A public library is a non-profit library, which is maintained for public use and funded by the government or the public sources. Unlike other libraries, public library satisfies general public information needs by providing all kinds of knowledge and information available to all segments of the community regardless of race, nationality, age, gender, religion, language, disability, economic and employment status. It may also provide other services to their communities such as, storytelling for children, after-school programs, language learning, seminars, workshops and other community services.
Public libraries were initiated back in ancient times. They were known and used by Greeks, Romans, North Africa and Middle East. However they did not arise in Europe and America until 18th and 19th century.
In USA and Europe, public libraries started with a donation from many private philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and Benjamin Franklin. Like other philanthropist, both Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie realized that books, and the knowledge they provide, should not be for just richness but for serving the public and for anyone who wanted to learn. Because of this belief, they made books and money available to the general public through their philanthropy.
Throughout the history, the library collections have been changed and developed. Nowadays, beside printed books and traditional materials, public libraries offer wide range of other media and modern technologies like, videos, audio books, e-books, DVD's and others. Similarly, the roles and missions of public library have been shifted from recreational reading to acting as active educational, economic and social agents.
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Role of public libraries
Public library plays an important role in people's lives as a source of accessing information and a place for knowledge creation. It has shown that public libraries are important informational, educational, cultural, and social institutions.
Public library and Education
One of the public libraries' significant and fundamental roles is education. Public libraries provide books and other materials for people to read and use. These materials are educational and lead to self-improvement and develop basic literacy skills.
Public Libraries have always seen as an educational resource for all people. The educative role of public libraries has expanded to include supporting both formal and informal education.
A. Public library and literacy
Literacy is the ability to read and write. In libraries culture, this concept is expanded to include the knowledge or education in one or several fields required to develop individual and communities' skills.
Learning today is not a luxury limited only to selected group, but it is essential for survival. Expansion of literacy needs reading and writing material. (Wijentunge, 2000)
The public library is the local center for providing a wealth of information through learning facilities and materials to support literacy to the general public. Literacy is also achieved by providing literacy programs and activities for different groups and ages.
Public libraries continue to play a major role in fostering literacy in communities and societies, particularly among those groups of the populations that need special assistance in developing literacy skills, such as preschool and elementary school children.
Children literacy is one of the educative roles of public libraries. Public libraries concern in providing children and exposing them to high-quality reading materials and rich language experiences during the crucial preschool and elementary school years. (Celano, 2001)
Pennsylvania public libraries are among the libraries, which keen in enhancing the children literacy skills by proving them high quality materials and involving them in summer reading programs, story hours, arts and crafts activities.
A study was done in Pennsylvania public libraries using qualitative and quantitative methods to examine how library preschool and summer reading programs contribute to children's reading skills.
Surveys were sent to every third library outlet listed in the directory of Pennsylvania libraries (227 surveys).
The study reveals that children who participate in summer reading programs gain more literacy skills. They also found that preschool and summer reading programs encourage children to spend more time with books. Moreover, Observations and interviews show that library programs encourage parents to play greater roles in their children's literacy development ( Celano, 2001).
B. Public library and Non-formal Education
Non-formal education is an unsystematic form of learning and educational activity that occurs outside of traditional organization or institution. Unlike the formal education, non-formal education is non-structured educational system. Examples of non-formal education include after-school programs, community-based organizations, museums, libraries, or at home. The aims of both formal and non-formal education are similar but they are different in approach. (Abraham, 2010). Both learning focus on gaining knowledge and skills however, the way of gaining learning is different.
Non-formal educational practices are reinforced due to the challenges of modern information society.
Abraham (2010) states that rural people suffer from lack of proper education. He points out that formal education is time bound, rigid and difficult to such people therefore, non-formal education is much suitable to rural people in order to satisfy their needs and fit their environmental conditions.
He describes the public library as "welfare center, which provides useful services to the community by fostering education, promoting culture, recreation and dissemination of information to all sections of the society". Abraham (2010) looked at the public libraries as the most appropriate centers through which non-formal education can be achieved. He found that some public libraries in rural areas in India (Kerala) play an important role in supporting non-formal education by organizing night schools, constructive discussions, seminars and symposia to fight illiteracy and proliferation reading habit.
A study was conducted in one of the Kerala districts (Abraham, 2010) to gather an overview of the role of public libraries in promoting non-formal education. Questioners were distributed among 20 women laborers. It was found that 30% of them could continue their education and are attempting to achieve minimum qualification through utilizing rural libraries in their own home areas. 60% could read and write and 10% stopped their education due to various personnel reasons.
