China. Access to the Internet allows the elderly to get information about health issues, stay in touch with family members, access lifelong education opportunities, shop online and obtain government services. A number of countries that have implemented innovative programs for the elderly in public libraries are showcased including Lithuania, Poland and Australia. Further, countries like Japan and Korea have extensive programs aimed more broadly at the overall usage of ICTs by the elderly population.



" Public libraries can play an important role in supporting the development of the community-based delivery model allowing for learning about the needs of the elderly and offering them various digital services. "

Elena Glinskaya

World Bank’s Program Leader for Education, Health and Social Protection in China


Based on the findings, the study makes a number of policy recommendations to improve the services provided by libraries:  

  1. Undertake more detailed research on the information and skills needs of senior citizens. The China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS) and surveys by the China Research Center on Aging (CRCA) could be adapted to capture what kind of information is important for the elderly. This and existing data on educational levels can be used to develop relevant online content and targeted training programs.
  2. Establish cooperative mechanisms between stakeholders in the development of informatization for older people. This includes exploring the benefits of active partnerships between libraries, library-like institutions, the China National Working Commission on Ageing (CNWCA), the CRCA and other governmental and community bodies with a stake in learning and quality of life for seniors.
  3. Expand training in digital skills and information awareness to senior citizens in rural areas. Draw upon the emerging experience of public libraries in China and elsewhere.
  4. Encourage and facilitate human support for seniors’ use of digital skills and ICT, including: (a) Training rural information service workers to teach the elderly and also encouraging seniors with ICT skills to serve as information service workers; (b) Encouraging joint use and learning by seniors and their children and grandchildren; and (c) Building on the need for migrant adults to monitor and support their aging parents and children left behind in rural areas.
  5. Initiate a more integrated approach to rural informatization planning for seniors, reducing fragmentation and overlap of activities. Integrate existing public access point initiatives and libraries under combined management to ensure the implementation of best practice, avoid duplication and waste of resources. Consider ways of integrating funding and support for rural informatization for seniors within current mainstream policy developments including China’s Broadband Strategy, fiscal reform and strategies for equalizing basic public services.

As a next step, the study recommends to undertake pilot approaches to examine the feasibility of leveraging public libraries for providing integrated digital services to senior citizens, and to consider scaling up successful practices to maximize their impact.


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