C. Public library and Life long learning
Lifelong learning is the process of continues and on going learning throughout person life in order to enhance continuous development and improvement of the individual's' knowledge and skills. Life long learning cannot be achieved without literacy because reading and writing is essential for learning.
Due to the complex and rapid change environment, people need to acquire a variety of skills and knowledge irrespective of their age, social, political or economic status.
Wijetunge (2000) states that public libraries contribute to the lifelong learning by supporting the learners to identify and locate the reading materials relevant to the needs of the community.
Karunawathie (1998) gave an example of how the Negombo Public Library has contributed to the community in which it exists. The public library has assisted the fishing community in Negombo in changing the process of their fishing technology by providing the community with good and rich materials related to finishing industry.
2. Public library and Economic development
Public libraries do not only have educational roles and functions but also contribute to nations' economies.
There is a significant shift in the role of libraries; from recreational reading and educational institutions to active economic development agents."
Due to economic development and globalization, public libraries started to concern in supporting business and economic development through providing effective business services, resources and literacy programs to their business communities.
Economic and education researchers have been studying how educational levels are related to countries' economic growth and economic productivity. They believe that more educated and skilled workers are more productive. (Liu, 2004 )
A research study (Liu, 2004) was done to examine the relationship between public libraries and school libraries and how they are related to nations' literacy levels, which in turn contribute to nations' overall economic productivity. This empirical study developed a path analysis model. Cross- country statistics were gathered from a number of sources including the Statistical Abstract of the World and Unesco's Statistical Yearbook. It is demonstrated from this study that public libraries have a significant impact on economic productivity through providing various business resources and literacy programs.
Other studies done confirming the same indication. A research done by the institute for public and Business Research on behalf of the Kansas State Library (Glass etc., 2000). The purpose of the study was to determine how Kansas public libraries could play a more active roll in supporting business and economic development in their communities. The research applied three main tools:
(1) Focus groups with librarians and businesses,
(2) Case studies of four local libraries,
(3) Surveys of public libraries, businesses, Chambers of Commerce, and Small Business Development Centers.
The study shows that nearly a third of successful businesses and economic organizations in all parts of the state use public libraries as a resource.
3.Public libraries and democratic governance
Public libraries are one of the most successful information centers for increasing the quality of life and democratic chances for citizens by providing free and equal access to high-quality information.
Information is important to civic participation and its development, which become one of the basic functions of public libraries. (Arko-Cobbah, 2005)
According to Arko-Cobbah (2005), Public libraries can assist civil society to implement democratic culture through the following:
Free and fair elections
Public libraries provide civic societies with education programs and necessary information to develop an informed electorate. Through an open access Internet facilities, public libraries can help with voter registration and even serve as polling stations in some areas. They also can be used to reach out to politically unmotivated citizens and publicize party positions, solicit feedback, new ideas and new members (Drake, 2001).
Citizen participation in decision-making
Through the provision of Internet facilities, public libraries provide and exchange the information needed for dialogue that the public needs to make decisions about common concerns and ensure accountability from the government.
In accordance with the principle of human rights, public libraries play significant role in ensuring that materials and resources are available to meet the needs and interests of all segments of the community including national minorities.
Free access to information is a vital element of the human rights issue that promotes the concept of democracy. Intellectual freedom is a basic human right. Deprivation of this right leads to autocratic governance. Public libraries play an important role in providing free access to information, which is a necessary condition for good governance.
According to the literature review, public libraries play fundamental roles in the society. They are educational institutions. They provide educational programs, such as children's and adult literacy programs, to improve the literacy levels of users. They also support life long learning education. Public libraries also play a role in providing business resources and collections in their institutions in order to respond to the world economic challenges. They are also essential to the functioning of a democratic society by providing free and equal access to high-quality information.
Despite of all these critical roles for public libraries in society, these roles are not recognized in Kuwait society. Public libraries in Kuwait focus only on supporting formal education. The library still remains visited by students who perform research on assignments and projects.
It is recommended that public libraries expand their roles to more significant one as discussed in the literature review. That required more efforts in providing and diversity in the resources, collections, technology facilities, activities and educational programs in the libraries, which can support different roles. Also it is recommended increasing the awareness of public library roles among users. Media also could have a significant role in pointing out the importance of public libraries in Kuwait.